This case for voting reform will be difficult to rebut

Lord Jenkins may have bequeathed the country at least as great a legacy as if he had been prime minister
Click to follow
IN THE closing pages of his memoirs, Lord Jenkins allows himself a moment's reflection about what might have been had he become Prime Minister. It's just possible, if the report of his committee on electoral reform does not "moulder on the shelves", as he put it yesterday, that he may have bequeathed the country at least a great a legacy as if he had been PM.

Having more than lived up to its advance billing, this is an embarrassingly good report. Embarrassing not just because it far outshines your average worthy government enquiry in imagery, prose style and historical sweep, which it does, but because it makes it so much harder for all those politicians - including a majority of the Cabinet - who would like to sink it in several feet of concrete and busy themselves with running a political system whose deficiencies Jenkins and his colleagues have so surgically exposed.

That doesn't for a moment mean the report isn't open to criticism, though the Labour champions of the status quo, in particular, will have to do a lot better than their pitiful opening shots yesterday. Does it really, as the MP Stuart Bell claimed, break the mystical link between MP and constituency to have, in addition to 500 constituency MPs another 100 or so who represent individual counties and cities? But that isn't the point. Any system, as the Jenkins Commission eloquently points out, has its deficiencies as well as its assets.

The first question is whether what he proposes is deliverable in the world of practical politics, rather than some Utopian dream world inhabited by the unhealthily large trainspotter tendency among supporters of proportional representation. And the second is whether it is incomparably better than what we've got.

The answer is surely a resounding yes on both counts. One of the most effective of many effective passages in this report is the quite short one summarising the defects of the First Past the Post System - beside the obvious point that governments can do what they like with less than 45 percent of the national vote. The first, which ought to worry Tories a lot more than it seems to, is the lunacy under which the whole of Scotland, the whole of Wales, and every provincial city in England - except for a solitary suburb of Birmingham - have no Tory MPs to represent the 1.8 million people who voted for them.

The second is the obvious unfairness that the third party can get, as it did in 1983, 25.4 per cent of the votes and 3.5 per cent of the seats. As Jenkins points out, the broader a minor party's appeal across the country, the greater this distorting effect.

The third is the capacity of the present system to divide the country - not just by creating, as the last election did, Tory free zones in whole sections of the UK, but in 1983 and 1987 Labour-free ones too: a mere three Labour seats outside London, below a line from the Wash to the Severn. And that the big party fight is in around 150 (out of 659) "swingable constituencies". In other words, "not only do many voters pass their entire adult lives without voting for a winning candidate but... they also do so without any realistic hope of influencing a result." Jenkins argues rather persuasively that this may account for turnouts falling from 80 per cent plus to 70 per cent plus in the Nineties.

This is the case Mr Bell and his colleagues will have to answer - and have not yet begun to do. Nor should we be deceived by Tory opposition. In the long run, the top-up on which Jenkins has insisted means that the system will correct, rather than exaggerate, the bias against the Tories. What this is biased against is not Conservatism as such, but Conservatism of the more extreme, neo-Thatcherite kind - which is really why the Tory right hate it. The need to attract second preferences will push all parties to a more consensual and - dare one say it - more grown-up form of politics. This is why reform is feared and hated by the Tory right.

Lord Alexander, the one dissenting voice on the Commission, did some damage to Lord Jenkins yesterday by arguing in favour of the top-up but against changing the system for constituencies. But there are two telling arguments against him: one is that his solution is a recipe for power- broking in smoke-filled rooms after an election - instead of parties saying before it who they would team up with. And the second is that voters are genuinely shocked when they are told it is possible for a constituency MP to be elected with less 50 per cent of the vote. Under AV it won't be, which you might have thought would strengthen rather than weaken the constituency link.

The one big difficulty in the report is over timing, and the acceptance that it will not be possible to introduce the new system before the next election. Lord Jenkins took a great deal of persuading - principally by the Home Office - to take this view, on the grounds that boundary commission changes would be just too complex to introduce by the next election. But this has left the reformers in something of a trap.

The case, already being assembled by the sceptics and delayers, against Blair keeping his promise of a referendum in this parliament is actually an extremely powerful one. If you have a referendum in which the British people decide in favour of changing the system, then how legitimate does that make an election carried out under the system they have just rejected? A few weeks ago a senior cabinet minister told me that the Government would need a "story" if it delayed the referendum. It's now clear that's what the story will be if the referendum is indeed delayed. But the reformers should not panic. Better, as even Paddy Ashdown is said to realise, a winnable referendum in the next parliament than a losable one in this. And the signs are that a winnable referendum is what, in his Zen-like way, the Prime Minister now wants.

That doesn't mean there will be nothing to argue about. People won't like being told that the 1979 election - in which James Callaghan could famously feel the mood for change in the country - might just not have been won by the Tories at all. On the other hand, if the system had been different then, there might have been a coalition in 1974-79 and history might be different in lots of other ways. And yes, this is probably more of a recipe for coalition government than Lord Jenkins is prepared to admit. But then Jenkins makes a persuasive point when he says that for more years than not in the last 150 there have been coalitions or majority governments dependent on the support of others - doing rather good things in the process, such as winning two world wars and introducing a welfare state.

But Jenkins' most powerful case is about the revitalisation of British democracy. If you don't mind that the cross put on a ballot paper by most voters doesn't matter, if you don't mind that cynicism about the political process has survived even Tony Blair's landslide, if you think it's fun that politicians spend their time knocking seven bells of hell out opponents even when they secretly agree with them, then the changes are not for you. But at least read this report before you make up your mind. If that won't change it, nothing will.

Comments