Jenkins Report: New voting system 'not until 2006'

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LORD JENKINS of Hillhead makes it clear in his report to Tony Blair, Prime Minister, that the boundary changes to MPs' seats could delay a change in the voting system until 2006. "We cannot realistically expect our recommendations to be in operation at a general election in much less than eight years," says his commission's report.

The key recommendations are, first, that the Alternative Vote system, plus a top-up (known as AV-plus) would be the best alternative to the first-past-the-post system, and there should be a review of how the system is working after two general elections.

"Our proposition for this country stems essentially from the British constituency tradition and proceeds by limited modification to render it less haphazard, less unfair to minority parties and less nationally divisive in the sense of avoiding large areas of electoral desert for each of the two major parties."

To help reduce the present anti-Conservative bias, the over-representation of Scotland and Wales in the Commons should end.

The top-up

Counties and equivalent sized metropolitan districts in England would be the areas for which the top-up members are elected, providing both local accountability and a broad constituency link for top-up members.

In Scotland and Wales, top-up members will represent existing Euro-constituencies, while Northern Ireland should have two top-up areas, each returning two members.

The Jenkins report leaves open some important issues on the size of the top-up; the timetable for a referendum; and a threshold for minor parties to gain seats. The size of the top-up could be between 15 and 20 per cent of the total seats (between 98 and 132 members of the 650 seats) in the House of Commons, but does not give a final recommendation. "It will be for Parliament to decide after the referendum," the report says.

"The essence of the system is that the elector would have the opportunity to cast two votes: the first for his choice of constituency MP, the second for an additional member who would be elected for the specific and primary purpose of correcting the disproportionality."

Top-up members should have equal status in Westminster with constituency MPs, the report says. Taking 17.5 per cent as the top-up, the commission that says in 1992, it would have produced a hung Parliament, giving John Major no working majority, with the likelihood of an early second general election.

But Lord Jenkins defends this outcome. "Such an uncertain sound of the trumpet would have been a true reflection of the national mood in 1992."

In 1997, Tony Blair would have had his majority reduced to 77. The Labour total would have gone down from 419 to 368; the Conservatives would have gained slightly from 165 to 168, but the Liberal Democrats would have doubled their share from 46 to 89.

The remit

The remit given to the commission in December 1997 by Mr Blair was to recommend the best alternative system to the first-past-the-post system, taking into account broad proportionality, stable government, an extension of voter choice, and the maintenance of the link between MPs and their constituencies, which tends to be lost in big constituencies with multi- MP representation.

It criticises the lack of effective scrutiny of the administration by the modern House of Commons, and says that an electoral system which encouraged more independence from the MPs would be a thing in favour of reform.

Referendum

The report sets no date, but calls for a new independent electoral commission to oversee electoral administration and referendums. A publicly funded neutral education programme should prepare voters for the decision they will be required to make in the referendum. There should be no further changes without a referendum.

The options

Keeping the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system - the report says it has the advantage of offering a quick decision, enabling the electorate to punish a government that fails.

But the failings of the present system are that it exaggerates movements of opinion, producing massive majorities; it is bad at allowing third party support to express itself; and it leads to electoral "deserts" for Labour in the South and the Tories in the North, Wales and Scotland.

Alternative Vote

The commission rejects AV without a top-up because "it offers little prospect of a move toward greater proportionality ... it is even less proportional than FPTP." In 1997, it could have increased Labour's majority from 169 to 245 and reduced the Tory total to only 96 seats.

Single Transferable Vote

The report rejects single transferable vote because it would have been "too big a leap" and would breach the Prime Minister's requirement to keep the link with constituencies. It leads to multi-MP constituencies and complicated counting systems.

Tactical voting

"In many situations of life a decision has to be made in favour of a second or third-best choice and there is no inherent reason why what has often to be applied to jobs, houses, even husbands and wives should be regarded as illegitimate when it comes to voting."

Would it lead to a carve-up?

"We ... do not recoil with horror from the very idea of coalitions, regarding them, on the basis both of British and of some foreign experience as capable of providing effective and decisive governments.

"This does not mean that permanent coalition is desirable. We would prefer ... that when there is a strong surge in one political direction or the other, single-party governments, even if with somewhat under 50 per cent of the vote, should stand out like mountainous land masses rising about the surface of the ocean."

Style

Lord Jenkins, a founder member of the Social Democratic Party which broke from Labour, is a noted author, including the biography of Gladstone. The report bears Lord Jenkins's rather florid style. Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat leader, said it was the first official government report that had made him laugh out loud.

Describing the single transferable vote, Lord Jenkins said the commission supported wider voter choice. "But that is where the choice offered resembles a caricature of an over-zealous American breakfast waiter going on posing an indefinite number of unwanted options, it becomes both an exasperation and an incitement to the giving of random answers."

Referring to the chances of perverse results, he wrote: "Two rainy days out of 15 would certainly be an acceptable risk for the planning of a picnic, but an air journey which has two chances out of 15 of ending in a crash would most certainly not be."

The dissident view

Lord Alexander, the only Tory on the commission issued a note of reservation, rejecting AV-plus, quoting Winston Churchill saying it took account of the "the most worthless votes of the most worthless candidates". He supported additional member voting but by the first-past- the-post system.

The members

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, chairman; Lord Alexander of Weedon QC, Baroness Gould of Potternewton, Sir John Chilcot, and David Lipsey.

The Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System, Stationery Office, Parliamentary Hotline 0345 02 34 74.

Website: http://www.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm40/4090.htm

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