Parliament & Politics: Electoral reform is watered down

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The Independent Online
FAR-REACHING plans to overhaul Westminster elections have been scaled down drastically to allow Tony Blair to sell the proposals to his Cabinet.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead is set to announce next week an "ingenious" compromise that maintains strong constituency links and keeps proportional representation (PR) to a minimum.

The new parliamentary system, which will be unveiled by Lord Jenkins' committee on electoral reform next Thursday, aims to answer many of the fears of Labour opponents of PR.

The number of MPs elected by PR to "mega-constituencies" has been cut dramatically from 30 per cent to just 17 per cent, leaving the vast majority to be elected for single constituencies. About 547 MPs would be elected under the alternative vote system, in which people list the candidates in order of preference and the votes are redistributed until one wins more than 50 per cent of those cast.

The remaining "top up" of 112 MPs, who will each represent a cluster of about four constituencies, were to be chosen from lists according to each party's overall share of the vote. It is now understood that Lord Jenkins may suggest that the "top up" is not made up from party lists but from named individuals on the ballot paper.

Opponents of reform have ridiculed the PR system proposed for Scotland and Wales, claiming that it gives the Liberal Democrats far too many seats. However, the Jenkins formula will mean that voters can choose named individuals, not just a party, for the mega-constituencies. Tactical voting for Liberal Democrats by Labour voters would therefore be reduced.

The Jenkins committee will admit in its report that the Government would not have time to change it before the next general election. This will allow Mr Blair to bury Labour's promise to hold a referendum on PR before the next general election.

"If there is no prospect of change before the next election, we are not going to risk a referendum we might not win," one minister said last night.

The Cabinet, which is split over PR, will discuss the Jenkins report on Thursday, the day on which it is due to be published. Mr Blair will tell his ministers that the committee has produced a blueprint that answers many of his doubts about reform. He believes the plan, for a scaled-down PR, would not result in permanent coalition or give too much power to small parties.

The Cabinet is expected to give the report a cautious welcome, but to stop short of saying Mr Blairi is now "persuaded" about reform.

Lord Jenkins will say the Boundaries Commission would need to redraw the map of Parliamentary constituencies, a process that could take three years, in order to implement his plan for a more proportional system.

Mr Blair is unlikely to state publicly that there will be no referendum on PR in this Parliament, for fear of alienating the Lib Dems. But senior ministers believe the Jenkins report will finally kill off the Lib Dems' hopes of securing a plebiscite before the next election.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, is expected to back Mr Blair, as he believes that supporters of PR might not win an early referendum. But if his party believes that the new Jenkins proposals have watered down PR too much, Mr Ashdown will come under strong pressure to resign as leader.