A solution to our electoral problems worth voting for

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The Independent Online
What is wrong with Britain's electoral system? Well, for the past 18 years it produced the wrong result, that's what. Until, er ... it delivered a well-deserved and totally fair landslide to Labour on an overwhelming, er, 44 per cent of the vote. The most persuasive Labour case for electoral reform has gone up in smoke, which leaves many cynics wondering what the point is of today's exercise in Lib-Labbery.

What Labour people didn't like was Margaret Thatcher behaving like an absolute monarch - on the basis of 44 per cent of the vote. The cynics said Labour's enthusiasm would wane if they won, although no one really expected Tony Blair to be such a beneficiary of the distortions of the present system. And yet, this afternoon, Downing Street will issue a statement announcing that Roy Jenkins is to chair a commission to come up with a "broadly proportional" voting system to be put to a referendum before - or possibly at the same time as - the next election.

This is not just any quango of the great and good set up to handle a tricky problem at arm's length from the Government. This is the Prime Minister handing over the writing of the rules of the political game to the leader of a rival party - Lord Jenkins is the outgoing leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Upper House.

And the Liberal Democrats have always had a clear idea of what was wrong with the electoral system. They always get lots of votes and yet they get just a handful of MPs who are treated like the Natural Law Party in Parliament - although even that changed somewhat this year, as they won a record 46 seats on a lower share of the vote. Nevertheless, they think that if they get one-sixth of the votes they should get one-sixth of the seats, rather than one-fourteenth, which is what they got in May. Sounds fair.

Mr Blair, on the other hand, has always made the strongest anti-reform argument. He says that matching seats to votes over large areas produces a system in which the balance of power will tend to be held by small parties. He's got a point too.

How Lord Jenkins is going to reconcile the two, and what Mr Blair is playing at by letting him try are fascinating intellectual puzzles. But surely the important questions to ask are: what really is wrong with our present electoral system, and should it be changed?

And there are things that are wrong, even if they have been partially obscured by Labour's cathartic landslide. Voters may regard Mr Blair's 179-seat majority as a reasonable expression of the popular will this time, but they remain largely alienated from the political process. And there are changes to the electoral system that could alleviate that.

From the point of view of the voter, rather than the parties, elections are an insult to the intelligence. The procedure of marking votes with a cross was devised for an electorate which was substantially illiterate. As a result, today's voter needs to consult estimates of what the result would have been in their constituency last time under new boundaries before casting their tactical vote.

The case for allowing voters to mark candidates with numbers in order of preference is unanswerable and ought to be separated from more difficult questions of how to ensure that outcomes at regional or national level are "fair". The trouble is that this elementary reform is described as a new "system", called the Alternative Vote, and attacked for being potentially less proportional than the present system. Instead it ought to be the starting point for any change.

Then there are more awkward questions about whether people get the governments they want or the breadth of representation they deserve. There remains some truth in the caricature Labourist argument, that the Tories were able to impose the poll tax on a nation which had not voted for it. But equally, Mr Blair's objection to proportionality has considerable force. It would tend to give too much power to small parties. If the House of Commons represented the shares of the vote in the last election in strict proportions, it would have been technically possible for John Major to have remained in Downing Street with the support of the Lib Dems and the Ulster Unionists. An extreme and politically unlikely example, but indicative of the nature of the problem.

If it can be done in a way that commands general support, some way of adding extra MPs at local or regional level to balance up party representation without trying for full proportionality would seem to be the optimum solution, and it has been suggested that Lord Jenkins is sympathetic to this approach.

The question is whether the Prime Minister will see it in his interests to be flexible. It is interesting that one of the reasons for the general satisfaction with the election outcome is that he has chosen to govern as if he were leading a coalition of Labour, Lib Dems and pro-European Tories, rather than in the fashion of his alleged role model, Mrs Thatcher.

It was also interesting that Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, in an under- reported speech in the Commons last week, made an important concession to critics of Labour's plan for a proportional system of "closed" party lists for European elections. He said he was prepared to consider the system used in Belgium and Denmark, where voters can express preferences for individual candidates on a party's list. Most voters would no doubt simply opt for the party list as it is, effectively letting the party decide the order of candidates, but it would meet some of the objections about giving excessive power to party HQs.

This suggests that the Prime Minister still has an open mind on many of the important arguments. If we can get away from the obsession with proportionality, and from silly caricatures of Irish and Israeli systems, today's announcement offers a genuine prospect of enhancing our democracy.