Comment: Lord Jenkins must keep a sense of proportion

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SIX years ago the Liberal Democrats were meeting in Harrogate when the news came through that this country had been expelled from the exchange-rate mechanism of the European Monetary System. This event had numerous consequences. It revived the television career of Mr Peter Jay, made Ms Ruth Lea a "personality", sunk Lord Lamont (even if we had to wait several months for his head to disappear finally beneath the waters) and destroyed, perhaps for ever, the Conservative reputation for economic competence.

It also meant that, for the rest of the week, no one was much interested in the Lib Dems and what they were up to. Those correspondents who were attending the conference departed for London straightaway or remained transfixed before their television sets. In either case, they did not write at any length about Mr Paddy Ashdown and his colleagues.

Last week at Brighton saw no comparably cataclysmic event. Nevertheless there were parallels. At Harrogate they had been overwhelmed by Mr George Soros. At Brighton they were waiting to be wooed by Lord Jenkins, who had been expelled to Tuscany by Mr Ashdown for the duration of the conference, leaving Lord Russell to display himself before our admiring eyes as the party's leading peer.

There is another comparison to be made as well. Of the ERM we were told that no one cared about it, mainly because few could understand it. It was not, in modern political parlance, an "issue". This does not mean a defined question in dispute between the parties but, rather, any subject which occupies the attention of television for more than 36 hours. Thus the international monetary system is not an issue. But it is still the most important subject with which successive governments, certainly Labour governments, have had to deal.

As with international finance, so likewise with national voting systems. They are almost as difficult to understand. Consequently few are interested. But there is no correlation between whether people are interested in something and whether it is important politically. Indeed, the relationship is often of the inverse variety. Few subjects are more intractable or more tedious than local government finance. And yet it was this, in the form of the poll tax, which brought down Margaret Thatcher.

A new voting system is unlikely to have that effect on Mr Tony Blair, though it may well do on Mr Ashdown. Or, rather, it may produce this result if Mr Blair fails to support Lord Jenkins's recommendations as enthusiastically as the Liberal Democrats consider he ought, if he neglects to hold a referendum before the next election or if he behaves in other ways which Mr Ashdown's younger colleagues consider lacking in zeal.

At Brighton several were, in the slightly disgusting phrase once used by Mrs Teresa Gorman of Mr Michael Heseltine, putting their puddings out for treacle. One was Mr Simon Hughes, another Mr Charles Kennedy. My money would be on the latter (who, by the way, is back on the cigarettes again). But for the moment there are more interesting things to talk about.

It is as well at times like this to establish precisely what it was that Mr Blair promised. The manifesto says: "We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system." Mr Blair has fulfilled the second part of this commitment by appointing Lord Jenkins, who will presumably carry out his side of the bargain by recommending a system which is in some sense proportional.

It will not be the simple alternative vote (though to most honest citizens that is complicated enough), where the ballot paper is marked 1, 2, 3,..., and bottom candidates are eliminated, with their second and third preferences redistributed, until someone obtains an absolute majority. Nor will it be the somewhat simpler supplementary vote, where the elector indicates a first and a second choice. If no one wins an absolute majority, the top two stay in the contest. The second preferences of the eliminated candidates are then redistributed between them.

The advantages of both AV and SV are that they are usually, though not necessarily, more proportional than the present system and that they retain the single-member constituency. This last, incidentally, is not an immutable part of the British system of government, going back to Ethelred the Unready or whoever. Many otherwise well-informed persons seem to think it is. But the boroughs, as distinct from the counties, were often represented by two members. Preston remained a two-member constituency up to the 1945 election and a subsequent by-election in 1946.

Even so, there is much to be said for one member, one constituency. This does not logically entail the retention of the present 659 members, of whom at least a quarter and probably a third could advantageously be culled. Constituencies could simply be made larger. What Lord Jenkins seems likely to propose is that the number of members elected by the alternative vote should indeed be diminished to around 500 but that they should be topped up from party lists to attain greater proportionality, leaving the House at roughly its present size.

It has largely escaped attention that, Jenkins apart, we are now awash with fancy voting systems of one sort or another. In writing about them, colleagues frequently resort to the adjective "Byzantine". From my observation this usually means: "This is highly complicated, so please do not expect me to explain it to you when I can hardly understand it myself." I shall have a go.

The new mayor of London will be elected by the supplementary vote, already described. The new Northern Ireland Assembly has already been elected by the single transferable vote, the holy grail of all true believers in proportional representation. But the new Scottish Parliament will be chosen by the Germanic alternative-member system, some members being elected by constituencies, others nominated by the parties. The new Welsh Assembly will be elected by a similar but not an identical system which will increase the chances of a clear majority by one party. In the European elections, however, you will not be able to vote for people at all, only for parties. The apparatchicks provide the names. You can then vote for them, for some other party list or, by staying at home or spoiling your ballot paper, for no list whatever.

Oddly enough, the best system of all is not being considered: the exhaustive ballot in single-member constituencies. It is similar in principle to the alternative vote, except that voters can modify their original choices as the election proceeds. It is also similar to but more refined than the French system. It can take two or more polling days before the election is completed. But it seems that the choice to be presented to us is to lie between the present system and what is known in the trade as AV-plus.

My own reading of the manifesto is that Mr Blair is committed to off- ering us this or some similar choice before the election. What he is not committed to is supporting any change or bringing in legislation before that election. Mr Ashdown's ration is one-third of the cake.

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