Will Blair go all the way on electoral reform?

Donald Macintyre on the road with Roy Jenkins
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LIKE a leading actor manager recalled from retirement for a comeback tour, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead is enjoying himself. And with reason. In Lecture Room One in Newcastle University's Herschel Building something big is stirring, something which may help to change the shape of British politics for good. Lord Jenkins, with enough elegant showmanship to remind you of the era when politicians didn't need to be spun, is chairing, not to say dominating, the last of the present series of public meetings held by his Independent Commission on the Voting System. The meetings are peculiarly British occasions. Everyone is almost pathologically polite. At the end, a white haired man in the front row rises spontaneously to thank Jenkins and his colleagues for coming to the city and wish them all success in their deliberations. Everyone, supporters and opponents of the present system alike, nods vigorously. "Thank you," purrs Jenkins, "that was most courteous."

Charged by Tony Blair with establishing by the end of October an alternative to the first-past-the-post system to be put to a referendum, Jenkins briskly corrects a factual error here, congratulates a speaker for his succinctness there. And when he singles out for praise the knowledge and eloquence of Andrew Patience, a local further education lecturer in politics, Mr Patience positively glows.

The tribute is deserved. For Mr Patience makes a case for change that transcends both party interests and the trainspottery, initials-spattered jargon politicians routinely use when they discuss electoral reform. This, he says, is a matter of the deep alienation from, and cynicism about, party politics of the 16 to 20 year olds he teaches. Their interest, he reports, goes little further than thinking Spitting Image is quite funny. For Mr Patience, as for many other speakers, solving this is in large part a matter of making voters feel their individual votes count in a way that, other than in the most marginal of constituencies, they don't now. "I have voted in every election since 1964," says one woman. "And I have never voted for an MP. I really mind about that." Jenkins himself saves his killer point, at least as far as Labour opponents of change are concerned, to the end of the meeting. In 1951, he points out, Labour secured more of the national vote than the Conservatives, more than it had in 1945, and more than Tony Blair's Labour Party in 1997. Yet the Tories won comfortably. Where was the fairness in that?

So where is all this leading? Today, by endorsing a directly elected mayor and an assembly, Londoners have also voted for another huge chunk of electoral reform to add to the proportional representation systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But the big question, now being tackled by the Jenkins Commission, remains Westminster. Jenkins himself, it is safe to assume, would not have taken the job unless he believed that his friend Tony Blair was now prepared for some form of change. Jenkins' five-person Commission is highly distinguished. But its members are also worldly. They have no interest in adding to the long list of intellectually fertile, but utterly ignored, reports on the British political system. They will therefore want to recommend something that has a reasonable chance - at the very least in part - of being embraced by the Prime Minister.

Some in Westminster predict that Jenkins will propose something called AV-plus. This includes the Alternative Vote, in which electors tick all the candidates in order of preference. The second preferences are then reallocated until one candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote. Following boundary changes after the next election (which would reduce the number of constituency MPs), a top-up list of party nominated candidates would be added to ensure fuller proportionality. Perhaps Jenkins will recommend such a creature; perhaps not. The Commission hasn't even collectively discussed possible conclusions.

But this is not the only course. Tony Blair's doubts about PR, famously long-standing, are regularly reinforced by Romano Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister, who implores him to remember how close it came to destroying his country. Blair frets about disproportionate power being given to small parties - though the leverage exercised by the Ulster Unionists in the 1992-7 parliament show that this can happen under the present system. Even after all the changes he has wrought in the Labour Party, he still worries that PR and the prospect, illusory or not, of permanent coalition with the Liberal Democrats would erode Labour's incentive to appeal to the middle ground.

But AV (without the top-up) offers a middle course - though still a seismic one. Although under two elections since the war, 1945 and 1997, it would have accentuated the landslide, in every other case it would have produced a more proportional result than the present system. It maintains the purity of the constituency link and rules out the kind of closed party lists that nearly every speaker at the public meetings has denounced. And by clearly improving the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats - who after all have most to complain of in the present system - it increases the chances of keeping the Tories out if the two left-of-centre parties work closely together, perhaps in formal coalition. My sense from talking around the government is that whatever Jenkins proposes AV, pure and simple, remains in the frame for Tony Blair - perhaps tied to a future review of the system after it has bedded in.

Many Liberal Democrats will not like this one little bit. They still hanker after the holy grail of pure proportionality. Paddy Ashdown has so far fought shy of fully confronting his party with the need for compromise. But they should consider the advantages: AV may stand the best chance of support in a referendum. It could be done for the next election because it doesn't require boundary changes and is thus proof against any prospect of a Tory victory at the next election. It is good for the Liberal Democrats. And who knows? It could yet help to usher in the Blair-Jenkins dream of making the next century the "radical" century as the 19th was the Conservative one.