Reporter 427, 16 November 1998

Time to leave ‘first past the post’ on the starting line and move on

It will give more seats to the Liberal - Democrats, it will benefit Labour in the Home Counties and the Conservatives in Wales, Scotland and the inner cities. And what’s more, Lord Jenkins’ proposals are a great deal more democratic than our ‘first past the post’ system. Politics professor David Beetham says it’s high time we grasped this rare opportunity for change.

The Jenkins Commission on electoral reform was set up by the Labour Government in December 1997 with a mandate to produce an alternative system to ‘first past the post’ (FPTP).

The electoral system it has now recommended is a novel mixture of the Alternative Vote and the Additional Member System called “AV plus” or “AV top-up”. Electors will have two votes: one for a constituency MP, in which they will be able to rank their preferences in numerical order; and one for a party list, where they will be able to choose between candidates of the same party if they so wish. Constituency MPs will have to obtain a majority of votes, whether of first or first and lower order ones, to be elected. The list MPs will represent a whole city or county, and will be allocated so as to make the number of party seats in the area more proportionate to the votes won.

The Jenkins proposal is a compromise one. It will remedy some of the most undemocratic features of FPTP, by giving the Liberal Democrats a more proportional Parliamentary representation, and by eliminating the ‘electoral deserts’ for Labour in the South of England and for the Conservatives in Wales, Scotland and the English cities.

It will give the voters more choice, will enable their votes to count more equally, and will consequently require the parties to spread their electoral effort nationwide.

Under FPTP, Parliament is totally unrepresentative of the spread of political opinion in the country; it excludes smaller parties, and votes count very unequally depending on which party you vote for and where you live. The incentive to vote is diminished by the existence of so many safe seats, while the parties concentrate their efforts on floating voters in marginal constituencies.

Supporters of proportional representation will be disappointed that Lord Jenkins’ system will still allow a party to win a Parliamentary majority on a minority of the popular vote, and it will still prevent smaller parties (whether green, socialist, referendum party or whatever) from gaining any Parliamentary representation at all.

The much more proportional systems to be used for the Euro-elections and for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have been judged too radical for Westminster.

Yet even the Jenkins proposal is too radical for many members of the Blair Cabinet, who are seeking to postpone a referendum indefinitely on the grounds that the proposal is too complex to implement and too complicated for the electors to understand.

Constitutional change is no panacea for social or economic problems, but can enable a wider range of voices to influence the debate. Labour’s prevarication over electoral reform for both local and central government threatens to consign us to a continuation of rotten boroughs, single-party rule throughout local government – and further lack of democracy by its determination to hang on to FPTP.

The time is now due for an end to this lousy undemocratic system.

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