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Tuesday, 26 June, 2001, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
Jenkins urges voting reform
Lord Jenkins of Hillhead
Lord Jenkins says voter turnout is dangerously low
Lord Jenkins of Hillhead is pressing Tony Blair to introduce a new voting system to boost the "disastrous" turnout in general elections.

The former Labour Chancellor, one of the "Gang of Four" who set up the SDP, believes the current first-past-the-post system contributed to turnout falling below 60% at this month's polls.

The government has been doing rather a lot of kicking into the long grass lately

Lord Jenkins

Allowing voters to rank candidates would make them feel they were playing a greater part in the political process, especially in areas where the one party always had a massive majority, said Lord Jenkins.

Whether Mr Blair wants to change the system that has brought Labour two landslide victories depends if the prime minister is a "statesman", he added.

In a speech organised by the Make Votes Count group, Lord Jenkins will urge Tony Blair to change to the Alternative Vote Plus system advocated by the independent commission he chaired in 1998.

Under the system, votes number candidates in order of preference.

Kicked into long grass

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Lord Jenkins said his report was one of many things the government had kicked into the long grass recently.

"I am beginning to feel a bit sorry for the grasshoppers which must find things rather overcrowded in their territory," he said.

The government commissioned his report in line with a Labour manifesto pledge for the 1997 election.

But this year's manifesto promised only to review the Jenkins report, as well as how new electoral systems have worked for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

A polling station in the 2001 general election
Only 59% of voters went to the polls this month
And there has been no sign of the referendum the government says is the right way to agree any change for Westminster.

Lord Jenkins said there was a history of parties failing to take the chance to reform the voting system when they had to power to do so.

"I thought Tony Blair was going to take my report seriously and I believe he does in a way take it seriously," said Lord Jenkins.

Dangerous decline

"Does he want to produce a better working political system?

"Or is he content to preside over a position where he has won the last election, he may well win the next election but where the degree of participation goes dangerously, almost disastrously down?"

The veteran campaign for voting reform argued the change offered the chance to stem that downwards trend in turnout.

The 59% turnout in the general election was statistically the worst since 1918.

But Lord Jenkins argued it was the worst since modern elections began in 1832 as 14% of the seats were uncontested in 1918.

Voting disincentive

Turnout earlier this month was particularly low in inner city safe seats, he argued, and four fifths of Britain's voters lived in "broadly safe" constituencies.

"Those in the minority in them throughout their lives never have a chance of voting for a winning candidate," he continued.

"They also know that whether they make the journey to the polls or not does not make any difference to the shape of the House of Commons."

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See also:

29 Oct 98 | The Jenkins Report
Jenkins to deliver PR verdict
17 Jan 99 | UK Politics
Jenkins attacks 'know-nothings'
20 Nov 98 | UK Politics
Committed means no compromise
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