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Thursday, October 29, 1998 Published at 09:58 GMT

Jenkins to deliver PR verdict

Lord Jenkins will deliver the commission's report on Thursday

The long-awaited report by the Independent Commission on Electoral Reform is expected to promote proportional representation when it publishes its verdict on Thursday.

Proprtional Representation Slideshow
The commission, headed by senior Liberal Democrat peer Lord Jenkins, was established in December last year as part of a Labour manifesto commitment to voting reform.

Its remit was to look at the need for broad proportionality, extending voter choice while maintaining a link between MPs and constituencies.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to issue a non-committal initial response to the report shortly after its publication, with the promise of a definitive response at an unspecified time in the future.

Lord Jenkins is expected to say it would not be possible to implement PR in time for the next general election, given that Labour has committed itself to holding a referendum on the issue.

Two vote system favoured

[ image: Tony Blair is expected to make an immediate statement]
Tony Blair is expected to make an immediate statement
The report is expected to propose a compromise system known as 'alternative vote plus' to replace the current first-past-the-post system.

AV plus is a hybrid of two separate voting methods in which the public are given two votes.

The first vote elects MPs for single-member constituencies but instead of picking just one candidate, voters would list them in order of preference.

The BBC's Bill Bush cuts through the jargon of Electoral Reform
The second vote electors are given goes towards choosing a small percentage, between 15% to 20%, from party lists to top up the list more fairly.

The government is committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons and has reiterated the pledge to the Liberal Democrats.

The Labour Party and the cabinet are known to be deeply split over whether to ditch the existing first-past-the-post system and replace it with a system that more accurately reflects the proportion of votes cast.

[ image: Ashdown:
Ashdown: "Constructive opposition" built on a PR promise
Home Secretary Jack Straw, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Leader of the Commons Margaret Beckett are among cabinet members opposing PR.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Cabinet Office Minister Jack Cunningham are thought to be in favour of change.

Mr Cook is expected to become the first cabinet minister to break ranks on the issue with a statement on Thursday.

A lesser worry for Mr Blair is the risk of losing the support of Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown if he rules out an early referendum.

Ashdown's position at risk

The Liberal Democrat's policy of "constructive opposition" to Labour is dependent on a commitment to an early referendum, and Mr Ashdown's position as leader is at risk if he fails to deliver it.

The BBC's Laura Trevelyan canvasses responses to Electoral Reform in Woking
Those blocking change are anxious to postpone a referendum for as long as possible, despite the fact that it was a manifesto commitment.

Others back the current system because it maintains a direct link between every MP and his electors, making the member more responsive to their concerns.

Proponents of change point to the unarguable fact the existing system delivers distorted results, when votes cast are compared to the proportions of parties at Westminster.

Reform 'will boost Tories'

Lib Dem Charles Kennedy told the BBC that even though the AV Plus system does not deliver strict proportional representation, his party could and should support it.

He said they would be able to learn from experiences of voting in Europe, Scotland and Wales.

Mr Kennedy, former party spokesman on the EU, dismissed arguments that PR produced weak, coalition governments.

And he told Radio 4's Today programme that the Conservatives were dealt an unfair blow in Scotland under the first-past-the-post system at the last election.

"In terms of their share of the vote they should not have been wiped out in Scotland," he said.

But under a reformed system, ironically, they would be rehabilitated in Scotland and Wales.

"We're getting a healthier form of democratic expression so we should go that extra step and begin to embrace it for the House of Commons," he said.

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