Thursday, January 14, 1999 Published at 16:42 GMT
Jenkins' designs on democracy
Lord Jenkins: "Mixed feelings" at response to his report
By BBC News Online's Nyta Mann
It is rare for a politician to praise the media for treating an important policy issue more seriously than the parliamentarians. But Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the Liberal Democrat chair of the Independent Commission on the Voting System - better known as the Jenkins Commission - believes just that.
In his first in-depth interview since the publication last October of his commission's proposal for an alternative, proportional system for general elections, Lord Jenkins makes clear his "mixed feelings" at the way the report was received.
While he was on the whole pleased with press coverage of the result of his commission's year-long deliberations, he was a great deal less happy with the political reaction. Jenkins has no criticism of Tony Blair - "The prime minister received it quite well, wrote me a very nice letter of thanks" - but has some cutting criticism of MPs' response to the report.
"It was received rather negatively in that debate in the House of Commons," he tells BBC News Online. "There were some people who made good speeches, but the majority were on the whole know-nothing, do-nothing, think-nothing. And I wasn't very pleased with the home secretary's speech."
Straw 'didn't take it seriously'
Electoral reformers, along with members of the commission, were enraged by Straw's mocking of the technical aspects of the report, his clear partisanship towards a study that had been requested by his own government, and his claim that by coming up with such "complicated" proposals the commission itself had cut the chance of a referendum within this parliament.
"The real criticism of Jack Straw is that he didn't take it wholly seriously," says Jenkins. He robustly rejects the home secretary's view that the complexity of alternative electoral systems counts against them: "This business about saying it's all too complicated really is an absolute nonsense."
'AV Top-Up' proposed
The commission's report proposed a new "Alternative Vote Top-Up" system. Under this, 80-85% of MPs would remain directly elected on a constituency basis, with voters ranking candidates in order of preference; but between 100 and 120 MPs would be picked from regional lists, more proportionately reflecting votes cast.
"The Irish system is rather more complicated and they seem to have no difficulty in coping with it," he says. "The German system is at least as complicated as ours, and they managed to produce in the election at the end of September an 84% poll, whereas we're lucky if we get a 70-72% one here."
"I think normal electors would rather have a bit of complication than a gross amount of unfairness."
"I was not impressed by the home secretary's speech, let's leave it at that," he understates.
Referendum delay 'no betrayal'
Lord Jenkins emphasises that Jack Straw's view is not the definitive view of the government as a whole. Tony Blair, who since becoming Labour's leader in 1994 has stuck doggedly to an official view of being "unpersuaded" on the merits of proportional representation (PR) for the Commons, publicly confined himself to thanking the commission for its work and describing its report as making "a well-argued and powerful case".
At the same time, however, Jenkins gives the clearest indication yet that the Lib Dems will accept without fuss Labour breaking its election promise to hold a referendum during this Parliament.
"I certainly think we'll have one, either shortly before or shortly after the next election," he now says. "I would have preferred to go for one more quickly after the report was published, say this spring . . . [But] between a referendum shortly before the election and one shortly after it, I'm not sure I have a tremendously strong view.
Does Jenkins believe Blair will do that? "Yes, I think he will," he firmly says.
Labour MPs 'too drilled'
One of the issues touched upon in the Jenkins Report is the way the current first-past-the-post electoral system can lead to "elective dictatorship" where governments elected by minority votes can command large majorities in the Commons. There is a need, the report says, for "the encouragement amongst MPs of more independence".
What does Jenkins make of the long-running accusations against the Labour leadership of "control freakery" over selection processes and internal party discipline? He believes that Labour's own history must be taken into account when interpreting its current zeal for keeping everyone strictly on-message.
Given past bitter divisions within the party, "one can up to a point understand the desire of the Labour Party to get away from all that to make themselves into a winning, governing force again," he says.
"But as is often the case, people pursuing desirable ends go too far. And I think there is a real danger of that vast Labour majority in the House of Commons being too drilled, and too discouraged to take independent attitudes."
Too many MPs
He thinks there are, in any case, simply too many MPs today. Those Labour MPs set against PR because it would mean a proportion of them losing their seats are possibly fortunate that the Jenkins Commission confined itself to looking at electoral systems.
"The House of Commons is too big, apart from anything else. That was not a subject for my commission, but I think it is about a half too big," Jenkins says. "I'd cut it by a third. There are 659 MPs now. 450 would do perfectly well, and even better."
As for the subject his commission did devote itself to, he believes PR for Westminster will be implemented before too long.
"I think there's a very good chance that within the next decade we will have electoral reform [for Westminster] in place. I'm not certain, but I'm hopeful and reasonably confident."
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