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Thursday, January 14, 1999 Published at 16:42 GMT

UK Politics

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'

[ image: Jack Straw's handling of the Jenkins Report left the Lib Dem peer
Jack Straw's handling of the Jenkins Report left the Lib Dem peer "unimpressed"
Jack Straw is a long-time opponent of electoral reform. As home secretary - the same job Jenkins held under Harold Wilson - he leads the government response to the Jenkins Report. Even as he led government debate on it in the Commons, Straw made clear he would oppose its proposals come the referendum Labour is pledged to hole on the issue.

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.

[ image: The government set up the Jenkins Commission to suggest an alternative electoral system for Westminster]
The government set up the Jenkins Commission to suggest an alternative electoral system for Westminster
"It's not a particularly complicated system. The argument that it is is really only based on the view that the British electorate is a peculiarly stupid electorate, which I don't accept for a moment," insists Jenkins. Other countries have electoral systems less easy to grasp than the one he proposes.

"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".

[ image: Tony Blair said the commission made a
Tony Blair said the commission made a "well-argued and powerful case" for the PR system it proposed
But Jenkins is quietly confident the prime minister is now committed to reform and will back it come the referendum. "My own view is that the report did push him over an intellectual and maybe an emotional divide, and did persuade him of the case," he says. "That is a considerable gain for the report."

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.

[ image: Paddy Ashdown's Lib Dem look unlikely to make a fuss if Labour breaks its promise of a poll this parliament]
Paddy Ashdown's Lib Dem look unlikely to make a fuss if Labour breaks its promise of a poll this parliament
"It would not be a betrayal if they don't have it until after the next election," is his view. "What is still more important than when they have it, provided it's not delayed too long, is that the prime minister in particular should throw his weight in favour of a Yes vote at the time of the referendum."

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."

[ image: MPs aren't independent enough and there are too many of them at Westminster, says Lord Jenkins]
MPs aren't independent enough and there are too many of them at Westminster, says Lord Jenkins
They should have a "reasonably independent" role, whereas at the moment MPs "are not independent enough, and by not being independent enough they tend to discredit the House of Commons. The House of Commons is not greatly esteemed at the present time. I would like to see it much more highly esteemed."

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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