New Forest East

THE JENKINS COMMISSION & PR - 05 November 1998

THE JENKINS COMMISSION & PR - 05 November 1998

Dr Julian Lewis: Using a rather unfortunate simile, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs Campbell) compared voting under the Jenkins system to filling in a national lottery ticket. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that that comparison is all too accurate. If the Jenkins system were implemented, instead of voting for what they knew they would get if enough of them voted in the same way, people would be voting for a mish-mash, for confusion, splits, backroom deals and for an outcome that no one could predict in advance.

If ever there were a case of "physician, heal thyself", it is this report. All five members of the commission were committed to electoral reform, but they could not reach a unanimous verdict among themselves. Various right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the dissenting report by Lord Alexander, and I shall put a little of that on the record in the short time available to me. In the second conclusion of the main report, the Jenkins majority admitted:

"On its own, AV would be unacceptable because of the danger that in anything like present circumstances it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality".

The commission drew attention to what is called in the overall report a

"Note of Reservation by Lord Alexander."

Anyone else would call that a minority or dissenting report. However, these guys do not believe in minorities and majorities, let alone – heaven forbid – dissent. So it is a "Note of Reservation". In that note of reservation, Lord Alexander says:

"AV comes into play only when a candidate fails to secure a majority of first preference votes. It does not, however, then take account of the second preferences of all the voters, but only of those who have supported the least successful candidates. So it ignores the second preferences of the voters who supported the two candidates with the highest first preference votes" –

in other words, the parties that came first and second –

"but allows the voters for the third or even weaker candidates to have their second votes counted so as to determine the result.

I find this approach wholly illogical. Why should the second preferences of those voters who favoured the two stronger candidates on the first vote be totally ignored and only those who support the lower placed and less popular candidates get a second" –

he could have added third, fourth or fifth –

"bite of the cherry?"

Let us move from the alternative vote to the actual Jenkins formula. That formula would create a situation whereby coalition became the norm – it might not always happen, but it would happen much more frequently than in the past. The central question is not whether this system is better than that system which is better than the other – which might be worse than a fourth, fifth or sixth system – but whether a coalition result is a better outcome than a decisive result and single-party government. That is the key to the whole debate.


If we believe that it is more important to have single-party government than coalition government, there is no need to change the present system. However, if we believe that coalition is better, we must defend the disproportionate amount of power that is granted to parties that come third, fourth or fifth in the election result in persuading them to join the Government. That issue is not tackled properly in the report. The commission cites Germany as an example. Paragraph 56 of the report says that, in Germany, the single transferable vote has

"undoubtedly made coalition the norm, but not inevitable."

I would reply that the British system makes coalition the rarity, but not impossible.

Lord Jenkins explains in the report how 13 years of coalition between the Free Democrats and the Social Democrats in Germany were succeeded by 16 years of coalition between the Free Democrats and the Christian Democrats. If we had seen then the result recently achieved in Germany – and the Greens instead of the Free Democrats had held the balance of power – what would have happened at the height of the cold war? This is one of my hobby horses. What would have happened if the Greens had been in the position of the Free Democrats? During the cold war, the Free Democrats were able – using a small minority of votes – to command the foreign and the defence ministries. The Greens have now done much the same. With less than 7 per cent. of the vote, the Greens command Germany's foreign ministry. Is that democratic? Is it proportional?


The reality is that coalition government makes up for the increase in proportionality between the votes cast and the members elected, with a decrease in proportionality in the actual distribution of power between the parties. The minority partner in the coalition has a stranglehold on the majority.


I conclude by giving an example using the system that was forced upon the newly emergent democracies. In Slovenia in 1992, a centre-right coalition comprised of about six parties was forged after a general election. However, an issue arose that split off the Social Democrats and the Greens. Those parties decided that they did not want to play any more and would take the ball from the field – in fact, they wanted to take the ball and join the opposing team. So the people of Slovenia went to bed with a centre-right Government in power, and awoke the following morning to a centre-left Government comprised of the Greens, the Social Democrats, the former communists and the socialists. There was a total change of government, and not one vote was cast in an election.


I discussed this question a few years ago with a distinguished British psephologist, Dr Robert Waller, who encapsulated the essence of the argument more concisely than I ever could. He said that the introduction of proportional representation into this country would be the largest single transfer of power from the people to the politicians in British political history. That says it all, and that is why we must reject that system.