Electoral Reform

Article excerpt

Maybe the fundamentals of British Democracy - the way in which we vote - are not perfect. There have been arguments in favour of electoral reform for more than a century, but since the Reform Act of 1884 which set up the model of our present single member constituencies as they are today, we have muddled along. At least, people have understood how the system works, even if they have not approved of it.

A Speaker's Conference in 1916 recommended the adoption of the Alternative Vote or Preferential Representation and a Bill passed through the House of Commons to legislate for it. Neither of the two main political parties - Conservative or Liberal - saw any advantage in it; they felt confident of their ability to form governments on their own and it was never implemented. Now things are happening. Changes to our constitution are afoot. Yet, so far as the fundamental system of voting is concerned, few are showing the concern the issue ought to warrant.

Most of us understand there is to be a Parliament for Scotland and an Assembly for Wales. We hope for peace in Ireland with an agreement which sounds complicated. There is to be an elected Mayor for London. What seems to have escaped attention is the mix of methods for elections to be adopted.

The Mayor, we are told, will be chosen by the Alternative Vote or Preferential Representation. Our Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are to be drawn from regional lists of party choices. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly will have constituency and additional members elected on something like the German system of Proportional Representation. The MEPs for Northern Ireland have always been elected by the Single Transferable Vote (a form of Proportional Representation) and the same system has been used in the Northern Ireland Assembly. There will, we are told, be five members for each of the Northern Ireland Westminster constituencies.

All this means that, so far, without serious public debate, we shall have at least four new and different electoral systems operating in the UK. On top of this, the Government has appointed a Commission under the Chairmanship of Lord Jenkins with the following terms of reference:

The Commission shall be free to consider and recommend any appropriate system or combination of systems in recommending an alternative to the present system for Parliamentary elections to be put before the people in the Government's referendum.

The Commission shall observe the requirement for local proportionality, the need for stable government, an extension of voter choice and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies. (Home Office Press Release 346/97 1 December 1997).

There is no suggestion in this that the Commission might be allowed to consider whether our existing 'First Past the Post' (FPP) arrangements fulfil any of the objectives laid down in these terms of reference. There are also dangers in that Roy Jenkins can hardly be regarded as a totally impartial chairman. After all, he has long advocated Proportional Representation and is a prominent member of the Liberal Democrat Party which makes no bones about its aims in that direction. This is serious. Surely such a task is for a Speaker's Conference. It is worth noting that in 1944, the then Prime Minister - Winston Churchill - saw the need for legislation on constituency boundaries and other matters and wrote to Speaker Clifton Brown: 'I am reluctant to ask you to add to your already heavy burdens by undertaking this task, but it is most important that the issues before the conference directly affecting as they do the interests of all the political parties, should be considered in as impartial a spirit as possible. The Government are sure that the best method of realising this object is by following the precedent set in 1916 and asking you to preside.'

The fact that Speaker Clifton Brown's conference found against the adoption of either Proportional or Preferential Representation is immaterial today. …