'Of all the debates we are holding this week this must rate as one of
the most significant. Electoral reform may not yet light beacons. But in terms of our constitution, our democracy and our civil rights it could hardly be more important or more dangerous.
'Yet at the other conferences it has almost been the stuff of
'At the Liberal Democrat conference proportional representation from
being once the Holy Grail became suddenly the Sleeping Beauty, spoken
about in hushed and reverent tones, not to be disturbed until awakened
by Roy Jenkins' kiss.
'The only concern was as to whether the kiss would turn the Sleeping
Beauty into a frog, with Paddy Ashdown assuring all who would listen
that even the frog was a price worth paying to secure him a seat in
'Labour's fairytale was somewhat different.
'They found themselves split between supporting our current British
voting system which Jenkins is not allowed to look at - the Cinderella
deliberately uninvited to the Jenkins Ball - and the ugly sisters of
reform who are were already there.
'And what a split.
'The cabinet split, the parliamentary party split, the party conference split. Robin for, Jack against, Tony undecided.
'Peter for, Gordon against, Tony checking the direction of the wind. And the pager messages to Labour backbenchers from Millbank Towers changing almost by the hour.
'We saw the control freak party gloriously out of control.
'Like one of those science fiction films where the computer overloads
and starts sparking, with pieces flying off in all directions, until
just before it explodes someone pulls the plug.
'Last Thursday Labour did the equivalent. They were so split that they
pulled the plug on their conference vote. They abandoned their vote.
They ran away.
'We won't. I hope we will wholeheartedly support this motion today so
ably moved by Michael Ramsden. I congratulate him on the very strong
case he has made.
'Let us be clear. For us electoral reform is no fairytale.
'It is a calculated attack on the British voting system, an attempt to
play political games with peoples votes - and we will fight it all the
'Michael Ramsden's speech was a worthy launch to what will become one of the main political campaigns in the months ahead. It is a battle for which we are already gearing up.
'I would like to pay tribute to my colleagues Norman Fowler and Liam Fox - and many others - for the sterling work they are undertaking in
preparation for the Jenkins report at the end of this month.
'We will have to move fast. We cannot allow this report to take root.
'This will be no ordinary objective report, but then the Jenkins
Commission is no ordinary objective commission.
'It is rigged.
'It starts with a rigged remit, namely to concoct an alternative to the current British voting system which has served this country so well. The British system isn't even on the table, and Jenkins is not allowed to find in its favour.
'An alternative must be found and put to the British people. It doesn't have to be better than the present system, just different.
'That is Labour's commitment. And it will all begin when Jenkins
'And it will be hyped and spun and stage-managed to gull the British
people into accepting change.
'We must not get taken in by the last two weeks. We can discount Tony's dithering, and Gordon's doubts and Paddy's backsliding.
'These are a gigantic bluff.
'What is not a bluff is the Jenkins agenda.
'Roy Jenkins has worked all his political life to shift the political
landscape, to tilt it towards a permanent centre-left alignment
'He tried it as a cabinet minister under Harold Wilson - and failed.
'He pursued it from Brussels - and failed.
'He tried it again with the founding of the SDP - and failed.
'He now sees this commission as the last chance to achieve his goal, by changing the British voting system.
'And by taking the power to choose governments away from voters and
placing it firmly in the hands of party politicians.
'He is not concerned to find the best system. If he is to achieve his
goal he has to produce a recommendation which will be acceptable to the Lib Dems and New Labour at the same time.
'And that means fudge. And what is more it means prearranged fudge.
'He has almost certainly taken soundings from Blair and Ashdown and
secured their agreement to the fudge. Nothing has been said which rules it out.
'Everything that has been said, including talk of maintaining the
constituency link and avoiding perpetual coalition, is consistent with
what we confidently expect to see emerge.
'What Jenkins wants is a system which will always tend to produce hung
results and lead to coalitions so that political parties can then
deliver the centre left government which the voters will not.
'He can't trust the electorate to do it for him. So he needs to find a
system which will.
'This sounds like gerrymandering. This feels like gerrymandering. It is gerrymandering.
'He will have been tempted by the Irish system - the Single Transferable Vote.
'He will have seen how it fragments parties and elects extreme minority parties. He will know from 1994 how Irish governments can change overnight without the electorate even being remotely consulted.
'He could probably live with all that.
'But he knows that the Irish system breaks the constituency link as we
know it and that although Lib Dems worship it New Labour will not buy
it. I suspect the Irish system has been discarded.
'So, I reckon, has the Israeli system - the List system.
'Again it favours coalition, again it promotes extreme parties, but
above all it destroys the constituency link altogether.
'It also gives an unacceptable degree of political patronage to
'He will have looked closely at the Australian system - the Alternative vote - a system which far from delivering 'broad proportionality' would, if used here at the last election, have given Labour an even bigger majority than they've got - 210 for the same 44% of the vote.
'That's gerrymandering of the most cynical kind. I cannot believe that
the British public would buy it.
'The smart money therefore is on an unprincipled and untried compromise, a combination of opposites.
'The Alternative vote which means bigger constituencies and distorted
results; and a top up of additional MPs elected from closed party lists.
'It is the classic fudge in that it appears on the surface to satisfy
all interests, while in fact disguising the damage which it will do to
our democratic system. It is the worst of both worlds.
'We need now to make that damage clear.
'For Jenkins to succeed in his objective his system must take power away from people to choose governments and give it to political parties. This is what proportional representation does.
'It creates hung elections with no outright winners.
'It leaves it to the political parties after the election is over to
decide behind locked doors which combination of parties will form the
'One certainty is that the voters never get the government and policies for which they voted. No party's manifesto will even be delivered as it was proposed. Everything is up for grabs, and up for grabs after the voters have spoken.
'And this is what the Liberals describe as 'fair' votes Fair to whom,
for goodness sake? Good for deal-cutting politicians, but patently
unfair to voters.
'PR also prevents the electorate from throwing governments out.
'Our electorate chucks out their governments on average every eight
years. In countries with PR it takes on average fifty eight years. Fifty eight years! And they call that fair to voters!
'Yet both of these consequences would flow from Jenkins, and the sooner we realise this the better.
'Look at Germany. Fresh from their general election, held under a system which is not so different from what Jenkins is likely to suggest.
'After eleven days they still have no government.
'After eleven days the SPD who won the biggest number of votes are still negotiating to put together a coalition with the Green Party who only won a tiny and, in fact, reduced proportion of votes.
'If they succeed they will create a coalition which no-one can claim
that the German people voted for.
'And it is not the German people who are now being asked what coalition they would prefer. It is German politicians playing political power games and leaving the people to lump it.
'And the Jenkins brigade will tell us that this is fair votes! Again,
good to politicians. But fair to the voters? They must be joking.
'As we have already heard this morning, New Zealand, who went down
almost this precise road before us, are now desperately regretting the
'Yet what they have got is what Jenkins is likely to press upon the
British people in the same way and with the horrifying prospect of the
'He must be stopped.
'And we can stop him by persuading the British people that what we have got, our British voting system, while it may not be perfect, does the job which British voters want.
'For a start it is the world's favourite electoral system. Far from the outdated and minority image its opponents seek to purvey it is used in 62 countries and by half the world's voters.
'At a time when we will be being asked to adopt PR, other countries like France and Italy are moving in the opposite direction.
'We would be throwing away a home grown system which the most of the
rest of the world envies and increasingly adopts, for a foreign one
which is anything but fair.
'And we would be chucking out the system which actually best fits the
'First voter choice. Unlike PR, the British system allows the voter to
choose who runs the country. The greatest number of votes wins.
'The winning party can be held to account by the voter to implement the manifesto upon which it was elected. The voter can send the removal van to No. 10.
'Not so under the Jenkins fudge.
'Second stable government. The British system almost always produces
stable governments with stable majorities.
'Not so under the Jenkins fudge which would almost invariably require
the building of unstable coalitions.
'That's why the Italians after 50 PR elected governments in the 53 years since the war are moving towards our system.
'Third the constituency link. The British system creates a direct
relationship between the MP and all constituents regardless of how they may have voted.
'PR breaks this relationship and the Jenkins fudge would severely
undermine it by the creation of a second class of solely party political MPs.
'Fourth proportionality. The British system actually shares power more
proportionally than PR, the Australian system or the Jenkins fudge.
'To recall the Cinderella analogy, the slipper fits the British system
'And that's why it's been excluded - because it would explode the
carefully concocted Jenkins agenda.
'That is why we must work so hard just to make our case heard.
'Make no mistake, we will have an uphill battle on our hands.
'We will be accused of being old-fashioned.
'We will be told that PR creates 'fair votes' in place of unfair ones.
'But how can taking power away from voters and giving it to politicians be claimed to be fair? Or is it just fairness to Liberals that counts?
'We will be told that the British system of voting is past its sell by
date and that we should turn to some more modern variant of an overseas kind. Why then are so many overseas countries falling out of love with PR and turning to our system instead?
'I believe that when the facts are known our case will be unanswerable. The British system will win.
'Yet at the moment we stand at the threshold of what could turn out to
be the greatest political fight of our lives.
'The reason is this. Those politicians against us and against the
British system have the unremitting zeal of the fundamentalist, the
bitter ambition of the thwarted and a growing hunger for power and place in history.
'The battle they are fighting is for naked political power.
'We must fight them head-on.
'They will be fighting tooth and nail, with every tactic, subterfuge and device at their disposal and we must be prepared to meet them at very step.
'We may not be alone in our determination to save the system which has
served this country so well. We may well find others fighting alongside us.
'Kindred spirits from the Labour Party. Trade Unionists, and businessmen and people from the professions. Ordinary people who will not stand idly while the value of their vote is eroded.
'But we can't count on it. We must be prepared to undertake this
challenge alone, to mobilise the British people to the very real threat to their votes and their rights which Jenkins poses.
'The future of our democracy is at stake and we must grasp our courage
in our hands and campaign with all our hearts, our nerves, our sinews to ensure that this battle is won.
'We don't know the referendum date, but whenever it comes we will be
ready, and we will win.
'This campaign must start here today.
'It will start when we back this motion.
'It will continue when we go back with it to our constituencies.
'Above all, it will take wings when we fully realise that this is the
most important political battle of them all because the outcome of all
other political battles could depend on it.
'It is a battle we cannot afford to lose.
'For ourselves, for our democracy, but above all for those people whose votes our opponents regard as so trifling and so cheap.
'Our message then to Jenkins, to Blair and to Ashdown is simple.
'Stop playing games with our democracy.
'Stop knocking the British way of voting.
'Stop the gerrymandering.
'And above all stop messing with the people's votes; they're not yours
to mess with.
'The fight starts here.
'Let's raise this country to our cause.
'And above all let's win.'