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GREATER CHOICE, FAIRNESS AND AN END TO ELECTORAL DESERTS IF VOTERS OPT FOR NEW SYSTEM

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Radical change in the way Britain elects the House of Commons is proposed in the report of the Independent Commissi...
Radical change in the way Britain elects the House of Commons is proposed in the report of the Independent Commission on the

Voting System. The commission, which is chaired by Lord Jenkins of

Hilihead, has recommended the best alternative system for Britain to

'First Past The Post' (FPTP) that meets the commission's terms of

reference, which required it to seek a system which offered greater

voter choice, delivered stable government, maintained the link

between MPs and their constituencies and yielded broad

proportionality.

Lord Jenkins's report says:

'Our proposition for this country stems essentially from the British

constituency tradition and proceeds by a limited modification to

render it less haphazard, less unfair to minority parties, and less

divisive in the sense of avoiding large areas of electoral desert for

each of the two parties.'

The Independent Commission on the Voting System was set up on 1

December 1997 and asked to report with a year. Following its work,

the government promised to put the matter to a referendum.

The maim recemmendations of the commission are:

- The majority of MPs - 80 to 85 percent - would continue to be

elected on a constituency basis, with the remainder elected on a

corrective top-up basis which would significantly reduce the

disproportionality the geographical divisiveness which are inherent

in FPTP. Counties and equivalently sized metropolitan districts in

England would be the areas for which these top up members are elected

providing both local accountability and a broad constituency link for

top-up members. In Scotland and Wales top-up members will represent

existing Euroconstituencies while Northern Ireland should have two

top-up areas, each returning two members.

- The proportion of top-up members should be between 15 and 20 per

cent (between 98 and 132 members) to deliver broad proportionality,

while avoiding the imposition of perpetual coalition on the country.

- As far as is practicable, the ratio of constituency to top-up

members should be equal in the four constituent nations of the United

Kingdom and constituency and top-up members should have equal status

in Westminster.

- The constituency members should be elected by the Alternative Vote

(AV). With the corrective top-up an place, this will increase voter

choice and ensure that all constituency members have majority support

in their own constituencies, which is not now the case with over 40

per cent of members. Lord Alexander would prefer to retain FPTP for

constituency elections for the reasons outlined in his note of

reservation.

- The second vote determining the allocation of top-up members

should allow the voter the choice of either a vote for a party or for

an individual candidate from the lists put forward by parties -

'open' rather than 'closed' lists.

- To help reduce the present anti-Conservative bias in

the electoral system, the present over-representation of Scotland and

Wales in the House of Commons should end, and theBoundary Commission

should be given a statutory power to take account of likely future

population changes.

The commission's secondary recommendations include:

- A new independent Electoral Commission to oversee electoral

administration and referendums.

- A publicly funded neutral education programme to prepare

voters for the decision they will be required to make in the

forthcoming referendum. This should be overseen by the Electoral

Commission, so long as it is in place by the time the referendum is

called; if not, by a special independent body.

- Any new system should be reviewed after two general elections.

- That there should be no further substantial changes to the voting

system without a further referendum.

The chairman of the commission, Lord Jenkins,

speaking at the launch of the report in London yesterday said:

'The system we propose would give voters more choice, it would be

more democratic in the constituencies and it would lead to a fairer

result nationally. It will also give every elector some realistic

opportunity of influencing a result, whereas today many voters can

pass a lifetime of never having a chance of voting for a winning

candidate.

'It would mostly deliver majority governments but there would be no

landslide majorities unless there were a landslide majority of votes

in the country.

'Geographical divisiveness, and gross disproportionlity would no longer be distorting features of our political landscape. Electoral deserts, such as those for the Conservatives in Wales and Scotland and

the great provincial cities of England today and for Labour in

southern constituencies in the 1980's would be a thing of the past

and everyone's vote would count.'

Key quotes from the report

- 'The essence of the system is that the elector would have the

opportunity to cast two votes, the first for his choice of

constituency MP, the second for an 'additional member' who would be

elected for the specific and primary purpose of correcting the

disproportionality left by the constituency outcomes...'

- 'None of us are electoral absolutists. We all of us believe that

any system has defects as well as virtues. Some systems are

nonetheless much better than others, and we have endeavoured to seek

relative virtue in an imperfect world.'

- 'A principal advantage of such a mixed system is its

flexibility....This flexibility has enabled the Commission to steer

to a point closest to fulfilling all four of our terms of

reference.'

- 'We...do not recoil with horror from the very idea of coalitions,

regarding them, on the basis both of British of some foreign

experience, as capable of providing effective and decisive

governments...This does not mean that permanent coalition is

desirable...We would prefer...that when there is a strong surge in

one political direction or the other, single-party governments, even

if with somewhat under 50% of the vote, should stand out like

mountainous land masses rising about the surface of the ocean.'

NOTES

- Full Membership and terms of reference of the commission:

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

Lord Alexander of Weedon

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

John Chilcot

David Lipsey

The Independent Commission on the Voting System was established by

the government in December 1997 with the remit to report within 12

months. The commission started its work in January of this year 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 broad

proportionality, the need for stable government, an extension of

voter choice and the maintenance of a link between MPs and

geographical constituencies.

There were 20 formal commission meetings at all of which every member

of the commission was present.

- The full text of the Command Paper and the Supplementary Volume of

the debate (on CD-ROM) are available from The Stationery Office

Parliamentary hotline Lo-call 0345 02 34 74. Items of key evidence

received by the commission are also available on the Internet. The

website number is http://www.official-

documents.co.uk/document/cm4O/4O9O/4O9Ohtm.

- The commission took written evidence following a series of

advertisements in the national and regional press. They held nine

public meetings at national and regional capitals across the UK

between March and July 1998. NOP undertook a number of focus groups

on behalf of the commission. The commission also took the views of

academic political scientists and members of parliament. It also

examined electoral systems overseas. The overall cost of the

Commission's work is expected to run to around£250,000.

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