The Jenkins Commission Report on Electoral Reform

Note (June 2009): This critical commentary on the report by Lord (Roy) Jenkins on electoral “reform” (a prejudicial description!) originated in a dialogue between myself and one ‘Peter V.’ on an online politics forum, now defunct, hosted by CompuServe.  The Jenkins Report was published in October 1998.  This round-up of my views on it in the following month quotes earlier exchanges in the forum in italics.  Nothing that I have heard or read in the following 11 years has caused me to change my view of the report.  In my view it was, and is, deeply flawed.  If we have to consider changes to our voting system for the house of commons, we should start again from scratch.


Comments on the Jenkins Report

To: P—- V——, 19 November 1998


From previous messages: >>BB:”[Under first Past the Post (FPTP)]… the biggest single group of voters almost always decides which of the two main parties’ leaders is to become Prime Minister. ” PV:”In 95% of cases of government formation, including this one, against the wishes of the majority. That is what is not acceptable, because it is obviously not democratic, THAT is why FPTP has to be dumped.”<<

Not in 95% of cases: since World War II, it’s been 100%, as you yourself recognise elsewhere in your message. The last time any British political party won 50% of the vote or more was in 1935. Because support for the two biggest parties is so evenly distributed, it’s unlikely that in the foreseeable future either of them will win an overall majority of the votes cast. So from 1945 onwards it has always been possible to claim that a majority of the electorate voted against the government of the day.

But this is a fact of political life, and no change to the electoral system can alter it. Indeed, a more proportional system would tend to encourage parties to fragment, and thus make it even less likely that any one party could win 50% or more of the votes. A more proportional system (such as that proposed by the Jenkins Commission) can only produce an apparent majority of votes cast for a government by (i) making a coalition of two or more parties an obligatory condition for being able to form a government, or (ii) adding second-preference, third-preference, and even lower preference votes to the first-preference votes, until they add up to more than 50%, thus pretending that first and second etc. votes are all of equal value (which they plainly are not). Jenkins proposes to adopt both courses: both distort the underlying political reality.

>> BB: “Under AV+TU as proposed by Lord J., the party leaders – or [sometimes the party coming third] – would decide whether Labour or the Conservatives should form the government, and that decision would be taken on the basis of secret horse-trading conducted after the election.” >>PV: “How do you come to that first conclusion? Really weird, since it’s not the party leaders who decide, it’s the voters.”<<

Since no party is likely to win more than 50% of the first preference votes cast, the greater proportionality produced by the top-up seats will more often than not oblige the party (Labour or Conservative) which has won the most votes to form a coalition with one of the smaller parties (most probably the LibDems) in order to ensure an overall majority of the seats in the House of Commons and thus to be able to form a government. This would usually give the LibDems, who are doing unusually well if they win one out of every five votes cast, the power to decide after the election whether to put Labour or the Tories into No. 10. Their leaders would be able to lay down the conditions for granting their favours to one or the other of the two bigger parties. (One obvious condition that the LibDems would sooner or later demand would be greater, or even full, proportionality in a further reformed electoral system, thus even more firmly entrenching their king-maker power and privilege.) There is no guarantee that the LibDems would always choose to ally themselves either with Labour (as their closer ideological soulmates, for the time being) or with whichever of the two bigger parties had won the most first-preference votes – as the recent New Zealand experience demonstrates. The individual voter would have absolutely no way of casting either of his/her votes in such a way as to influence the eventual outcome of this horse-trading process: the leader of the party which had won the fewest votes of the three would ultimately decide whether a Tory or a Labour leader went into No. 10, and also what policy compromises he would be forced to make in order to go there. The claim that under the Jenkins system, “it’s not the party leaders who decide, it’s the voters”, simply doesn’t stand up.

What’s worse, in this situation the smallest of the three main parties could switch its support from Labour to Conservative, or vice versa, at any time between elections, forcing a change of government without even the inconvenience of a fresh election – as indeed has happened under the German system which most closely resembles the Jenkins proposals. The only continuity would be that whoever was in No. 10, the Lib Dems would always be in the government! Hard to claim that it would be the voters and not the party leaders who decided the outcome in those circumstances.

Jenkins and his commission colleagues themselves denounce any system which would consistently, or usually, give this disproportionate power to a small party by ensuring that it would normally hold the balance of power – as would always happen under a fully proportional system. They claim that their compromise proposals avoid this, and that in most elections one party would end up with an overall majority, making coalition unnecessary. But this claim has been comprehensively demolished in an article in The Times on 29 October by Michael Pinto-Duschinsky. The eminent constitutional expert Professor Bogdanor questioned the validity of Pinto-Duschinsky’s argument (Times letters, 3 November), but only by making the (to my mind quite insupportable) claim that under PR coalition governments are produced by the “unwillingness of voters to entrust one party with 50 per cent of the vote” – whereas in reality around 80 per cent of the voters (ie those who vote Labour or Conservative) would presumably be more than happy if the party of their choice were to win 50 per cent of the votes or more.

The Jenkins report admits that it is difficult to reconcile the twin purposes of an individual vote at a general election – choice of party to form a government, and choice of representative in the the House of Commons. Jenkins himself also admit that the first of these – choosing which party is to be the government – is much the more important for the great majority of voters. FPTP reflects this; whereas, by making the need for coalitions much likelier, the Jenkins proposals undermine it.

>> PV: I find the arrogance that a lot of party hacks have, that voters want everything one single party offers, quite insulting to the voter<<

I don’t know of anyone who makes such a claim. But the plain fact is that no electoral system can give any single voter the power or possibility to pick and choose among the various policies of any one party, supporting some and rejecting or amending others. Even the most elaborate forms of AV and STV and top-up can’t translate a series of votes for candidates or parties into fine distinctions between different features of any party’s programme. Nor can those votes influence or determine which parties are going to wind up as members of a governing coalition, still less which bits of their programmes a party might have to sacrifice or modify in order to be accepted as a coalition partner. The only way in which voters can make these fine distinctions on policy matters is through referendums on policy questions. The hard and unpalatable reality is that in choosing which party one wants to govern the country, each voter has to hold his or her nose and decide which of the two (yes, two) programmes comes nearest to his/her own views, and which contains less and fewer objectionable features. The huge virtue of FPTP is that it confronts voters with that choice. To suppose that any fancy electoral system can allow voters to evade it is a delusion.

>>PV: The voters, under the Jenkins proposals, select first the constituency candidates…. In the top-up vote, voters indicate which party they want to lead the way, policywise, after the elections. They can either reinforce their constituency vote by voting for the party of the constituency candidate they voted for, or vote for a very good constituency MP in the constituency vote and voting for another party in the top-up.<<

But the candidates for the top-up seats who are successful won’t necessarily succeed by winning the most top-up votes: the top-up seat in each region or city will go to the party which had the most top-up votes after they have been weighted to reflect the ratio of votes to seats won in the constituency elections. At the time when the voter casts his/her second (top-up) vote, he/she will have no way of knowing which party this will be, although in some cases it will be obvious which party it won’t be. So – as the Jenkins report admits – if your aim is, let’s say, a Labour government (and a Labour constituency MP) in an area where there’s a safe Labour majority in most of that area’s constituencies, there’s no point in casting both your constituency and your top-up votes for Labour since Labour obviously won’t qualify for a top-up seat, however many top-up votes it wins. Therefore assuming that you’d prefer the top-up seat to go to the LibDems rather than to the Tories, you’d cast your top-up vote for the LibDems, even though
your main objective is a single-party Labour government which can govern on its own. The statistics would thus show you as having split your votes between the Labour candidate in your constituency and the LibDems in the top-ups, which would appear (quite wrongly) to indicate your preference for a Labour-LibDem coalition government. How this can be regarded as a more accurate reflection of voter choice I can’t imagine.

>> PV: the Jenkins report gives clear figures, using election results from the past, indicating what results would have been under AV+TU. I recommend you read it thoroughly and not make wild accusations.<<

I’m grateful for your recommendation, which I’m sure was kindly meant. Actually, I have read the report and its figures thoroughly. The “clear figures” purporting to show what the results of past elections “would have been” under the Jenkins proposals are, though, at best educated guesses, since no-one can be sure how voters would have cast either their second and subsequent preference votes under AV, or their second top-up votes. As Jenkins himself says, “We obviously would not claim full precision for the exact number of seats which would have been won by each party…” (I recommend that you read the relevant section again!) But much more to the point, Jenkins’s educated guesses as to the likely results of past elections are given in detail only for the past two elections, and in more general terms for the two before that; and from the assumed results of these past four elections, Jenkins concludes that his proposed system won’t necessarily produce many more coalitions in the future than under FPTP. The article by Michael Pinto-Duschinsky cited in Part I of this message, however, demonstrates that if you go back over a longer and more typical run of past elections, you get a much higher proportion of required coalitions under the Jenkins proposals, and that this is likely to be the pattern of future elections (to the extent that these can be foreseen). This really knocks the prop from under Jenkins’s claim to have squared the circle by producing a more proportional system which enhances voter choice without however making the LibDems a semi-permanent king-maker and coalition partner.

Jenkins of course seeks to cover himself by arguing that even if his proposals do produce more coalitions, this won’t be such a bad thing, even despite the gross anomaly of giving decisive power to the smallest of the three parties, because (a) people actually like the idea of coalitions, and even if they don’t, (b) coalitions are a good thing because they encourage consensual politics and discourage aggressive confrontationalism.

Well, as to (a), I don’t see the evidence: if most people wanted coalitions, they could express that wish easily by voting LibDem in order to improve the chances of the LibDems holding the balance of power: but in most elections fewer than one in five of those voting actually vote LibDem. Almost all the rest, four out of five, vote either Labour or Conservative, obviously in most cases hoping that their chosen party will be elected to govern on its own without the need to go into a compromise coalition with another party.

As to (b), no doubt many would agree with Lord Jenkins and his colleagues in preferring the politics of consensus, compromise and the blurring of differences, to those of conflict and confrontation. But does that preference have any special merit beyond reflecting Lord Jenkins’s fastidious temperament? Myself, I’d like to see a government one day able and willing to make some of the sharp and controversial changes in our society that are needed to eliminate poverty, greatly to increase equality (of outcomes, not just opportunity), to reduce the yawning gap between the public and private sectors, to reconstruct a welfare state providing mostly universal benefits, to eradicate apartheid in our education system, to introduce yet more devolution, further to reform our constitutional institutions so as to reflect the federalist character of our multi-nation state, to restore a significant role for the state in the economy and more effectively to regulate the excesses and inequities of the market, to run government more openly and with much less secrecy, to enlarge our citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, to separate judicial from executive and legislative powers, and to promote further progress towards harmonisation of policies in the EU and its further democratisation. And I don’t see a coalition government doing much of that. Let the Lord Jenkinses shrink in delicate distaste from argument and conflict. The rest of us might adopt as our motto: vive la différence!

In my earlier forum message, I said:

Under the present system of First Past The Post, the biggest single group of voters almost always decides which of the two main parties’ leaders is to become Prime Minister. Under AV+TU as proposed by Lord J., the party leaders – or in some circumstances the leader of the party which came third in the election – would [usually] decide whether Labour or the Conservatives should form the government, and that decision would be taken on the basis of secret horse-trading conducted after the election. …. It removes power from the voters and transfers it to the politicians.

I stand by that.

PS: Someone – not you, I’m sure – said in another message that Britain was alone in using First Past The Post. A bit odd to overlook the world’s two biggest democracies (India and the US) and another even bigger in area (Canada) – combined population around 1.2 billion people. Whereas if we were to adopt the system proposed by Jenkins, we certainly would be unique. No-one else has ever tried it. Our guinea-pig status would be really exciting.

Hope you won’t regard these comments as accusations, “wild” or otherwise. It really is possible to prefer FPTP to AV+TU – Alternative Vote Plus Top-Up, as recommended by Lord Jenkins – without losing one’s integrity, humility, judgement or virginity (delete whichever does not apply).

The Jenkins Commission’s report has been widely praised for its elegance of style, and indeed the dry subject-matter is periodically moistened from a purple-prose watering-can, sprinkling welcome and surprising tropes. But then the life is choked out of the prose before it can bloom by the arch pedantries: the long Latinate words where short plain English would have done as well (“exiguous” for “small”, “arbitrament” for – presumably – “verdict”, “approximately” for “about”), the equally unnecessary Latin tags (“circa” for “about”), and the unexpected howlers: “250,000 less [for fewer] votes than Labour”, and “inchoate” twice used as if it meant something like “chaotic” instead of its true meaning of “begun and not yet finished”: if you must use obscure words, it’s prudent to make sure that you get them right!