Whatever happened to the Jenkins Report?

With electoral system reform very much on the agenda in the UK at the moment, it would seem that the considerations of the Jenkins Commission should be at least getting a nod from the various players involved. For anybody interested here is a link to the full report of the Commission.

The Commission was opposed to the adoption of AV, listing three problems with this system:

”(85) First, it does not address one of our most important terms of reference. So far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, it is capable of substantially adding to it. Second, its effects (on its own without any corrective mechanism) are disturbingly unpredictable. Third, it would in the circumstances of the last (1997) election, which even if untypical is necessarily the one most vivid in the recollection of the public, and very likely in the circumstances of the next one too, be unacceptably unfair to the Conservatives.”

The report concluded that disproportional and capricious outcomes at the national level were an inevitable consequence (see point 91)  of single-seat based systems.  

The recommended system was as follows:

“(1) The Commission’s central recommendation is that the best alternative for Britain to the existing First Past The Post system is a two-vote mixed system which can be described as either limited AMS or AV Top-up. The majority of MPs (80 to 85%) would continue to be elected on an individual constituency basis, with the remainder elected on a corrective Top-up basis which would significantly reduce the disproportionality and the geographical divisiveness which are inherent in FPTP.
 
2.   Within this mixed system the constituency members should be elected by the Alternative Vote. On its own AV would be unacceptable because of the danger that in anything like present circumstances it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality and might do so in a way which is unfair to the Conservative party. With the corrective mechanism in operation, however, its advantages of increasing voter choice and of ensuring that in practice all constituency members (as opposed to little more that half in recent elections) have majority support in their own constituencies become persuasive. (…)

4.   The Commission recommends that 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. They should therefore be what are commonly called open rather than closed lists.”

The gradual sidelining of this report by Labour governments and the party’s  current commitment to a referendum on a system that the report recommends against (AV) perhaps demonstrates the difficulty of asking politicians to reform the system that brought them to power.

The Liberal Democrats, interestingly, have failed to make any political capital out of this discrepancy in Labour policy, indeed the Liberal Democrat’s preferred alternative, PR-STV, was also ruled out by the Jenkins report. One of the reasons why PR-STV was not recommended was pointed out by Eoin O’Malley in an earlier blog, namely that the system of counting surplus transfers is not easily understandable:

“The counting is incontestably opaque, although this is of course different from saying that it is haphazard or unfair.”

The second problem which, according to the report, was the most serious  impediment for PR-STV in the UK was that the sheer size of constituencies that it would produce (the report estimates that they would be 4 to 5 times the size of Irish constituencies) means that MPs would find it nearly impossible to maintain a meaningful link with their constituencies, and that ballot papers in constitunecies of 350,000 would be overly long, providing voters with:

“a degree of choice which might be deemed oppressive rather than liberating.”

Combine this with the Lib Dem proposal to reduce the House of Commons by 150 MPs, and the potential problems of PR-STV in the UK are even more pronounced.

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2 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the Jenkins Report?

  1. I agree that AV-plus is better than AV for a whole variety of reasons. Given the moods of the Labour and Tory party backbenches, I suspect you’d be better off trying to get what little reform is on offer. AV is better than nothing and nothing may be the only alternative the LibDems have. Their problem is that it’s easy for any party opposed to it say that there needs to be a referendum, and the LibDems would find it hard to oppose a referendum on the issue.

  2. Note that two objections to STV are often given:

    #1 “STV may work all right in Ireland, but in Britain it would mean 400,000 people per constituency”

    #2 “STV produces excessively localist politics – look at Ireland”

    Is it, perhaps, just possible that Defect #1 might go some way to cancelling out or at least mitigating Defect #2?

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