With the resurgence of interest in proportional representation in the UK, and calls for an electoral reform referendum at the 2010 general election, I tracked down and read the report of the Jenkins Commission, which proposed a PR system for the UK House of Commons in 1998.
The 1997 Labour manifesto promised a referendum on proportional representation, and upon election the Blair government appointed an independent commission headed by Lord Jenkins, former President of the European Commission, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and founding figure in the Liberal Democrats.
It’s a fascinating proposal. It’s essentially a modification of the German MMP system, called Alternative Vote Plus. Essentially, 80-85% of MPs would still be elected by constituencies, although they would be elected using Australian-style preference voting. In addition, “top-up” seats would be elected in a large number of regions, with the Jenkins Commission proposing 80 regions for the entire UK, including 65 in England.
I’ve come around to the idea of an MMP system as a way of reducing the impact of PR on our culture of electorates, although I still would prefer a Hare-Clark/STV system. The main problem I see with the Jenkins model is that it really isn’t a proper proportional system. The combination of the low proportion of the MPs elected by top-up lists and the division of these lists into 80 regions means most regions only elect 1, 2 or 3 top-up MPs. This will mean that, in many places, one party will win more constituency seats than their total allocation, and any reallocation will largely be limited to the major parties. Any party smaller than the Liberal Democrats would be lucky to win any seats.
This is particularly bizarre when you consider that where MMP is already used in the UK, in Scotland, Wales and London, almost 50% of the representatives are elected from top-up lists. I tend to think that, if you increased the number of top-up MPs to about 30% of the Parliament, and reduced the number of regions used to elect these MPs to the same constituencies used to elect the European Parliament.
It is fascinating that the UK now has a flourishing electoral reform movement, led by the umbrella group Make My Vote Count, which includes the fantastic Electoral Reform Society. We have nothing like that in Australia. While we have a Proportional Representation Society, it is a tiny group that really is more of a society of interested people than a campaign group. In particular, they have adopted a model for the NSW Parliament which is bizarre and completely impossible to implement.
I had an interesting debate across Twitter with Possum on Friday regarding the possibility for PR in Australia. Some people tend to assume that, just because PR is not in the interests of the major parties, it cannot be implemented. This ignores the fact that major parties in New Zealand, the UK and various Canadian provinces have moved to various degrees towards implementing PR. The ALP has also shown a clear preference for PR in upper houses in Australia, which demonstrates some appreciation of the benefits of the system.
However, all of those countries saw PR became an issue on the agenda once a political campaign group began actively campaigning, lobbying, signing up members and getting media attention. We are a long way away from that here in Australia. Such a campaign group was always in place to be ready for a future political crisis. We can see this in the UK now, where decades of campaigning by the Electoral Reform Society has put them in a position to take advantage of the current political crisis.
This makes me think there is room to move on this issue in New South Wales, as a starting point for future campaigning. If an Electoral Reform campaign could be started over the next year to be pushed during the 2011 election, I believe it could gain traction with voters tired of the current government. Considering that Barry O’Farrell has already opened the door to constitutional change by questioning the current fixed-four-year-term arrangement, I believe there is an opening to pressure the Opposition on some sort of constitutional debate, such as a constitutional convention, royal commission or citizens’ assembly.