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Electoral Insight – Review of Electoral Systems

Electoral Insight – June 1999

A Summary of the Jenkins Report (United Kingdom)

Alain Pelletier
Policy and Research Manager, Elections Canada

Photo: British Tourist Authority
Photo: British Tourist Authority

In December 1997, the British government established the Independent Commission on the Voting System, chaired by the Right Hon. Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, to recommend an alternative to the first past the post (FPTP) system now used in the United Kingdom that could be put before the electorate in a government referendum. In October 1998, its report was presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State.

The Commission received more than 1 500 written submissions, from members of the public, academics, political parties, members of Parliament and various lobby groups. It also held public hearings across the UK and visited other countries (the Republic of Ireland, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia) to examine their electoral systems.

The Commission was guided by four requirements: "broad proportionality, the need for stable government, an extension of voter choice, and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies" (Report, Terms of Reference). It also wanted to ensure fairness and neither to increase nor reduce the roles of political parties and members of Parliament.

The Commission concludes that the current system has the advantage of usually leading to one-party majority government. On the other hand, the Commission feels that FPTP does not ensure fair representation of political parties, women and ethnic minorities. In addition, they observe that FPTP forces electors to give priority either to the selection of a constituency representative or to the determination of a national government, and that it narrows the terrain over which the political battle is fought.

As an alternative, the Commission proposes a variant of the additional member system, where constituency members and top-up members, who would be allocated according to party vote, would be elected by the alternative vote system in 80 top-up areas, cities and counties.

For the Commission, the election of constituency members by alternative vote presents three advantages:

"First, there will be many fewer "wasted votes" in the constituency side of the election, and far more voters will potentially influence the result. This, we hope, will encourage turn-out and participation. Second, it would encourage serious candidates to pitch their appeal to a majority of their constituents (...) Third, because second and subsequent preferences may count, it will discourage individual candidates from intemperate attacks on their rivals (...)" (Report, par. 126)

The Commission suggests that top-up members would correct the disproportionality created by the constituency outcomes. Top-up members would be selected through an open list, giving the voter the capacity to discriminate among individuals, as opposed to a closed party list. The Commission has the opinion that a substantial degree of proportionality could be obtained with a top-up of 15 to 20 percent (there are currently 659 members of Parliament).

The Commission believes that such a mixed system is flexible, as it will allow national, regional and local representation. The Commission also believes that the voter's choice would be enhanced, as the voter would not have to subordinate his or her view of the best individual candidate for the constituency to his or her choice of governing party or vice-versa.

In addition, the Commission believes that there is no evidence that such a system would produce less stability of government than the current system. In the Commission's view, a 50 percent top-up rule would make coalitions the norm, and the electoral system chosen should not create continuous coalitions.

Based on the British tradition of considerable difference between county and borough members, the Commission does not see any problem in having two classes of MPs. In their opinion, the top-up members would represent the broader interests of the counties and cities in the House of Commons.

The full report is available at the following Internet address:

Summary of Commission Recommendations

Note: The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.