Sir Michael White has looked at the current flirtation by the Government with electoral reform. He at least has the title of his piece right (so it was probably written by a sub).
Actually that's a little unfair. For the first time in a while, we have a columnist who accepts that the Alternative Vote (AV) system is not a proportional one. It should be fairly obvious that any system by which only one person is elected per area cannot be proportional unless there is soem kind of jobshare.
So what is AV and what would it mean?
Well. First off. It's not the same as the Supplementary (SV) system used to elected the London Mayor (and other mayors). That allows only two votes - using a cross in each case - and so only works if there are three or fewer candidates. Where it fails, it does so most spectacularly. Take the first London election. There were (we can argue here) four serious candidates - Lib Dem, Conservative, Labour and Ken. In order to make sure your vote counts, you need to cast at least on of your two preferences for a candidate who makes it through to the final two. This means both guesswork and a degree of tactical voting. It is billed as being your first and then second choice. But if you favoured Susan Kramer followed by the Green candidate then your vote would be wasted. Why did we have this ludicrous system? Well it was foisted on us by John Prescott after lots of lobbying by academic Pat Dunleavey. Has it worked? I would say no. As well as the disastrous first use, in 2004 we had almost 15% wasted votes. This time we may only have three candidates likely to gain more than 5% of the vote, but there will still be lots of confusion.
Back to AV. Can I promise it would be better? Well no, nothing is certain. Any new system requires voter education, clear ballot papers and sensible campaigning by the parties. Many people will take some time to get used to the new system and that will be very difficult if there are a myriad of other systems still in use for different elections. So I would suggest that introducing AV for Westminster necessitates bringing in STV for any multi-member elections (including councils with multi-member wards).
The parties will no doubt say 'Vote for us number one' and will then either fail to suggest a second preference or tell voters not to cast a second preference at all. After all, to suggest that other parties might be anything short of baby-eaters is inherently weak, isn't it?
I suspect that, as we have found in PPC selections, the parties that punch above their weight will be those who embrace the new system and campaign in favour of second preferences (where they cannot get firsts).
What AV will do in terms of proportionality is difficult to assess. As noted above, it is not a proportional system. Or even a semi-proportional system. It is a majoritarian system which will reflect the mood of the country slightly more accurately. At most times it will tend to smooth out voting preferences, with the overall outcome being slightly more proportional. But there will be times when the mood of the country is vehemently opposed to a particular point of view. This is where AV ensures a greater majority against the unpopular opinion. Think back to 1997 - unless you were a died in the wool Tory you probably wanted anything but the return of the Major Government. So on that occasion we would have seen AV mitigate against proportionality. The Tories would have secured even fewer seats and both Lib Dems and Labour more.
Will AV help the smaller parties such as the greens and BNP? Well no. It is perfectly possible for a smaller party to come from third (or even lower) to win via the transfer of preferences. But to gain such preferences, these parties have to be adept at securing transfers. I cannot see the BNP or UKIP getting too many transfers. Nor, for that matter, can I see the Greens doing so. These smaller parties will only have a hope of winning seats under a truly proportional system such as party lists or AMS using large regions. (For the record, the Lib Dem ideal of STV would not see the BNP elected under current circumstances and it is unlikely we would see the Greens or UKIP win, although they could take a seat or two).
So if it doesn't help the smaller parties, who would it help. Well clearly Brown believes it will help him. Turkeys, Christmas and all that. Labour still believes that there is an anti-Tory preponderance in the UK as there was in 1997. I have to say I have my doubts. There might not (yet) be the anti-Labour mass but I cannot see an automatic Lib Dem choice as being in favour of propping up a losing Labour Government. Whenever I talked to progressive Labour types they seem convinced that we would end up in coalition with them. I think they are simply wrong.
We have seen the Lib Dems choosing not to enter a coalition Government in both Scotland and Wales when they had the chance and they could take the same course at Westminster too.
Or Nick Clegg could talk to Dave Cameron.
And finally, should Nick Clegg embrace Brown's flirtation with AV? Well, we wouldn't vote against progressive reform, but, as I argued earlier, our goal is STV. Proper electoral reform where votes actually influence the result and allow electors the real choice of voting for the candidates and party they want. We would no doubt put forward an amendment to that effect and see it voted down. We would have to bide our time until there was a minority government and we could demand STV as part of a comprehensive reform package. It's not the be all and end all, but it remains a key part of the Lib Dem ideology.
PS - Weekend voting is expensive (you have to vote both days else the religious groups have valid objections). Compulsory voting is just plain wrong. Frog marching people to the polling stations is not exactly going to make people feel love for politicians is it? Any party that opposes ID cards on civil liberties ground should also be opposing compulsory voting.