... and the casting vote goes to Mandelson

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THIS government is distinguished by several characteristics: a readiness to put things off until further "research" has been done (a method of proceeding which never appealed to Lady Thatcher but Mr Tony Blair is carrying to perhaps excessive lengths); a reliance on "focus groups" not merely to let Mr Blair know how popular he is but to tell him what he and his colleagues ought to do; and an enthusiasm for elections conducted under some form of proportional representation. It is on this last characteristic that I want to concentrate.

There are now four separate developments, five if we count the methods of election to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly as distinct. The others involve Europe and the House of Lords. But to begin with there is the Labour-Liberal Democrat commission on electoral reform under Lord Jenkins. It has already asked for written submissions from interested parties.

My advice to all enthusiasts for electoral reform is to put it in writing. The advice should not be necessary. For in my experience there are no more persistent advocates of any cause, even after the death of its most eagle-eyed proponent, Enid Lakeman, from whose attentions, expressed in letters to the editor, no one who so much touched on the subject was safe.

Lord Jenkins is nothing if not diligent. No one who in his seventies could write a life of Gladstone could be described as lazy, as he sometimes has been. He will, I am sure, read all the letters the commission receives or, at any rate, have them read to him. I have not talked to him about this subject. But some years ago I was talking to a judge about a committee he was chairing and made a few casual observations about the subject of his inquiry.

"That's all very interesting," he said (or words to this effect), "but I'll have forgotten it by tomorrow morning. Just put it in writing and we can consider it properly. Who wins the battle of bumf," he added, to leave no misunderstanding about his meaning, "carries the committee."

Like most journalists, I am reluctant to put pen to paper unless I am being paid. So my thoughts remained unrecorded. Similarly, I do not intend to write to Lord Jenkins. The smart money is on his recommending the alternative vote in parliamentary elections, or some ingenius combination of it with the present first-past-the-post system. The alternative vote has the support of both Mr Peter Hain of the Welsh Office and Mr Peter Mandelson of the Cabinet Office. It was very nearly introduced by Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government of 1929-31, though no one was specially enthusiastic about it at the time.

Under the alternative vote, the elector marks the ballot paper 1, 2, 3... and the bottom candidates drop out until one of the survivors obtains an absolute majority. Its merit is comparative simplicity. I also think it is fairer, in that if Blair has 20,000 votes, Hague 19,000 and Ashdown 10,000, but 6,000 of Ashdown's voters have Hague as their second choice, it seems to me only just that Hague should be declared the winner. Others may disagree.

Another merit is that it retains the link between member and constituency. Here, however, we must be careful. It is often asserted that one member, one constituency is not only virtuous in itself but a hallowed part of the British constitution going back to Ethelred the Unready. Enoch Powell kept saying this, and such was his gaze of crazed intensity that everyone was too intimidated to contradict him. It was all nonsense. Two-member constituencies were common in the 19th and previous centuries and persisted into the present century in attenuated form. Preston, indeed, remained a two- member constituency until 1950.

But what the alternative vote is not, or not necessarily, is proportional. It may be more so than winner-takes-all. It usually is. But certainly an assembly elected by this means will not possess an exact equivalence between the seats held by a party and the votes cast for it. Why on earth should it? That is what I ask. Others feel differently. They claim to find moral virtue in arithmetic.

Some of us who are not so sure - who have always had doubts about proportional representation - commonly raise two objections. First, the system leads to weak government, which may of course be no bad thing if you are inclined to believe that government and those who engage in the activity are best left without too much power in their hands. And, second, it is undemocratic, because it gives decisive power to a small and unrepresentative group or groups which happen to hold the balance. For the last half century, indeed, the Free Democrats have been crucial in the politics of Germany for precisely this reason.

However, what few critics foresaw was that PR would increase the power not only of the small parties inside the assembly but of the big parties outside it as well. Old enthusiasts believed in their innocence that the voter would be presented with a lengthy ballot paper and would number numerous individual candidates in order of preference in a multi-member constituency. The votes would then be redistributed according to a complicated formula under the system known as the single transferable vote. This is what happened and still happens in Northern Ireland for the European elections. This is what the Liberals used to swear by, though they now seem to have forgotten. Indeed, it is difficult to make out what they do believe.

But the Government has no intention of introducing the same system on the mainland. Mr Jack Straw, who is responsible for these matters, has embraced the closed party list. Under this, the elector votes for the candidates chosen by the party - by the Mandelsons of this world or lowlier versions thereof - in, moreover, the precise order in which they have already been placed by the party. The voter has no choice whatever. He or she has to vote the party line or nothing at all, proportionality by party hacks.

Even the so-called open list, which allows the elector either to take the whole party list or to vote for individuals from that list, does not permit complete freedom of choice. Still, at this late hour Mr Straw promises to consider the latter system. He has set his focus groups to work on it. I have not made this up. He admitted as much in the House.

The new regions are vast: Hertfordshire, for example, is in the eastern region. In an ill-attended debate on the committee stage of the European Elections Bill on Thursday (at 5.20 there were nine government supporters, two of them on the front bench), Mr Straw's sidekick, Mr George Howarth, admitted: "What we are proposing is a regional list system."

On 27 January the National Executive Committee discussed a paper on selection procedures. It proposed that the final selection and ranking of candidates should be given to a "national-regional panel". Party members could nominate through a one member, one vote ballot in the Euro-constituencies. But the final selection would rest with the panel. This was duly passed.

A similar system will be applied to the Scottish Parliament and to the Welsh Assembly. No doubt something of the same kind will be used for the Lords in due course. Even Lenin never claimed such powers as Mr Mandelson now does. Sadly, no one is paying the slightest attention.

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