No, the stuffy former finance guru who is now prime minister of Britain, is not turning himself into the second coming of Kurt Cobain, and entering the alternative rock world. (Although he might be out of job by summer, so perhaps he should consider it.) Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, who was part of a rock band called Ugly Rumours, as a student at Oxford during the 1970s, might have been more likely to take such a turn.
My much more prosaic meaning is that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proposed the adoption of an alternative vote (AV) system for elections to the House of Commons. The House voted, earlier this week, to put the question to the electorate in a referendum to be held by October of 2011.
Currently, the procedure for those elections is similar to the way in which most U.S. states hold general elections for representatives and senators in Congress. Each voter votes for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins, whether or not the winner's total exceeds 50%. (Some southern states hold a runoff election if no candidate has an overall majority.) The British, who, from Her Majesty on down, are fans of horse racing, call that the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.
The AV system (also known as instant runoff voting) allows a voter to rank all of the candidates in order of preference. For example, if Jeeves, Wooster and Thatcher are running (or, as they would say, standing) for Parliament in a given constituency, a voter might say Jeeves is his first choice, and might rank Wooster second and Thatcher third.
If, on the basis of first-choice votes, Jeeves leads (but with less than 50%), and Wooster and Thatcher trail in that order, Thatcher drops out of the race. The second-place votes of those who voted for Thatcher are awarded to Jeeves or Wooster. One of the remaining candidates will end up with more than 50% and will be declared the winner. If there are more than three candidates, the procedure is repeated, if necessary, until someone gets a majority.
Those with the most at stake are the Liberal Democrats, the third largest party in Britain. At the most-recent British general election, in 2005, the Liberal Democrats received 22.1% of the overall vote, but won only 9.6% of the seats in the House of Commons.
The bulk of the Lib Dem vote is scattered among many constituencies, in most of which they fall behind the two largest parties, Labor and the Conservatives. The other minor parties in the House of Commons don't have that problem. They're regional parties, based in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Their vote in concentrated is a few constituencies, so their percentage of seats is roughly equal to their percentage of the vote.
What would probably help the Lib Dems most would be proportional representation (PR). I described a very pure form of PR, the Israeli electoral system, in this post. Under that system, the British Liberal Democrats would have won 142 of the 646 seats in the House of Commons, rather than the 62 they were actually awarded under FPTP.
But the AV system, if it's adopted, might also help the Lib Dems. It would address the "wasted vote" issue. Voters for whom the Lib Dems are their first choice might be reluctant to vote for a Lib Dem candidate under FPTP. If such a voter has a strong second-place preference for, say, the Conservative candidate over the Labor candidate, she might consider a Lib Dem vote to be wasted, in that it has no effect on the outcome of the Labor v. Conservative contest.
If that person, and other like-minded voters, put a Lib Dem candidate in first place, with Conservative as the second choice, they could register both their Lib Dem preference, and their preference between the two major parties. That might induce more voters to support the Lib Dems, thereby increasing their number of seats, although perhaps still not to a totally proportional level.