British coalition strained by voting change

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Britain votes on May 5 in a referendum on historic changes to the electoral system after a vitriolic campaign which has exposed tensions within the coalition government.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is leading the campaign against the change for national elections but his deputy, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, wants a new system which he says will be more democratic.

Opinion polls show most voters are opposed to ditching first-past-the-post, a system which awards victory to the candidate with the most votes, for the alternative vote (AV), a system of preference votes.

But as polling day nears, the campaign has become more and more heated.

First-past-the-post tends to penalise small parties, and getting rid of it had been a priority of the Lib Dems for years as they struggled to make themselves heard as the third party in a two-party system.

When they joined the coalition after elections in May 2010 they demanded a referendum, although they dropped their request for a more radical system of proportional representation in the face of strong Tory opposition.

Both sides promised to conduct a good-natured campaign for the vote -- the first referendum in Britain since it backed membership of the European Union in 1975.

But in the final stretch it has turned into a dogfight.

Clegg has been the focus of personal attacks from the "No to AV" camp because of his unpopularity over issues such as increasing university tuition fees, which he vowed to oppose before the election but then supported.

He lashed out last weekend at the Tories for their "lies, misinformation and deceit" over the impact of changing the system, such as claims that it would allow extremists to enter parliament.

But Foreign Secretary William Hague, a Conservative, said the rest of the world thinks Britain is "crazy" to try to change the voting system that is used in more than 50 countries, and suggested AV was a "loser's charter".

Recent polls show Cameron is winning the argument -- a YouGov poll Wednesday found 59 percent would vote "no", compared to 41 percent who would vote "yes".

Tensions were high going into this week's cabinet meeting on Tuesday but a government spokeswoman insisted it was "business as usual" and brushed off the rows as "good, light-hearted banter".

Cameron also sought to smooth things over Wednesday, telling lawmakers: "What matters in this week we have left before we vote in this vital referendum is to get back to the real arguments about competing electoral systems."

Under first-past-the-post, the candidate in each constituency with the most votes wins, regardless of whether they have a majority.

Supporters say it produces a quick and clear result, whereas AV would lead to more coalition governments.

"I am very clear that first past the post is simple, is fair, is effective (and) has worked for our country," Cameron said.

But critics note that barely one third of lawmakers in the House of Commons won a majority of votes, saying AV is more democratic.

Under AV, voters rank candidates in their constituency in order of preference. If no one gets a majority in the first count, the last placed candidate is eliminated and their votes are reassigned until somebody does.

The leader of the main opposition Labour party, Ed Miliband is among those backing the "Yes" campaign, saying AV "can make for a more accountable politics".

But his party is divided with some ideologically opposed to the change and also unable to resist a chance to damage the Lib Dems, their rivals for the progressive vote.

However bitter it seems now, political analyst George Jones said the row was unlikely to do the coalition partners much long-term damage.

"It's in both their interests to stay together," said Jones, a professor at the London School of Economics, noting they had both agreed to an unpopular series of spending cuts and had to see whether they revived the economy.

He added: "All this is rhetorical guff -- the electorate forgets about it. This is not a major issue for most people."

© 2011 AFP

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