UK PM, deputy, fight over referendum

2011-02-18 17:31

London - British Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg fired the first shots on Friday ahead of a May 5 referendum on electoral reform that threatens to undermine the ruling coalition.

They gave speeches setting out opposing positions in a campaign that has so far failed to fire the public imagination despite the far-reaching effect it could have on the way Britons pick their lawmakers.

Clegg's centrist Liberal Democrats demanded the referendum as a key condition for joining a coalition with the centre-right Conservatives after the Tories failed to win a clear election victory in May 2010.

Cameron warned on Friday that abandoning the current first-past-the-post system - also used in the United States, India and Canada - could lead to hung parliaments and "second choice" governments.

"I think any system that keeps dead governments living on life support is a massive backward step for accountability and trust in our politics," Cameron told an audience in London.

"We wouldn't accept this in any other walk of life. Can you imagine when the Olympics comes here in 2012, Usain Bolt piles over the finishing line and suddenly we give the gold medal to the person who came third or second?"

Coalition already under pressure

Deputy Prime Minister Clegg said it would be fairer to change to the so-called "Alternative Vote" system, which is used in Australia and in mayoral elections in London.

"For years now large numbers of people have chosen not to vote because they think it doesn't matter. They think their voice will simply be ignored," he said during a speech in Leeds, northern England.

But Cameron and Clegg both insisted that the result on May 5 would not affect the coalition, which is already under pressure over its massive cuts to public services in order to curb Britain's record deficit.

Under the first-past-the-post system favoured by the Conservatives, the constituency candidate who wins the most number of votes wins outright. It tends to favour a two-party system.

AV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference and would be good for the Liberal Democrats, traditionally Britain's third-largest party, even though it does not go as far as many in the party would like.