UK may change voting system

2010-07-03 08:00

London - Britain will hold a public referendum next year on overhauling its voting system - a potentially radical change that could see the country frequently led by European-style coalition governments rather than by one strong party.

Prime Minister David Cameron's office said on Friday that details will be announced next week on what could be the most sweeping reforms since British women won the vote in 1918, or the voting age dropped from 21 to 18 in the mid-1960s.

Cameron himself strongly opposes any change, and has vowed to campaign against the reform. He assented to the referendum only to woo the third place Liberal Democrats after his Conservatives failed to take a majority in the May election. The Lib Dems are the junior partner in the Conservative-led coalition government, the first formal partnership between two British parties since World War II.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, whose Liberal Democrats have long called for a change, and stands to benefit most from any reform, said Britain would have a "once in a generation" opportunity to overhaul a currently unfair system.

A new system would be a step toward better translating support into the number of House of Commons seats, likely leading to more coalition governments and possibly the consensus building style and compromise policies of its European neighbours.

Britain currently uses a first-past-the-post system, under which a candidate needs the highest number of votes, not an absolute majority, to win a House of Commons seats. That system has favoured the biggest parties, the Conservatives and Labour.

Some analysts wonder whether the issue might break the coalition, which is scheduled to govern Britain until a planned 2015 election.

Chris Nicholson, director of Liberal Democrat-aligned think tank Centre Forum, said that if the public doesn't back voting reform, Clegg's party may no longer have an incentive to take part in the coalition government.

Cameron's spokesperson Steve Field told reporters Friday that the British leader would encourage the public to retain its current system. "He will be campaigning against" a move to an alternative vote system, he said.

Under the proposed alternative vote system, voters order candidates in preference, and second choice votes are allocated if no candidate wins 50% of the first preference votes.

"This isn't a party issue, this is an issue about whether Britain moves into the 21st Century and has a modern voting system," Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes told BBC television.

Clegg said he'll announce the date of the referendum next week. It is expected to take place alongside a local government election slated for May, in a bid to ensure the largest possible turnout.