Cameron, Clegg Clash Over U.K. Voting-Change Plans

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is campaigning against changes to Britain’s electoral system today, clashing directly with his Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg.

A referendum on May 5 will decide for or against changing the current first-past-the-post convention in favor of the alternative-vote system, which allows voters to rank candidates in individual districts in order, with the second preferences of lower-scoring candidates redistributed until someone has the support of 50 percent of electors. The referendum was a key demand of the Liberal Democrats for joining a coalition with Cameron last year, ousting Gordon Brown’s Labour government.

Clegg’s party has long supported changing first-past-the-post, under which smaller parties struggle to get enough votes in any district to win a seat. The Conservatives, though, fought last May’s election opposing any change to the voting system.

“AV will actually make politics less accountable and make it much harder to kick out governments,” Cameron said in a speech in London. “If the last election was under AV, there would be the chance right now that Gordon Brown would still be prime minister.”

‘Voices Going Unheard’

The first-past-the-post system “is out of date and it is at the heart of so many of the reasons that people don’t trust in or care about politics,” Clegg said in a speech in Leeds, northern England. “It means most MPs are elected without the support of most of the people they are supposed to represent. It means millions of votes make no difference whatsoever. It means millions of voices going unheard.”

Clegg said that lawmakers in “safe” districts were the worst offenders in the expenses scandal that hit the last Parliament and a change in the system would make them more accountable.

“We have a real problem, people aren’t engaged enough in politics and don’t feel they’re in charge enough,” Clegg said in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s “Today” show. “People want more choice now and crucially, after the expenses scandals, they want politicians to work much, much harder for their votes.”

Cameron argued that AV “makes some votes count more than others. There’s an inherent unfairness under AV. Supporters of unpopular parties end up having their votes counted a number of times.”

‘Enough Allies’

The coalition agreement allows the parties to run opposing campaigns on electoral reform. Even so, Cameron must balance satisfying his own lawmakers that he is protecting their interests, while keeping sufficiently distant from the campaigning to protect the office of prime minister, Andrew Russell, a lecturer in politics at Manchester University, said in an interview.

That’s why Foreign Secretary William Hague, a Tory grassroots favorite, is heading an e-mail campaign for the “no” vote, Russell said. “Cameron has enough allies to press the right buttons within the party while remaining aloof from the fray,” he said.

The campaign gives Clegg a rare chance to campaign against the Conservatives, allowing him to assert his party’s independence and demonstrate to supporters that the Liberal Democrats have not become merely an appendage to Cameron’s government in accepting demands for the biggest budget cuts since World War II and increases in student tuition fees.

Still, if Clegg doesn’t secure a “yes” vote in May, his authority may be undermined and Liberal Democrat supporters may question whether they should continue to support a coalition that hasn’t taken concrete steps to change the electoral system, something for which the party has campaigned for decades.

‘Short-Changed Again’

Losing the referendum “could be very divisive for the Liberal Democrats, because they will be seen to be on the losing side to the Conservatives,” Russell said. “Observers will say they have been short-changed again by the coalition.”

Even so, the outcome of the referendum won’t affect the coalition, Clegg and Cameron said.

“Whatever the result we will work together in the national interest,” Clegg said in Leeds.

“On this one I do not agree with Nick,” Cameron said. “But this is not and should not be a source of tension and it’s not a coalition breaker either.”

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