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Monday, 7 March 2011

Voting reform would give voice to extreme parties, says Clarke (UK)

Extreme political parties such as the far-right British National Party will be given a voice in British politics if the referendum on voting reform is passed on May 5th, leading Conservative minister Kenneth Clarke has said.

The referendum on the introduction of the alternative vote, which would put an end to first-past-the-post, was agreed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats as part of the smaller party’s price to enter the coalition, although Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg once described it as “a miserable little compromise” compared with the party’s preference for proportional representation.

So far, opinion polls show that the majority of the public have failed to grasp the nature of the change proposed, though, if opinion polls are to be believed, voters coming to a decision are increasingly likely to come down against AV, which has been used in Australia for nearly a century, but rarely elsewhere.

The issue featured prominently during the Conservatives’ spring conference in Cardiff over the weekend, where posters warned delegates that the alternative vote would see candidates who finish third in the race for first preferences ending up winning, once subsequent preferences are counted.

The decision yesterday to feature Mr Clarke so prominently during a conference debate on the issue has much to do with hopes that the justice secretary, who is regarded as dangerously left-wing in many of his sentiments by Conservative grassroots, can attract middle-ground support, both inside and outside the party.

Saying it is “extremely important” that the referendum is beaten, Mr Clarke said that, if passed, it would mark “a profound change” in UK politics, leading to a situation where every future British government is formed in post-election negotiations between parties, rather than decided by voters in the ballot boxes.

First-past-the-post, he said, allows voters to make clear changes: “If I look back with the benefit of hindsight, I really cannot recall, with hindsight, a general election where I think the great British public got it wrong . . . We were finished in 1997. It was plain that it was time for us to be put out of our misery and a change to be made. Gordon Brown was finished in 2010 and it was plainly in the national interest for Labour to be extinguished.”

Noting that the referendum is taking place while the Conservatives are in a coalition pact with the Liberal Democrats, Mr Clarke said: “The irony is that I am rather happily serving in a coalition government, [but] at the moment Britain is best in class as coalition governments go across western Europe.” He said he had believed before the election that a hung parliament would be “a catastrophe”, but Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had successfully brought the two parties together to face a national crisis, putting party interest aside.

Using the Olympics to illustrate his opposition to AV, prime minister David Cameron said: “Imagine it’s London 2012. We’re all watching the 100 metres. Usain Bolt powers home first over the line. But then he gets to the podium and it is the guy who finished third who gets the gold. We wouldn’t put up with this in the Olympics. We shouldn’t put up with it in our democracy.”

Irish Times