Party leaders make final push as a nation weighs up the alternatives

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The Independent Online

Forty million people will get the chance to go to the polls today as Britain votes in a historic referendum on the system for electing MPs.

"Super Thursday" will also see elections to English local authorities, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland's Assembly and councils.

Yesterday, the three leaders of the main Westminster political parties made their final pitches to voters. The stakes are high for all three men.

Nick Clegg anxiously awaits the public's verdict on his party's long-cherished goal to scrap the first-past-the-post system – and braces for the loss of hundreds of council seats.

He will cast his referendum Yes vote and town hall vote in his Sheffield Hallam constituency, where the Liberal Democrats may struggle to hold on to power on the city council. In line with tradition, he will not campaign today.

David Cameron, facing his first major test of public opinion since becoming Prime Minister, and following the Conservatives' failure to win an outright majority in last year's general election, will cast his ballot against the alternative vote in London before returning to Downing Street. He, too, faces the loss of hundreds of town hall seats but will be cautiously optimistic about the referendum result after the final opinion polls put the No lobby well ahead.

Ed Miliband, who has already cast a postal ballot in his Doncaster North constituency (Yes to AV), will hold meetings with his advisers in his Commons office. He is hopeful of gaining 600 council seats in his first electoral test but experts say Labour should gain 1,000 to show it is making progress. And he faces a setback in Scotland, where Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party may scupper Labour's hopes of regaining power.

Last night, Mr Miliband insisted that the AV referendum was still winnable. "There is still time for people to make up their minds," he said."There is still time for people to focus on the issue."

Mr Clegg, too, refused to concede that the referendum was lost, saying many people would not turn their minds to how they would vote until today, but two new surveys yesterday revealed more than 60 per cent of people certain to vote would back the No lobby.

In the Commons, the Prime Minister defended the current system after Bob Russell, the Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, told him it produced results "that would embarrass Robert Mugabe". He added that, at last year's general election, the Tories polled 49 per cent of the votes in Essex but won 95 per cent of the seats.

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