Clegg to be sidelined from his pet project

The campaign to reform Britain’s voting system has been boosted by a new opinion poll showing that a majority of the public supports change.

An ICM Research survey for the Electoral Reform Society found that 56 per cent of people favour the alternative vote (AV), in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, while only 44 per cent want to retain the existing first-past-the-post system.

The finding contradicts other polls which have suggested that Britain will reject AV in the referendum that takes place next May.

One possible explanation is that these polls mention the Coalition Government in the question, which could deter Labour supporters from backing reform. In contrast, the ICM survey asked a straight question about the two voting systems similar to the one that will appear on the ballot paper.

The new survey has reinforced the Yes camp’s determination to ensure that politicians – including Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader – play a low-key role in its drive. “We have to ensure that the referendum is not seen through the prism of party politics,” said one senior figure in the campaign.

He denied that Mr Clegg would be sidelined because his personal ratings have plummeted since he became Deputy Prime Minister in May, saying that other politicians backing reform would also keep a low profile.

So far, the Yes camp has used as its front man Jonathan Bartley, a father who confronted David Cameron during the general election campaign about his fear that the Tory manifesto would increase the segregation of disabled children in the education system. The Yes campaign will announce more "ordinary people" and celebrity spokesmen in the new year.

The No camp has announced a cross-party line-up of backers including the former Labour Cabinet ministers Lord (John) Prescott, Lord (John) Reid, Lord (Charlie) Falconer, David Blunkett and Margaret Beckett.

According to the ICM survey of 1,000 people, the proposed switch to AV enjoys much stronger support amongst young people. It is backed by 61 per cent of 18-24 year-olds and 75 per cent of 25-34 year-olds, while 39 per cent and 25 per cent of these age groups respectively want to keep first-past-the-post.

Conversely, 52 per cent of 55-64 year-olds and 57 per cent of those aged 65 and over want to stick with the current system, while 48 per cent and 43 per cent respectively back a change to AV.

People who regard themselves as natural Conservatives oppose change by a margin of 63 to 37 per cent, while Labour “identifiers” back a switch to AV by 60 per to 40 per cent and Liberal Democrat “identifiers” endorse it by 87 to 13 per cent.

The Yes campaign believes the public can be persuaded to support a relatively modest change to AV, which is not the proportional system long favoured by the Liberal Democrats. It hopes that the No camp will not be able to convince people that AV is a dangerous “leap into the unknown”.

For its part, the No campaign is confident it can win the battle, citing polling evidence that the more people are told about the precise change proposed, the more likely they are to oppose it. A YouGov survey this month put the No camp on 41 per cent, the Yes camp on 35 per cent, with don’t knows on 17 per cent and 7 per cent saying they would not vote.

Both sides admit that many people will not focus on the referendum until much nearer its 5 May 2011 date. A three-month campaign running from next February is expected.

Focus groups conducted for the Electoral Commission found that some people thought AV meant being allowed to vote online or by post, referred to an unknown alternative or is a proportional system.