Ed Miliband has been hit by a growing Labour revolt against his support for a change in the voting system as more than 200 Labour MPs and peers back the existing first-past-the-post process.
Writing in The Independent today, the shadow Health Secretary John Healey becomes the most senior Shadow Cabinet member to come out against electoral reform. He brands the alternative vote (AV) system, on which a referendum will be held on 5 May, as "perverse".
Mr Healey, who came second in the elections among Labour MPs to the Shadow Cabinet last October, said the introduction of AV would make Nick Clegg the "kingmaker" in any hung parliament.
Mr Miliband, who is campaigning for a Yes vote in the referendum, has allowed his MPs the freedom to go their own way. But the No camp claimed he is in a minority in his own parliamentary party.
It pre-empted Mr Miliband's launch of the Labour Yes! campaign tonight by announcing that 103 of the party's MPs and 109 Labour peers oppose AV. Other Shadow Cabinet ministers who have joined Mr Healey in urging a No vote are Caroline Flint, the shadow Communities Secretary and Mary Creagh, the shadow Environment Secretary.
Another 19 opposition frontbenchers have come out for the No campaign. Nine former Cabinet ministers are among the Labour peers who oppose AV – including Lord Hutton of Furness, Lord Reid of Cardowan, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Lord Irvine of Lairg, Lord Prescott of Kingston-upon-Hull and Lord Boateng of Akyem. However, eight Shadow Cabinet ministers have backed Mr Miliband's stance – Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander, Liam Byrne, John Denham, Peter Hain, Sadiq Khan, Tessa Jowell and Hilary Benn. Others have yet to decide.
Tonight Mr Miliband will admit that AV is "no panacea" and "isn't perfect", but will insist that it would help to restore the balance of power in favour of voters. He will tell a rally in London: "It will make more votes count. And when more votes count, politicians have to count on more voters."
He will deny that a Yes vote would help Mr Clegg, a hate figure for many Labour MPs and members after joining the Conservatives in the Coalition.
"We can't reduce the second referendum in British political history to a verdict on one man," Mr Miliband will say. "The change to the alternative vote deserves our support because it is fairer and because it encourages a better politics. But that should be the beginning of the journey, not the end."
The Labour leader will argue that electoral reform must be accompanied by the creation of an elected House of Lords. "The British people know that the state of our politics is badly broken. Many see Westminster as remote and out of touch. Politicians should never feel safe or insulated from those they represent. That's what I want to change," he will say.
Although Labour promised a referendum on AV in its manifesto at last year's general election, many of the party's MPs backed it reluctantly. They have now reverted to their support for the first-past-the-post system – in some cases, as a way of punishing Mr Clegg for joining the Coalition.
Joan Ryan, director of Labour NO to AV, said:"We are delighted to launch Labour NO to AV with the support of well over half of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The Labour Party is taking no official position on the AV referendum in May, but over 200 MPs and peers are urging Labour members and supporters to vote 'No' to the unpopular, unfair and expensive AV."
Tony Lloyd, who chairs the Parliamentary Labour Party and is backing the No campaign, said: "Nick Clegg demanded this AV referendum as a fix to keep his party in Government. The only party to benefit from AV would be the Lib Dems. I believe voters should keep the right to evict one Government and choose another. We shouldn't be handing that power to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats."