Vote reform opponents 'ridiculous'

Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron bracketed David Cameron with BNP leader Nick Griffin today as he launched a broadside at the "reactionary and ridiculous" opponents of voting reform.

Launching the party's campaign for a Yes vote in the May 5 referendum, Mr Farron derided the defenders of first-past-the-post as "harrumphing majors" of the kind who fought against votes for women almost a century ago.

He gave the keynote address to party activists in Manchester after Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was forced to pull out in order to attend an emergency Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street to discuss the crisis in Libya.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, a fellow enthusiast for the Alternative Vote (AV) system, this week urged Mr Clegg to keep a low profile in the campaign, for fear that his current unpopularity with voters might damage the reform camp's chances of success.

But the Lib Dem leader had been intending to use today's speech to set out his determination to argue the case for AV "with passion".

Voters will be asked to choose on May 5 between the current first-past-the-post system for electing MPs to Parliament, which requires them to mark an X against their preferred candidate, and AV, under which candidates are ranked in numerical order.

Proportional representation for parliamentary elections has been a cornerstone demand of the Liberal Democrats for decades.

But a vote on AV, which is not proportional and which Mr Clegg previously dubbed a "miserable little compromise", was the best they could secure in coalition negotiations with the Tories.

The campaign will pitch Mr Clegg into battle against Mr Cameron, who is in line with the vast majority of his MPs in opposing the change.

Mr Farron said the No campaign were "reactionary, ridiculous but very well-resourced".

Listing some of those who have come out against electoral reform, he said: "Norman Tebbit, Nick Griffin, David Cameron, and John Prescott... I don't know about you but that seems to me the worst possible guest list for a Celebrity Come Dine With Me episode, let alone a political campaign."

Mr Farron added: "Voting Yes in May is not like voting in any other election. Voting Yes in May will be the most positive and the most important vote you will ever cast.

"We have the chance to have fairer votes for everyone in Britain for the first time in our lifetimes but, if we lose, for the last time in our lifetimes.

"And we face an opposition just as determined as that which fought against votes for women in the 1920s.

"You see, every generation has their harrumphing majors, desperate to prevent progress - we mustn't give women the vote, it'll lead to disaster, you can't trust them - you know?

"The harrumphing majors of 2011 are in the No camp. They are reactionary, ridiculous but very well resourced - funded by the Tories, backed by the BNP, encouraged by the establishment."

By contrast, he said, the Yes campaign was a "progressive alliance" including the Labour leadership, the Lib Dems, the Greens, lobbying group 38 Degrees, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and celebrities Joanna Lumley, Honor Blackman, Stephen Fry and Helena Bonham Carter.

The parliamentary expenses scandal was in part caused by the current voting system, which gave MPs in safe seats a job for life, he said.

And he added: "A No vote on May 5 means an establishment rubbing its hands with glee on May 6 - no need to change, no need to listen, business as usual.

"All the more reason to leave our anti-democratic voting system behind and choose to give yourself the power to choose."

The Electoral Commission today designated the groups Yes to Fairer Votes and No to AV as official "lead campaigners" for the two sides in the referendum battle.

The two groups will now have access to benefits including an increased campaign spending limit of £5 million each, a public grant of up to £380,000 each, referendum broadcasts, a free delivery of campaign material to voters and the use of public rooms.

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