Nick Clegg has insisted switching to the alternative vote (AV) would help tackle corruption in politics, as he went head-to-head with David Cameron over electoral reform.
The Deputy Prime Minister said under the existing first-past-the-post system, MPs in safe seats enjoy “jobs for life”, meaning they can “ignore” the wishes of large numbers of voters.
“For years now large numbers of people have chosen not to vote because they think it doesn’t matter,” he said during a speech in Leeds. “They think their voice will simply be ignored.”
Mr Clegg admitted it would be “evolutionary rather than revolutionary” if AV is endorsed in the referendum scheduled for May 5. But he said it is a “once in a generation opportunity” to bring in change. “When we have a chance to clean up politics and make our democracy better, we should take it,” he said.
The Prime Minister will spell out his opposition to changing the electoral system later as the leaders make their first major interventions of the campaign. Mr Cameron is expected to warn that introducing AV would result in more hung parliaments – potentially an awkward argument as both Tory and Liberal Democrat ministers have spent the past nine months extolling the virtues of coalition.
Mr Clegg stressed that the Government would hold together regardless of the referendum result.
“It is no secret that the Prime Minister and I come at this from different directions,” he said. “What we do agree on is that the people know best. We both want as many people as possible to get involved and make their feelings known at the ballot box.
“And what we are clear about is that this referendum is not about the coalition Government. Whatever the result, we will continue to work together in the national interest.”
Mr Clegg blamed the existing voting system for encouraging politicians to abuse expenses. “For years, politicians and parties have courted the votes of a few thousand people in marginal seats and ignored the rest,” he said.
“It is because there are so many MPs with jobs for life that there are so many who can take their constituents for granted. And it is because there were so many MPs taking their constituents for granted that so many abused their expenses.”