Last updated: February 15, 2011 2:45 pm

AV system too costly, say No campaigners

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Opting for the alternative vote system will cost millions of pounds that would be better spent on hospitals and schools, No campaigners said on Tuesday as they launched their campaign ahead of the May 5 referendum on voting reform.

The NO2AV group has made the cost of the plebiscite and its aftermath the centrepiece of its argument against change, putting a figure of £250m on the total cost.

This money could be much better spent on 8,000 nurses, 60,000 school places or 36,000 hip replacements, said Jane Kennedy, the former Labour MP who is national organiser for the campaign.

“People will start asking – ‘How many students could have gone to university instead of Nick Clegg getting the voting system he craves?”

But the calculations were immediately challenged by the Yes campaign, which described them as “desperate” and a “fantasy”.

The No group said its figure was made up of £82m for the referendum, £9m for voter education beforehand, £90m-£130m on electronic vote counting and £26m for subsequent voter education. It said that AV was so complicated, involving the totting up of votes and then running multiple rounds of redistribution, that voting machines would be required.

But the Yes campaign questioned this, saying that in Australia – which has had AV for nearly a century – the votes are counted manually. It also noted that the £82m cost of the referendum would occur whether the public voted yes or no.

The campaign for the alternative vote has enlisted an array of show business stars, including Bafta winners Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, as preparations for the referendum begin in earnest. The group, which wants Britain to drop the first-past-the-post system, said that it had garnered support from celebrities including John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley and Eddie Izzard.

The No campaign by contrast only produced one celebrity supporter on Tuesday morning, the scientist Robert Winston.

“If the Yes campaign want to push the celebrity angle that is their prerogative but we are going to concentrate on the argument instead,” said a spokesman for the No campaign, which is backed by heavyweight former ministers such as Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett and Lord Prescott.

Mr Winston said that one fault of the alternative vote was that it would lead to more coalitions, meaning parties could drop their manifestos once they got into power. “The public haven’t quite grasped what is at stake here,” he said.

The battle lines are shaping up as the laborious process of legislating for the plebiscite edges towards a likely conclusion in parliament this week.

Public support seems to have moved towards the pro-reform campaigners in recent days, with a ComRes poll giving the Yes campaign a 10-point lead.

The pro campaign is understood to have raised about £2m ($3.2m) from supporters including the Electoral Reform Society and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. The No group is understood to be lagging behind, with less than £1m raised.

Neither campaign needs to provide a full breakdown of their donations until several months after the poll. Mr Elliott refused to say where the donations came from but indicated that he might name them earlier if they gave their permission.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron will both set out their contrary positions in speeches on Friday, with the Lib Dem deputy prime minister in favour of reform and the prime minister backing the status quo.

Yet both men plan to take a back seat in the campaigns, believing their high-profile interventions may not help their favoured causes.

The No Campaign hopes to capitalise on Mr Clegg’s perceived unpopularity to help its cause, however, and is drawing up posters adorned with his face. Its spokesmen are likely to refer repeatedly to the Lib Dem leader when discussing the referendum.

Mr Clegg, who is responsible for the bill, cancelled a trip to Brazil this week to marshall efforts by the government to secure legislation for the referendum on May 5.

The coalition is facing a deadline of February 24 for the law to reach the statute book, to allow 10 weeks for the Electoral Commission to prepare for the plebiscite. A delay to the referendum could cost taxpayers £17m, according to Mr Clegg’s own calculations.

However, the government hopes to get the bill completed later this week.

Ministers have accused Labour peers of trying to obstruct the passage of the bill, which includes measures to redraw constituency boundaries and cut the number of MPs by 50.

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended

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