Campaigners for voting reform have air-brushed a black poet out of leaflets making the case for a “fairer” political system.
The “Yes” campaign, which is supported by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, was severely embarrassed after it emerged that it had removed the poet Benjamin Zephaniah from leaflets destined for the home counties, while leaving him in leaflets distributed in London.
Mr Zephaniah is one of six celebrities who adorn a leaflet from the “Yes” campaign calling on householders to back the Alternative Vote in a forthcoming referendum on May 5 in which people will be asked if they want to change Britain’s voting system.
He appears alongside Joanna Lumley, Eddie Izzard, Colin Firth, Honor Blackman and Stephen Fry in the leaflet which was delivered in London and which is signed by Katie Ghose, chair of Yes To Fairer Votes.
It calls on people to back AV because it will give them “a stronger voice”.
However, in an identical leaflet sent to other parts of the country including Sussex and Cornwall the poet is not there. Only white celebrities are featured and Mr Zephaniah is replaced by a picture of the actor Tony Robinson.
Terry Paul, spokesman for NO to AV, said: “Why are Yes to AV ashamed to have the support of Benjamin Zephaniah in places like Cornwall and Hampshire?
“The Yes Campaign’s leaflet offers a chilling preview of politics under the Alternative Vote. We have warned that AV would encourage parties to pander to extremist opinions in a chase for second and third preference votes, but we never imagined the first example of such outdated views would come from the Yes Campaign itself.”
The revelation is embarrassing, coming the day after the “Yes” campaign held its national launch with an event featuring Mr Izzard, the retired athlete Kriss Akabusi and the former independent MP Martin Bell.
David Cameron will hit back with a campaigning blitz against the Alternative Vote in the coming weeks involving hundreds of posters across the country warning people that changing the way elections are held in Britain would be a “disaster” for democracy.
As he steps up the campaign against voting reform, the Prime Minister has written to Tory donors asking them for cash to help fund the effort to save the current First Past The Post system.
Under AV, voters would rank candidates from different parties in order of preference, for example from one to five. Critics say the proposed system is extremely complicated.
Householders will this week receive official booklets explaining the issues at stake. The Electoral Commission, the independent elections watchdog, has sent out leaflets to 27.8 million UK households as part of a £6 million information campaign.
The explanation of the First Past The Post voting system takes 59 words, while the explanation of the Alternative Vote takes 351 words.
In an email last week, meanwhile, William Hague warned Tory donors that AV would be “a disaster” for Britain.
“It would mean candidates who finish third winning elections, and an end to the principle of One Person, One Vote – because under AV, supporters of extreme parties would get their vote counted more times than supporters of mainstream parties.”
Mr Hague urged donors to send even small amounts of cash to help fund posters and leaflets in the next four weeks.
“We need to do all we can to ensure a ‘no’ vote on May 5th. The Conservative Party will be putting its full weight behind the referendum campaign – and we need your support.”
The email asks supporters to “donate £15 (or more)…” telling them the money will be used for “leaflets, posters, films, online campaigning – anything that will get people voting ‘No’ on May 5th.”
Some Tory MPs, however, are concerned that the Prime Minister should have begun campaigning sooner against AV. There are also fears about voter apathy and the likelihood of a low turn-out.
Even if far less than 50% of people vote, the result of the referendum will still be valid as there is no threshold rule.
Bernard Jenkin, the senior Tory MP, said: The apathy about this referendum is tangible. Motivating people to campaign and give money is extremely difficult.
“If there is a minute turn-out there must be a danger of us losing, although I’m confident the “no” camp will win.”
Under AV, it is calculated that at least 20 Tory MPs will automatically lose their seats together with some Labour MPs, while the Liberal Democrats will gain seats because the new system would be more favourable to smaller parties.
A referendum on changing to AV was a key demand made by Nick Clegg when he took the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Conservatives.
The referendum booklets – drawn up with the help of academics and ‘plain language experts’ – include descriptions of the two electoral systems that voters must choose between and the wording of the referendum question being posed.
The explanation of First Past The Post is three short paragraphs. The explanation of AV is three pages long and involves three complex diagrams.
A spokesman for the “Yes” campaign said: “We have a number of endorsers and we vary the endorsers we use on our leaflets.
If the No campaign want to accuse us of racism on the day that Kriss Akabusi launches our campaign, that is up to them. Who are Operation Black Vote and the Muslim Council of Britain backing? The Yes campaign.”