Coalition defeated on date for vote change

The government last night suffered a defeat in the House of Lords as peers voted to allow flexibility on the date of the referendum on changing the UK's voting system.

Under the coalition's plans, the public will decide on 5 May next year whether to adopt the Alternative Vote in general elections, causing concern in Scotland where the date clashes with the Holyrood elections.

But peers have agreed by 199 votes to 195 to support former Labour minister Lord Rooker's attempt to change the legislation setting up the referendum to allow it to be held on any day before 31 October, 2011.

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Lord Rooker argued that the referendum could still be held on 5 May, but his plan gave the government a "lifeboat" in case it was not possible to arrange it in time.

But Lords leader Lord Strathclyde said that the government was committed to the May date as it would save money by being on the same day as local elections in large parts of the UK.

Lord Rooker's move will only become law if it is agreed by MPs once peers have finished debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

Twenty members of the newest generation of MPs yesterday added their backing to the campaign against the Alternative Vote system for Westminster elections.

The Labour and Conservative MPs, all elected for the first time in May, signed a letter saying that Britain's problems will not be solved by ditching the first-past-the-post system.

Among the signatories are some of parliament's prominent new thinkers, including political author Nick Boles and millionaire ecologist Zac Goldsmith.

Pledging to vote 'no' next May, the signatories wrote: "We are all agreed on the need to rebuild trust between the public and the politicians who represent them. Their priorities must be our priorities. Scrapping our voting system is not their priority. Nor is it ours."