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A REFERENDUM on proportional representation will be held next May on the same day as the election for the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, it emerged last night.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg - the Lib Dem leader - is due to announce that the referendum will be held on Thursday 5th May 2011.
A Westminster government source said holding the referendum on the same day as the Scottish parliament and English local government elections should improve voter turnout.
But the last vote for Holyrood, held on the same day as the Scottish council elections, ended in chaos when voters became confused between ballot papers. An inquiry called for the council and parliament votes to be separated
As a result the Scottish councils don’t go to the polls again until 2012.
Last night Labour warned that the chaos of the 2007 vote could be repeated and the SNP said bouncing Scotland into a Super-Thursday vote for the Holyrood election and PR reform would amount to a “dis-respect agenda”
A spokesman for the First Minister Alex Salmond said: “David Cameron talks about a respect agenda but it would be dis-respect to have a vote on the same day without a single word of consultation with the Scottish parliament.”
But the Lib Dems are desperate to rush through a referendum before the cuts outlined in the budget begin to make the coalition government deeply unpopular in the country and amongst their own supporters.
Clegg made a change from the current first past the post system a key demand of the agreement which took the Lib Dems into coalition with the Tories after the general election.
He has now won the cabinet battle on the timing of the referendum. Although the Tories will allow a referendum to go ahead David Cameron’s party is free to campaign against a change in the voting system.
Under the proposed AV system, voters rank candidates in order of preference and anyone getting more than 50% in the first round is elected.
If that does not happen, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and voters' second choices allocated to the remaining candidates. This process continues until a winner emerges.
The referendum is linked to a Tory proposal to make constituencies more evenly sized with an average of 70,000 voters, a move which could see up to five Scottish seats disappear.
The Lib Dems are certain to back the AV referendum. The three front runners in the race for the Labour leadership, David and Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, are also in favour but Labour are bound to ask if they should not campaign against the proposal in order to crack open the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.
Labour’s Shadow Scotland Office minister Ann McKechin last night called for clarity and consultation with the Scottish parliament.
She said: "Nick Clegg must get this right and have urgent discussions with MSPs in Holyrood before making a final announcement.
"The Gould report into the last Holyrood elections warned of the dangers of holding two elections with different methods of voting on the one day.
"Unless this is done properly, there is a real risk of electoral chaos.
"The Lib Dems have to work with political leaders in Scotland and I will be seeking urgent clarification from the Government about what on earth they are planning."
The referendum announcement also raises the issue of a vote on Scottish independence,planned by the SNP.
A spokesman for Alex Salmond said a PR referendum makes it “utterly impossible for the London-based parties to oppose holding a referendum on Scotland’s future.”
The spokesman added: “This piles the pressure on the London parties. The penalty for opposing a referendum on Scottish independence will be paid in the ballot box next May.”
Alex Salmond’s minority SNP government proposes holding a referendum on independence next March at the same time as Wales votes on more powers for the Welsh Assembly. But the nationalists have still not managed to marshall a majority in Holyrood to pass a bill paving the way to a vote.