LONDON (Reuters) - Britons appeared set to reject electoral reform in a referendum that has provoked angry exchanges within the year-old coalition government and raised doubts about its durability.
A ComRes poll for Wednesday’s Independent newspaper showed 66 percent of Britons are against changing the way members of parliament are elected, against 34 percent who want to move to the Alternative Vote (AV) system.
The referendum, to be held on Thursday along with local elections, has exposed rifts in the Conservative-led government.
The center-right Conservatives back the status quo, while their left-leaning Liberal Democrat allies support a move to an AV system that favors smaller parties.
Tensions over the issue spilled over into a cabinet meeting on Tuesday when Lib Dem Energy Secretary Chris Huhne confronted Prime Minister David Cameron over campaign leaflets that criticized Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.
Cameron acknowledged there were differences on AV, but said the coalition was vital if the country was to tackle its financial problems.
“Of course, we don’t agree about the future of our electoral system. We’re having a referendum, we’re having a debate about it,” he told parliament on Wednesday.
“But the reason for having a coalition government, coming together, sorting out this country’s problems in the national interest, is as good an argument today as it was a year ago when we went into government to clear up the mess that was made by the (Labor) party opposite,” he added.
Coalition governments are rare in British politics — this is the first since World War Two. The first-past-the-post voting system has marginalized the Liberal Democrats, creating two-party election battles that normally end with single party — Conservative or Labor — majority governments.
Voting reform was one of the biggest stumbling blocks in creating the coalition after an inconclusive election in May last year. The Lib Dems ultimately want a system of proportional representation but accepted the promise of an early referendum on AV as a compromise, helping to seal the deal on a coalition.
The subsequent harmony with which the Lib Dems and Conservatives pressed ahead with a budget deficit-cutting agenda in their first year surprised many.
Financial markets want a stable government to see through a five-year plan for virtually eliminating by 2015 a budget deficit that had been running at more than 10 percent of national output.
The question now is whether the coalition partners can get back to business as usual after the referendum and local elections in which voters are expected to desert the Lib Dems.
Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said on Tuesday that the distinct identities of the two parties would begin to emerge more clearly after a first year marked by coalition unity.
Though that could make the process of policy-making more fraught, and potentially slower, few expect the differences to topple the coalition, since neither party is doing well enough in polls to guarantee being part of any future government.
Editing by Janet Lawrence, Jodie Ginsberg and David Stamp