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Britain's coalition government shaken by election

posted 6 May 2011, 15:39 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 6 May 2011, 15:41 ]

Britons punish Liberal Democrats for coalition role in deficit-cutting government by rejecting their plan to reform the voting and deserting them at local elections. But the Scottish Nationalist make huge strides, opening the door for a referendum on secession from the rest of the country.

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND, UNITED KINGDOM (MAY 5, 2011) ITN - Voters overwhelmingly rejected on Friday (May 6) a proposed reform to the voting system in an embarrassing blow to the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) and their leader Nick Clegg who had championed the change.

British voters were casting their votes for an array of polls including a referendum on election voting reform, local council elections and elections to the Scottish parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies.

Counting in the referendum was still under way but "no" votes had already passed more than half of total votes cast. Defenders of the current system led reformers by around a two-to-one margin.

The campaign for Thursday's referendum on voting reform strained the year-old coalition, prompting angry exchanges between Lib Dems, who backed change, and Conservative defenders of the current system.

The outcome points to a rockier future for the government, with analysts predicting a more combative stance from the Lib Dems.

Prime Minister David Cameron, whose Conservative party saw its vote hold up in regional elections across the country, said he believed the coalition administration would survive until 2015 and complete its austerity programme.

"It was always going to be a difficult moment for a coalition when you have two parties in a coalition campaigning on different sides in referendum, but we've had that debate and in the end the British public are the boss and they have given a clear and resounding answer that settles the question, so now Conservatives and Liberal Democrats must come together in this government and provide strong, decisive long term government," he said.

Opposition Labour, which has overtaken the Conservatives in opinion polls, had a mixed night. While support in local council elections in England was positive, the party took a beating in Scotland, normally a heartland of its support.

But the big losers were the Lib Dems who have fallen sharply out of favour with voters because of an array of policy reversals since the party formed the coalition in May 2010. They suffered heavy losses across the country.

Leader Nick Clegg said the rejection of voting reform was a serious setback for advocates of reform.

"This is a bitter blow for all those people like me who believe in the need for political reform, but the answer is clear and the wider job of the government and the Liberal Democrats in government will continue: to repair the economy; to restore a sense of prosperity and jobs and optimism to the country and that's the job we've started and we will continue," Clegg said.

The government has embarked on a four-year programme of swingeing spending cuts to rein in a record budget deficit.

The Lib Dems' poor showing has prompted a few commentators to ask if the coalition could split and derail the austerity programme. But financial market investors do not appear to share the same fears.

A key concession won by the Lib Dems for entering the partnership was a referendum on Thursday on whether to change Britain's voting system to give more clout to smaller parties.

The referendum loss and poor local vote results may spur challenges to Clegg, but no contenders have emerged.

In the Scottish parliamentary elections, the Scottish National Party scored a bumper haul, winning an outright majority in Scotland's assembly -- which has limited powers devolved from London -- and opening the door for a referendum on secession from the rest of Britain.

SNP leader and First Minister Alex Salmond said he welcomed support from across the Scottish parliament as his government sought to have more economic powers devolved to Scotland.

"I will govern for all of the ambitions of Scotland and all the people who imagine that we can live in a better land. This party, the Scottish party, the national party, carries your hope and we shall carry it carefully and make the nation proud," he said.

A fully independent Scotland could change the handling of profits from North Sea oil fields, a crucial tax income for cash-strapped Britain, and may also have implications for the state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland.