Voting reform debate will not derail coalition government, say Norfolk MPs

Tomorrow's voting reform referendum and local elections will not derail the focus of the coalition government, Norfolk MPs said yesterday.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat cabinet colleagues have been at war with each other over the Alternative Vote (AV) since campaigning began earlier this year.

But Norfolk MPs from both sides of the debate said the argument about reform to the voting system will not cause permanent fractures within the coalition government. They added that they hoped the campaigns both for and against AV will lead to a higher turnout for the local elections when polling stations open tomorrow morning.

It comes after Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg yesterday said that the May 5 poll will mark the end of the 'first phase' of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, which required 'real collective discipline', and will allow the parties to express their differences more openly in future.

Norman Lamb, North Norfolk MP, said a lower than 50pc turnout would not damage the credibility of the vote on how we elect our MPs in future.

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'Obviously, the higher the turnout, the greater the legitimacy, but in a democracy you have to live with the results based on who turns out to vote,' he said.

The campaign on whether to replace the first-past-the-post system for electing MPs with the alternative vote - under which voters rank candidates in order of preference - has been marked by brutal exchanges between the coalition partners, with Lib Dem minister Chris Huhne threatening cabinet colleagues with legal action for alleged untruths.

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But Mr Lamb, added that it was 'inevitable' that 'strains' develop during election campaigns.

'We have to be mature enough to have a debate on an important issue and we have to be able to have a robust debate. The country is in dreadful mess financially and there is a very strong acceptance in government that we have got to sort out the mess. It requires cool heads and a determination to focus on making sure we make the right decisions. The referendum campaign should not be allowed to destabilise the process and I am confident it will not,' he said.

George Freeman, Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk, said he was predicting a 'strong' turnout at polling stations and a 'very strong' rejection of AV.

'If AV is rejected, I can see that Nick Clegg will come under huge pressure and may even face a leadership challenge, but I hope and believe the Liberal Democrats are able to distinguish between the importance of delivering the reforms we need and not fall out over things we don't need,' he said.

Simon Wright, Norwich South MP, added: 'It is a once in a generation opportunity to reform the voting system and will encourage people to vote. There is a clear understanding that whilst we have a coalition government, we are very distinct parties with different values and campaign tooth and nail when elections come.'

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