Independent readers agree: the result will be a hung parliament

A blast of fresh air blew through the dinosaur skeletons inside the Oxford natural history museum last night as readers of The Independent overwhelmingly voted a hung parliament the most likely outcome of next week's general election.

Certain newspapers were accused of "scaremongering" over the possibility of no party having a clear majority, as readers joined a panel of local parliamentary candidates and columnists from this newspaper in a heated discussion of Britain's political future – the second of three Independent Live debates in the run-up to 6 May.

The Oxford East seat is a key marginal constituency, held by Labour with a majority of only 963 votes. The current Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates made significant gains in the area in the last election.

The Liberal Democrats' Steve Goddard called for the media to look at the many examples of successful Western democracies where, he said, hung parliaments are "the norm".

He was joined on the panel by Labour candidate and incumbent MP, Andrew Smith, and the Tories' Ed Argar, as well as this newspaper's columnists Johann Hari, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Steve Richards.The audience was shown The Independent's new video, which highlights the roles played in the campaigns by Rupert Murdoch, Lord Ashcroft and the union Unite.

Addressing the Lib Dems, Mr Smith demanded all parties declare their intentions in the increasingly likely event of a hung parliament. His Tory counterpart hammered out the party line that a government with a working majority was needed for the country.

Many of those attending said they agreed with Mr Goddard. Ryan Halloran, a 22-year-old politics student at Oxford University, said: "A hung parliament may even be more effective than a government with a strong majority. In many countries, coalition governments have worked well."

History student Sunny Suri, 19, disagreed, insisting it would be wrong to change the political system so radically, so quickly. But he conceded that people would vote against sitting MPs: "Frustration with the current political system is their main motivation."

At last night's debate, questions were raised about the Pope's forthcoming visit to Britain and tempers flared as our columnist, Johann Hari, called for the Pontiff to be immediately arrested upon arrival for crimes against humanity. He accused the Pope of covering up instances of child molestation, adding, to great applause: "If anyone else had done that, they would be in prison and rightly so. Why is Josef Ratzinger any different?"

Mr Hari also clashed with an audience member who accused the government of "taking away freedom of choice" over homeopathic remedies.

One audience member asked the panellists which way they would vote in the event of a revisit to the foxhunting debate. Both the Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians confirmed they would support maintaining the ban, while Ed Argar for the Conservatives refused to be drawn.

Mr David Heaney asked the panel how important social equality was. Mr Smith insisted his Government had improved living standards for the poorest members of society but was attacked by Ms Alibhai-Brown, who accused the Labour government of "favouring their rich friends". "In 1997, we wanted a change from what we had under Thatcher and Major – you just carried on," she added.

As part of this newspaper's campaign to encourage debate during the election, democracy battlebuses will also be touring the country, under The Independent banner. They will be hosting soapbox hustings alongside Independent Live! debates.

Each weekday until 6 May, 300,000 copies of an edited-down special edition of The Independent are being handed out at train stations, in city centres and in key marginal constituencies.

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