The fourth debate: You ask the questions to the leaders of the three main parties

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Indy Politics

They've debated home affairs, foreign affairs and the economy – and caused a minor political earthquake in the process.

But so far the leaders of the three main parties have said little about the growing controversy surrounding the electoral system itself. Now, in a revealing exercise, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg answer questions put to them by Independent readers – and reform is top of your agenda. From the relationship between votes and seats to Lords reform and the thorny old West Lothian question, these are issues that (along with some of the non-constitutional questions raised later on) are high among voters' concerns. If you are still wondering which (if any) of these parties deserves your support, these leaders' answers may help you to make up your mind.

How can it be fair that some parties should win a higher proportion of votes than seats, while others win a higher proportion of seats than votes?

Michael Cowdrey, Faversham, kent

Gordon Brown: I know that people's faith in our political system has been eroded and I am committed to renewing our democracy with a programme of radical reform. I support the alternative vote, by which each MP would have to secure more than half the votes cast in their constituency. I believe this is fairer than the current voting system whilst at the same time it retains the link between an MP and a constituency. We are pledged to hold a referendum on moving to the alternative vote by October next year.

David Cameron: There is a big unfairness at the moment in that some constituencies are larger than others, meaning that it can take more votes to elect one MP than another.

So if we win this election, we will ask the Boundary Commission to carry out a review to make every constituency broadly the same size, with the same number of voters, while also cutting the House of Commons by 10 per cent. This will create a fairer system and will mean that every vote has the same value.

Nick Clegg: It isn't, pure and simple. We have a completely potty voting system where it's actually possible for one party to come third and still get more seats than the other two. Britain is a diverse, plural country, where millions of people support each of the main three parties, and many more support smaller parties. But our politics is squeezed into a voting system designed for two parties, and it doesn't work any more. The cracks are starting to show, and I think it's clear to more and more people that voting reform is essential to any kind of democratic renewal. People are fed up of being ignored because, the way the voting system works, they don't have any influence over the outcome.

Given that so many governments are or have been run quite successfully as coalitions – including Austria, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland and Japan – are the papers right to assume that you three are not intelligent enough to manage a coalition?

Simon Molloy, London

Brown: I believe Britain would be best served by a majority Labour government, and that is what I'm fighting for.

Cameron: Whatever the result on Thursday, we've got to be responsible and make the best decisions for the country. But the point about a hung parliament is that the decisions that really matter to people are taken behind closed doors. Instead of people choosing the government, the politicians do. Instead of policies implemented on the basis of a manifesto, there will be compromises and half-measures. That's why we're saying that if you want a fresh start, a new direction, and a strong team running the country from Friday, vote Conservative on Thursday.

Clegg: I don't know if it's about intelligence! But certainly I think some commentators have been far too quick to assume that Armageddon will set in if the Conservatives don't get the result they want. My ideal outcome would be a Liberal Democrat majority, of course, and that's what I'm campaigning for. But it isn't up to politicians to decide the outcome, it's up to the voters. If they decide no one party deserves an overall majority, then it's the politicians' job to talk to one another and work out the best way to provide the stable government Britain needs right now.

There are some issues – like the deficit and long-term care for the elderly – where I've gone further and said we should cooperate regardless of the outcome of the election. Sometimes you have to put aside narrow party political advantage and work for the good of the country.

What are you going to do to ensure that, at all future elections, our brave servicemen and women can, like their fellow citizens in the UK, exercise their own right, a secret vote, wherever they are stationed in the world?

Devina Worsley, Mönchengladbach, Germany

Brown: It is vital that those fighting for democracy abroad are able to exercise their own democratic rights at home. Service voters who are away from home at election time are able to do that by proxy voting, and we have made postal voting easier for those currently in Afghanistan, as well as making it easier for service personnel to register to vote. In the past year the number of service declarations has gone up by 15 per cent.

We have asked the Electoral Commission to look at how electronic voting could be offered to overseas service personnel in the future.

Cameron: I think it's a disgrace that service personnel who do so much to defend and extend our idea of democracy are effectively being shut out of our democracy at home. This is largely because Labour changed the rules and made it a requirement for service personnel to re-register at regular periods. We will change this so that service personnel only have to register once to vote and give the MoD the responsibility for making this happen. That way, any service personnel stationed around the world will always be registered and able to vote.

Clegg: We would bring forward the deadline for nominations so ballot papers can be sent out earlier, giving servicemen and women the time to receive them and return them on time. I'd like to see fixed-term parliaments (instead of having election dates set by the Prime Minister) and that would make this even easier.

Do you support the addition of 'None of these candidates' as an option on future ballot papers for people who want to register a protest vote? If not, would you prefer voters to spoil their ballot papers instead of staying away from the polling stations?

John Lawson, by email

Brown: I want people to vote Labour. Anything else is a vote for the Tories.

Cameron: I think politicians should be working harder to engage people in politics, not encouraging people to opt out. If we're failing, then we need to find ways of giving people more of a stake in politics – such as by holding more open primaries to select candidates. And if that doesn't work, people can always put themselves forward as independents. The point is that democracy doesn't work if people boycott it. If people are disillusioned, then we should improve the way the system works – and we've all got to take part and do our bit.

Clegg: Yes. I think people's anger at having no option they agree with is too easy to dismiss as "apathy" because we can't tell the difference between people who don't care, and people who want something better than what's on offer. I think there ought to be a way of abstaining "positively", other than spoiling your ballot paper.

If you form the next government, what action will you undertake to deal with the 'West Lothian situation', and to ensure that, in future, MPs elected in Scottish constituencies are no longer permitted to vote on matters solely relevant to English constituents?

Tony Langley, by email

Brown: While the idea of "English votes for English laws" has a superficial appeal, in practice such a policy is unworkable and would lead to the creation of a de facto English parliament within Westminster. This would create a constitutional crisis that would split the country apart. The reality is that English MPs already dominate the UK Parliament by virtue of holding more than 85 per cent of the seats. We recognise that the question of political representation in England is important and believe that more could be done to devolve power away from the centre towards the cities and regions of England, which would help to give people who live in those areas more say over what happens in their area.

Cameron: It is unfair that Scottish MPs can vote in the House of Commons on issues that only affect England and Wales. So we will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those nations.

Clegg: You're right that devolution to Scotland and Wales has created anomalies in terms of England. But there are so many more: a government elected with the support of just 22 per cent of people, a House of Lords that decides our laws but isn't elected at all, a parliament completely subservient to the government. I'd like to see all these problems addressed together in a proper constitutional convention. If we just try to deal with the West Lothian problem in isolation, we will just create still more anomalies.

When the next Parliament sits, can you assure us that you will not be asking the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to review MPs' salaries, in order that you can obtain a hefty pay rise?

Rosemary Davies, by email

Brown: One of the reasons the expenses scandal arose was because the system of administering and regulating MPs' expenses was based on outdated in-house procedures. We have since dealt with that by ending the discredited system of self-regulation by creating a new Parliamentary Standards Authority which is independent of Parliament. In the future, MPs will no longer have any say over their expenses, pay or pensions. That will be for the IPSA to dictate and monitor, and that is the way it should be. I and fellow ministers took a lead this year when we announced that we would not be accepting the pay rise in MPs' salaries generated by the annual formula.

Cameron: We called for decisions on MPs' pay to be made independently, so I won't be trying to interfere with that process. What's more, we need to bring the cost of politics down, so if we win this election, we will cut ministers' pay by 5 per cent, and then freeze it for the next five years. MPs will of course also be subject to our one-year public sector pay freeze.

Clegg: Yes.

How can you justify the reservation of places in our legislature for people who happen to have the right bloodline, as is the case in the Lords? What gives them the moral right to govern us?

Graham Aspinall, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire

Brown: The hereditary principle has no place in a modern, representative democracy. Labour has already removed the vast majority of hereditary peers and we would have gone further in the last parliament if we had not been blocked by the Tories. We plan a fully elected second chamber, with a referendum to be held on our plans by October next year.

Cameron: Labour promised in 1997 that they would end the hereditary principle. Thirteen years later, and they still haven't finished the job. Of course, the House of Lords needs reform and we support a largely elected second chamber with the abolition of the hereditary peers, but the person who needs to explain why this hasn't happened in the last 13 years is Gordon Brown.

Clegg: I can't. I'd stop it as soon as possible and replace the House of Lords with an elected senate.

Was the financial crisis caused mainly by loose monetary policy or failure to regulate casino capitalists?

Susanna Armstrong, Reading

Brown: Many factors contributed to the financial crisis but prime among them was the irresponsible risk-taking of banks themselves. It is now clear that neither regulators or governments across the world fully understood this nor the interconnectedness between banks that means that loans to sub-prime mortgages in the US would come to affect banks all over the world.

I had called for far more international surveillance as early as 1998, which would have given us a chance of seeing more clearly what was evolving, but there was not enough appetite for this at that time. Our proposals on domestic and international action on bank regulation, capital adequacy and remuneration have been designed to prevent this happening again.

Cameron: There were lots of things that caused the crisis, but two things that made it much worse. First, Gordon Brown's failure to regulate the banks properly. Second, the fact that Labour ignored repeated warnings about the build-up of private and public debt. We must never again let our financial system become so over-leveraged and exposed.

So to deal with the first problem, we will put the Bank of England in charge of banking regulation, and give it a mandate to get the banks under control. We would also work with President Obama and Europe to ban high-street banks from getting involved in some of the riskier investment banking practices. And to deal with the second problem, we will give the Bank of England the power to call time on debt in our economy, so that we are never so vulnerable again.

Clegg: In all honesty, it was both. Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats have argued for years that the Bank of England should have been allowed to include house prices in its inflation target. A failure to do so by the Government meant that massive house price inflation was allowed to continue for years unchecked, creating an unsustainable bubble in the housing market.

Equally, though, the run-up to the crisis saw a massive increase in highly complex and poorly understood financial instruments, which helped spread the financial crisis so quickly. If we are to prevent the taxpayer footing the bill for another crisis, we must not only ensure that the financial products are properly regulated but also split the banks up, to protect high-street banking and normal people from the casino culture of international investment finance.

What plans do you have to equalise government spending on government, civil service, and other government-funded organisations across the regions?

Professor Ray Jones, University of Plymouth

Brown: We allocate resources primarily according to need and that is the way we should continue. Our plans to achieve efficiency savings across Government include relocating civil servants from expensive London offices to elsewhere in the country. In the long-term, the number of civil servants in London will be reduced by a third. As a first step, 15,000 posts will be relocated within the next five years.

Cameron: The Government should spend money where it is most needed and would be most effective. But the bigger point here is that we need to see government spending less money on itself and concentrating spending on the services people rely on. We need to bring greater efficiency right across the public sector, and one way we will bring that about is with greater transparency and by publishing online details of every big item of government spending.

Clegg: I think different parts of the country should get the money they need to provide the services they need. There are strong arguments for trying to grow private enterprise in some of the poorer regions of our country so they aren't so dependent on the public sector. But there are also strong arguments in favour of moving more government functions out of London – where it's hugely expensive – to areas more in need of jobs and where costs are lower. In the end, it's about balance. I'd like to see local government far more independent of central government in terms of revenue, however. We have the most centralised tax system in the whole of Europe, which is crazy.

If you are elected as Prime Minister, what would you do to curb the excessive interference of the Health and Safety Executive into people's lives?

Alice Renton, Lewes, east sussex

Brown: It is very important to have health and safety laws that protect people at work, properly enforced by the Health and Safety Executive. But we must not regulate for its own sake, so we should always keep the laws in this area under review.

Cameron: One of the most infuriating things about life under Labour is the over-the-top health and safety culture. Of course, health and safety regulations can serve an important purpose and they're usually inspired by the very noble aim of keeping people safe. But it's clear that things have got a bit out of control recently. So I've asked Lord Young to lead a review on this subject. He's looking at everything from the working of the Health and Safety Executive to litigation and the insurance industry. If we form a government, we will listen to his advice and reduce the burden of health and safety legislation and regulation in a responsible way.

Clegg: I've got in to trouble on this before: I had a cameo role as a health and safety inspector in my local panto in Sheffield (I had to express my concern about the safety hazards posed by the beanstalk in Jack and the Beanstalk), and the Health and Safety Executive wrote to me to ensure I wasn't worsening the reputation of their inspectors!

But you're right that while enormous progress has been made in terms of reducing industrial accidents and improving child safety, we need to be much more proportionate in our response to risk. You can't make life risk-free, and I think we need to be readier to accept that. I've called for a "one-in, one-out" approach to business regulations so companies aren't tied up in red tape.

And I want to make it easier for schools, for example, to take children out on trips; learning outside the classroom is hugely important. But it isn't just regulation that's the problem, it's also fear of being sued, and problems getting insurance against something going wrong. I think the Government may need to take a role in underwriting insurance for schools.

After 62 years of ineffective engagement with Israel, would you support sanctions against Israel to force it to abide by international law, and if not, why not and how else would you seek to ensure Palestinians are accorded justice and Palestine the right to exist?

Thea Khamis, County Durham

Brown: I believe that peace and prosperity in the Middle East requires a two-state solution, with a viable Palestinian state alongside an Israel secure within its borders. Achieving this requires international cooperation to support those on both sides who advocate peaceful means, and to take a firm stand against the forces of violence.

I will always support Israel's right to exist, but where Israel acts to undermine the potential for a just peace – for example through promoting settlement expansion in the West Bank – I believe we must continue to speak up and press the Israeli government to change. We do not shy away from taking a tough line with Israel where necessary. But we do not believe that the imposition of sanctions would increase our influence with Israel or lead to progress on the peace process.

Cameron: Securing a viable and sovereign state for the Palestinians through a negotiated two-state solution is at the core of our approach to the Middle East. Both Israelis and Palestinians must abide by international law, including Security Council resolutions, but I don't think that sanctions are the right way to get peace negotiations back on track. We would do everything we can to buttress the diplomatic initiative started by President Obama to get both sides back to the negotiating table. In the end, securing an independent and viable Palestinian state, with its capital in East Jerusalem, is the best way to achieve peace and justice for the Palestinian people, as well as security for Israelis.

Clegg: Only a lasting settlement between Israel the Palestinians will guarantee peace and security to all sides. But Britain and the EU should use economic and diplomatic leverage to persuade Israel to change course over its policy in Gaza, just as we must use any leverage we have over Hamas and its supporters to end the unacceptable rocket attacks. I am a friend and supporter of Israel, and recognise its right to self-defence. But Operation Cast Lead and the ongoing Gaza blockade by Israel and Egypt only serve to create suffering and feed a cycle of hatred and bitterness. That is in no one's best interests.

As a parent who relies heavily on Sure Start centres for the educational and social needs of my child, I would like to know whether these centres will continue to receive funding?

Gemma McKenzin, St Neots, Cambridgeshire

Brown: Yes, we will protect funding for Sure Start Children's Centres. We will also ensure that all families can continue to use the centres, not just the poorest. We will extend free childcare for two-year-olds and under our plans, three- and four-year-olds will be entitled to 15 hours a week of free nursery education. We reject the Tory plan to charge top-up fees for nursery places and to cut Sure Start.

Cameron: Yes, we back Sure Start. It's a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this. He's the Prime Minister of this country but he's been scaring people about something that really matters. Not only do we back Sure Start, but we will improve it, because at the moment the people who need Sure Start the most – disadvantaged families – are not getting enough of the benefit. So we'll contract independent organisations that have a proven track record in helping families, such as Lifeline and Homestart, to run children's centres and reach out to those families who need that extra support. What's more, our plan for 4,200 new Sure Start health visitors will give families expert reinforcements at the time when they need them most.

Clegg: Yes. Sure Start is a really important programme that has made a real difference to millions of parents. Difficult decisions are going to have to be made in public spending, but Sure Start is one of the best things the last government has done and I want all these centres to stay open.

Why have I heard nothing about what any of you intend to do about the ever encroaching erosion of our civil liberties though cameras, ID schemes and intrusive and unnecessary and often unsafe data bases?

Steve Perrin, Liskeard, Cornwall

Brown: I am proud of Labour's record on civil liberties – including the Human Rights Act, freedom of information and data protection. It is right that we debate where the balance between liberty and security should be struck, and what safeguards we need. In the last year, for example, we've tightened the rules on surveillance, ruling it out for things like eligibility for schools, or household rubbish. But I don't think progressives should reject the use of modern technology or the need to respond to new threats.

Cameron: I don't accept that. We've been campaigning hard on these issues – not just during this election campaign but throughout the past four years. For example, we fought tooth and nail against the Government's plans for 42 days pre-charge detention. And if you look at our manifesto, there's a whole section on civil liberties, setting out our plans to scale back Labour's database state. Scrapping ID cards, getting rid of the National Identity Register, abolishing Contactpoint – it's all there. The way this government has trampled on our historic freedoms is totally wrong and we would do things very differently.

Clegg: I'm sorry you haven't heard about our plans; it's a shame this topic didn't come up in the leaders debates. Our plan is for a Freedom Bill to roll back all the endless draconian laws Labour (and the Conservatives before them) have put in place to trample on our traditional British freedoms.

That would include scrapping ID cards and plans to store fingerprints in your passport; it would include regulation of CCTV, the ending of the "ContactPoint" database to keep information about all our children, and the reinstatement of our right to protest; it would bring an end to storing innocent people's DNA on a police database, it would restore the right to jury trial – and much more. There's a whole list on our website at freedom.libdems.org.uk.

The legalisation and taxation of cannabis could generate millions of pounds of tax revenue, and allow the formation of a new industry. Would you consider doing this for the benefit of society as a whole?

Chris Pearson, Taunton

Brown: [See answer to next question].

Cameron: No, because I don't believe it would benefit society as a whole.

Clegg: No. I believe drugs policy should follow the advice of the scientific experts, and their view is that cannabis should remain illegal.

Why should it be a crime to enjoy yourself by taking a pill which is safer than a 20-mile bicycle ride? What has the prohibition of drugs ever accomplished except ruining countries all around the world, from Mexico to Afghanistan?

Nicholas Kasch, Cambridge

Brown: [Answering this question and the previous one together] I understand those who feel that drug laws should be a matter of personal freedom, and those who worry about the terrible side-effects of the illegal drug trade, here and overseas. But I would never do anything that increased the number of young people whose lives and families are devastated by drug abuse.

I agree with Antonio Maria Costa, the UN lead on drugs, when he says that while developing countries suffer from the illegal drugs trade, "these countries would also be the hardest hit by an epidemic of drug use, and all the health and social costs that come with it. This is immoral and irresponsible."

I agree with him that we need a greater focus on treatment – in which we have invested hundreds of millions of pounds more a year compared to 1997. The numbers of problem users going into treatment have risen, and the proportion going on to drug-free lives is rising – though unlike the Tories we don't pretend that a drug-free life is a sensible or realistic short-term aim for all problem drug users. And finally I support the UN push for closer international cooperation in tackling the drugs trade.

Cameron: Downgrading or legalising drugs would send the wrong message. We've got one of the worst drug problems in Europe and that's causing real harm. So we should be wary of any steps that make drugs appear a safe option. They aren't, and that should be reflected in the law. We've also got to make a much bigger effort to help people come off drugs. We need to invite charities and social enterprises to help find new ways of doing this, and then pay them by the results they achieve.

Clegg: The focus of drugs policy should be to reduce harm, not to create more criminals. But I don't think legalising extremely dangerous substances would do that – if more people took drugs, more people would suffer from the health effects and addictions they can cause. I would, however, like to see a much greater emphasis on treatment and rehab, rather than sending users to prison where they stay addicted. Prison's the right place for dealers, not addicts.

If your party wins the election, will the Jobcentre Plus employees lose their jobs or will they have their contracts extended?

Gerald Jones, Swansea

Brown: Additional staff are being employed on fixed-term contracts to provide increased short-term support for people losing work during the recession – and that has helped keep claimant unemployment half the rate of previous recessions.

But we're not out of the woods yet so we will keep up extra support such as our guarantee of a job or training for young people. Whether that requires extending individual contracts will be a matter for Jobcentreplus and local managers based on the level of unemployment locally.

Cameron: Decisions about this should be driven by the needs of the Jobcentre Plus. If – as is the case now – we've got huge unemployment, then clearly, the needs of Jobcentre Plus will be great. Staff in Jobcentre Plus have worked hard during the recession and I want to thank them for the good work that they do.

Clegg: I think this would need to be decided on a case-by-case basis depending on needs in local areas. People do need help from their JobCentres at a time when unemployment is still rising.

Why should the rich be allowed to buy a better education, when it leads directly to the poor being educated in bog-standard schools?

Marilyn Hoffman, Edinburgh

Brown: My goal is that state education is every bit as good as private education, with the same personal tuition, excellent teaching and great facilities. That is why we have increased spending on education significantly since 1997, and why we have pledged to protect front-line investment in schools in the years ahead. The number of underperforming secondary schools has been reduced from 1,600 to less than 250 today, with standards rising fastest in disadvantaged areas. With investment and reform, we can continue to raise standards in state schools.

Cameron: I think you're coming at this from the wrong angle. What the Government should be doing is making sure that every child has the chance to go to a good state school, not preventing parents from spending their money as they wish. We would improve schools for every child by giving teachers more power over discipline and by bringing in a rigorous focus on standards. We would also introduce a pupil premium so that the poorest children have a better chance of going to the best schools.

Clegg: I don't think we should level downwards by stopping parents from making choices about their children's schooling. I think we should level up, by making our state schools world-class. I have a plan to match the funding for the million most-deprived children to the levels provided in private schools so we can give all children a fair start. We'd put an extra £2.5bn into schools, funded in full by making cuts elsewhere, so headteachers can cut class sizes and provide more one-to-one tuition so children get the individual attention they need to thrive.

Who was your political hero when you were growing up, and who is your political hero now?

Adam Sanderson, Oxford

Brown: When I was younger I became hugely interested in James Maxton and the other Clydesider MPs – so much so, in fact, that I did my doctoral thesis on him. One of the things he said has always stuck with me: "Write of him as one who loved his fellow man". That's what, in the end, life is all about – leaving your mark for good or ill. Then, as a student, I led a successful campaign to get Edinburgh University to disinvest from apartheid South Africa – so it was pretty daunting to meet Nelson Mandela decades later. He has been a huge inspiration to me, and in recent years he's been a very good friend to me and to our family. He and his wife swap birthday cards with my sons.

Cameron: They haven't changed: Winston Churchill and Garibaldi – whose quote "give me the ready hand, rather than the ready tongue" seems a good mantra for government.

Clegg: Then: Vaclav Havel. Now: I'm not big on heroes, but I'm still a great admirer of his.

Which philosopher, ancient or modern, best articulated your own world view?

Rachel Kidd, Southampton

Brown: The Beatitudes pretty much sum it up...

Cameron: I've always admired the empiricists – Locke, Berkeley and Hume – but for a practical guide you can't beat "do unto others as you would have them do to you".

Clegg: John Stuart Mill.

Who is your favourite fictional character and why?

Luke Chakrabarti (aged 11), Sheffield

Brown: I'm afraid most of the books and films I've loved have been about real people. Things like Cry Freedom and Chariots of Fire catch you up in them like a story – but it's all the more moving when you realise that they are about real people who did amazing things. My older son is at the stage of Harry Potter obsession, so I'm hearing a fair bit about that too, but my favourites tend to be about people from history who have fought and won against the odds.

Cameron: James Bond – why not?

Clegg: The penguin in Happy Feet. He is the most joyful character I've ever seen. You can't help but smile watching him.

Reform: Timeline 1832-2010

1832: After years of protest at the unrepresentative nature of Parliament, the Reform Act expands the electorate to include around 20 per cent of adult males. More than 50 "rotten boroughs" are abolished, while 30 multi-member constituencies lose one member.

1848: Up to 300,000 people demonstrate in support of the Chartist petition demanding universal suffrage (for men), a protected (ie secret) ballot, the abolition of the property qualification for MPs, payment of MPs, equal constituencies and annual parliaments.

1867: Second Reform Act increases electorate from 1.4 million to more than 2.5 million.

1884: Third Reform Act – in effect gives the vote to most working-class men in rural areas.

1885: The Redistribution of Seats Act makes most constituencies single-member seats.

1888: Women are allowed to vote in local elections.

1911: Following the rejection of the "People's Budget" in the House of Lords, the Parliament Act removes the Lords' right of veto, except on bills to extend the life of Parliament. The duration of Parliaments is reduced to five years.

1918: The Representation of the People Act gives the vote to all men over 21 and all women over 30. Electorate is increased from 8 million to 21 million.

1928: Women over the age of 21 get the right to vote.

1969: The voting age for men and women is reduced to 18.

1999: Extensive powers are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and, later, the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. The House of Lords Act restricts the number of hereditary peers in the House of Lords to 92.

2005: Labour wins the general election with just 35.2 per cent of votes cast – and the support of just 21.6 per cent of all those entitled to vote.

2010: Gordon Brown proposes a referendum on replacing first-past-the-post with the alternate vote. The relevant amendment is dropped in the "wash-up" period before the dissolution of Parliament, but the promise resurfaces in the Labour manifesto. The Conservatives and Lib Dems also offer their own packages of reform.

The Democratic Deficit

In the 2005 general election, the winning party, Labour, polled just 9.5 million votes. This was equivalent to 21.6 per cent of the total electorate (ie all those who could have voted) and, as such, was the lowest percentage vote ever achieved by a winning party.

No government elected since 1935 has had the support of a majority of voters.

In 2005, 52 per cent of votes were cast for candidates who were not elected.

In 1929, 1951 and February 1974, the party with the biggest share of the popular vote actually lost the election.

In the 2005 general election, the Conservatives won 57,000 more votes in England than Labour did – yet Labour won 55.2 per cent of English seats.

In the current election, it is theoretically possible (though unlikely) that all three parties could win an equal share (30 per cent) of the vote, and yet the seats would be distributed as follows: Labour, 315; Conservatives, 206; Liberal Democrats, 100.

Another hypothetical scenario (also unlikely) would have the Liberal Democrats winning 34 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives 33 per cent and Labour 32 per cent – but Labour nonetheless winning 300 seats, the Conservatives 214 and the Liberal Democrats 112.

Another permutation would involve the Conservatives winning 33 per cent of the vote and Labour 27 per cent but Labour still winning 262 seats to the Conservatives' 257. (This assumes a 30 per cent share of the vote, and 102 seats, for the Liberal Democrats.)

Of the votes actually cast in the 2005 general election, Labour's share was 35.2 per cent. This was lower than the share the party received in the general elections of 1951, 1955, 1959, 1970 and 1979 – all of which they lost.

The Liberal Democrats won 22 per cent of UK votes in the 2005 general election, but only 9.59 per cent of the seats.

In the 2005 general election, Labour won one seat for every 26,908 votes it received; the Conservatives won one for every 44,335 votes; the Liberal Democrats won one for every 96,539 votes.

Electoral Reform

For the first time in living memory, all three main parties have been advocating political reforms of one kind or another in the course of the current campaign. Their main proposals include the following:

Labour

A referendum on introducing the alternative vote voting system for parliamentary elections.

The introduction of fixed-term parliaments

A fully elected House of Lords (over the course of three parliaments)

The introduction of a power of recall to remove corrupt MPs and a ban on MPs working for lobbying companies

A free vote on lowering the voting age to 16

Conservatives

Introduction of the power of recall and public petitions with 100,000 signatures to be debated in the Commons

A reduction in the number of MPs (to 585)

An equalisation of the size of constituencies

A reduction in, and freeze of, ministers' pay

A ban on ex-ministers lobbying government within two years of standing down

Ex-ministers who break the rules to have their pensions docked

Liberal Democrats

Proportional representation to be introduced for parliamentary elections

A reduction in the number of MPs (to 500)

A reduction in the number of ministers (to 73)

A smaller, fully elected second chamber to replace the House of Lords

Introduction of the power of recall

A cap on individual donations to political parties

Reform of union funding

A ban on ministers meeting MPs in connection with issues on which the MPs are paid to lobby

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