An ideal rainy morning at the people's forum

Angela Lambert sits in on a session of the Rolling Parliament but comes away wondering what it's all about
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Saturday morning in London's Piccadilly. A light drizzle does not deter the tourists or the shoppers. I head for St James's Church, where the first so-called "Rolling Parliament" is about to take place. It is billed as a "unique open forum of political debate" in which ordinary people "with active minds and voices will join a controversial cocktail of high-profile speakers" in a daylong debate about the great issues of our time.

In the forecourt of the church, a bazaar of stalls sells t-shirts and cheap silver jewellery. Inside, beneath an ornate gilded ceiling and carved swags of fruit and foliage, the platform speakers gather. The church is crowded with a motley audience. Some look like beggars, some tourists. There are roughly equal numbers of men and women but few if any black or Asian faces. I notice a high proportion of elderly people. Are they here to escape the rain or boredom?

"We are about remoralising the populace," begins David Jenkins, the controversial former Bishop of Durham. "We are about the gap between politics and power as practised by jet-setted automata and the people on the ground." He speaks for five minutes; cheerful, rousing, egalitarian stuff, and the audience murmurs in agreement and gives him a friendly clap.

It is Barbara Follett's turn next, Labour's style guru and prospective parliamentary candidate for Stevenage. She is working to increase the number of women MPs in the Labour Party from its lamentable 14 per cent. Quixotically, she would like to see Parliament sited in Leeds because it is roughly at the centre of the country and MPs would spend less time travelling and more time with their families. Further polite applause.

Last of the platform speakers is James Robertson; a former civil servant, former researcher in the City; now freelance communicator. He thinks the present tax system is perverse - much applause - and talks about the tension between institutions and people. He believes we have reached the end of the European-dominated era of world history and looks forward to a more democratic, freer world.

The informal chair of the occasion, Andrew Samuels, invites the audience to join in. A bearded, middle-aged man takes the microphone. He talks about people being trapped by ideology; deplores the operation of "the marketplace" and foreign policy. He waffles and is mercifully brought to a halt. Next a blonde woman stands up. She wants to put a 5,000 -year perspective on all this. She thinks a transformation is taking place in society like that of Neolithic times. She wants a new world with a new sense of genuine equality. She is invited to join the platform speakers, thus becoming one of a straight line. Smiling hugely, she accepts.

Other speakers follow: decent, well-intentioned people who disastrously lack any clear or cogent view and whose flailing sense of exclusion from "the power-hungry elite" relies on few, if any, facts. Huge amounts of goodwill slosh about alongside buckets of paranoia. People grin and nod and clap one another. Yet my journalistic cynicism keeps asking, what's it all about? People stand up and make a contribution. Like the platform speakers, they rely on unproven generalisations. They say they feel excluded yet their solutions are absurdly Utopian. Institutions and hierarchies are to be abolished; the patriarchal viewpoint silenced.

My neighbour - American by his accent - begins to talk about the media. He objects to being defined as a consumer, which he says means a devourer. He wants the media to be available to people everywhere. He is invited to the top table, where the blonde woman welcomes him with a complicit smile.

So it goes on for the next two hours. The feel-good factor reigns supreme. The media is castigated again, as are MPs, moguls, economists and world leaders. After three-quarters of an hour a three-piece suited, rolled- umbrella man from the audience leaves with a snort of indignation. I can't help feeling a sneaking sympathy. David Jenkins says: "Cheer up and don't give up." The former bishop, once the victim of much press attention, would like to see a law preventing newspapers from devoting more than a small amount of space to people's sex lives. Everyone claps this proposed censorship.

After two hours I walk out into the now dazzling sunshine. At a jewellery stall an American woman holds up a pair of dangly silver earrings and says to her husband, "What about these for Irma?" "Sure, honey, sure." he says. The global market is alive and well and ordinary people are making choices.

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