Do you have strong views on abortion? Do you care about the planet? Are you a pensioner? Do you belong to Friends of the Earth or a church? Then you are a special interest, and should not be allowed to take part in phone-in polls.

The fuss over Labour's attempt to rig the shortlist for the BBC Today programme Personality of the Year award has its funny and its serious side. It is too good to be true that Peter Mandelson's propaganda factory has something called the "Audience Participation Unit" engaged in covert operations codenamed "fish farming". If the defence is - which it is not, officially - that any professional political party or pressure group needs to use these methods, it is even better that Mr Mandelson's slick minions failed in their truth-distorting mission. Tony Blair did not make the shortlist, even with the boost from his party's own Assisted Places Scheme.

The BBC said it "deeply deprecates" Labour's vote-fixing. Stuff. They love every minute of the free publicity for the Today programme. Its ludicrous poll keeps getting interfered with by special interests and yet they keep running it, year after year, because of the public-relations bonus.

Everyone knows phone-in polls are bogus, and yet everyone does them. The BBC does not even commission voting-intention polls from reputable companies which are striving sincerely to reflect accurately the public mood. Polls asking other questions have to be approved by tier upon tier of panjandrum and pen-pusher. Yet the BBC conducts this annual farce without any faceless bureaucrat asking: "What is this for?" And both the Labour Party and, as we report today, the Conservatives stoop to trying to fix the result.

If these phone-ins have a purpose, it is the search for the common person. The myth conjured by them is of open-minded and active citizens, interested in the world and keen to help shape it. They listen to the wireless, read important books and occasionally watch improving television programmes. Then they hear John Humphrys inviting them to nominate someone whose public works have most impressed them that year and decide, after discussing the merits of various candidates with thoughtful friends, to make a trip to the pillar box with their postcard.

This week's brouhaha has at least exploded this nostalgic nonsense. None of us is a "common citizen". We care passionately about some things and not others. If we care enough we will join organisations which seek to organise our passions in ways which maximise their effect.

That is how modern politics works - politics in its broadest sense, including pressure groups for Green causes, for or against abortion, campaigns for and against guns, bypasses and religions. There are no civilians in this clash of competing interests - or if there are, their views are so uninteresting as to be not worth canvassing. Even if we retreat to a yurt in mid-Wales we become part of a movement.

The attempt to "hurry" Mr Blair on to the Personality shortlist (Labour's vote-fixing fax was sent out in the name of Ms Jules Hurry) has taught us another useful lesson: that television audiences are not random selections of common citizens either.

A BBC spokesperson explains how the audience for Question Time is recruited. "People ring in or write, and they are sent a form asking them their age, sex, job and interests, including how they vote. We then choose a balanced audience."

So the political parties organise their members to write in? "They probably do, yes." And if they are really Machiavellian - sorry, professional - Labour members probably pretend to be Tories, too.

We know that radio phone-ins and letters pages are plagued by special- interest obsessives, political activists and anti-abortionists. This is partly why they are interesting.

It was Denis MacShane, now Labour MP for Rotherham, who once called into a Radio London programme with Reginald Maudling. MacShane, identified only as "Jonathan", harangued the former Chancellor in a fake but passable cockney accent. Unfortunately he overdid it and denounced the Tory MP as a "crook". Maudling sued Radio London and won pounds 10,000, while Mr MacShane was traced and sacked from his job as a BBC producer.

However, there is, as we said, a serious side to all this. We may not be shocked to discover that Honest John Major and High Moral Tony employ cynical political operators. What does surprise us, and ought to worry Mr Blair, is that while the Labour Party is 20 points ahead in the polls, an apparently invincible force, its operators cannot even get its leader on to some two-bit six-person shortlist.

Where is the groundswell of grassroots enthusiasm for the Young Country, radical centre New Britain due next spring? If the Today poll had existed in 1963, Harold Wilson would not have needed to fix it. Why is there no sense of excited anticipation today? Why is the predominant political mood one of exhaustion and small expectations?

If the Tories lose power next year, it is alarming how shallow the base of the incoming government will be. New Labour does not represent a deep- founded social movement. It is not sustained by a coalition of special interests. Nor should it be, but it should be able to inspire a nation of assertive citizens, active in variegated single-issue campaigns. It is a mark of the limit of Mr Blair's achievement to date that he has not engaged the common passions that animate us.

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