A campaign that makes you want to vote

For the three weeks of the general election, power will be with the people. Let's use it
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The Independent Online
At some point during the next seven months, MPs will find that they are not allowed to enter the Palace of Westminster. Parliament will have been dissolved, a general election called and, for a brief three weeks, power will have been returned to the people so that we can decide upon what terms to give authority back to our representatives for a further five years. At least that is the theory. The general election should be a wonderfully exhilarating experience, but usually it is not.

The reason is that the political parties seek to condition us during the preceding months to such an extent that we consider only a limited range of topics on their terms. That process is going on now. We see it in the early use of "attack" poster campaigns and in the careful insertion of Mr Major's and Mr Blair's wives into the public's consciousness - the former by way of a BBC interview, the latter by means of "guest" editing a popular women's magazine. This is marketing. Based on private polling, on focus groups and on all the other techniques of market research, the essential message, whether Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat, is refined and simplified and repeated ad nauseam. Repetition is, indeed, a valued technique. The professionals criticise their leaders when they "go off the message". The Queen's Speech was precisely "on" the Conservative message for the general election rather than being legislation proposed in the public interest.

What can we do about this? I become angry every day as I read the political news and see politicians' shameless manoeuvres and listen to their unctuous waffle. I feel frustration when journalists are either brushed aside or become complicit in the process. How dare the political parties try to con us.

The problem is universal in the western democracies and it was well described the other day in a full-page advertisement carried by The New York Times entitled "Imagine a presidential campaign that made people want to go out and vote". In the form of a letter addressed to the TV networks, it was really a cry of despair. Signed by Senator Bill Bradley and Senator John McCain and by Walter Cronkite, it noted that on US television, political communication consists mainly of seven-second news bites and 30-second negative advertisements (we are mercifully spared the latter). The bites offer no substance. The ads ply half-truths; they work by persuading the supporters of opponents not to vote at all. Hence the letter, which asks the networks to carve out two and a half minutes in prime time each evening during the final two weeks of the campaign to allow the presidential candidates to deliver mini-speeches on alternating nights - a sort of running debate.

That sounds like a good idea. Can we do something along the same lines here? People are not stupid; they understand what is going on. Their first line of defence is to turn to other things and not to vote. The young in particular follow these routes. Their idealism is undimmed, but it is channelled into single-issue pressure groups, often charities, rather than into mainstream politics.

To take one example - as Government policy towards the homeless has become more hostile, charities staffed mainly by intelligent and committed men and women in their twenties and early thirties, for the most part poorly paid, have redoubled their efforts. I know many examples of imaginative initiatives to help the homeless which have been successfully carried through. Citizen's action works. On the other hand, the proportion of young people voting in general elections has steadily declined.

It is against this background that we have to conceive a general election that makes people "want to go out and vote". It is our election; that must be the starting point. Moreover, the means for self-defence are at hand. Any person or group with something significant to say must learn how to use the media in order to enter the national debate. Both Frances Lawrence, the widow of the murdered headmaster, and the Dunblane parents have triumphantly demonstrated this recently.

Then citizen's action can be applied to the general election itself. Again there are tools available such as the relatively new technique of deliberative polling. A representative group of voters comes together for a day or day and a half at the weekend to study an issue. It could be, say, the Government's record, or Labour's manifesto, or a single issue such as the state of the National Health Service. The participants are polled before they begin an intensive programme of briefing and discussion and then they are re-polled at the end of the process. The uninformed view can be compared with the informed. When these exercises are broadcast, as Channel 4 has done, they become powerful statements.

This is a point well understood by the Scarman Trust, founded by Lord Scarman, the former Law Lord and author of the report on the Brixton riots, which has set itself the task of promoting what it calls a culture of active, empowered citizenship through public involvement in decision making. To this end it has sketched out a timetable running from now until the general election for "A People's Election". This comprises an ambitious series of events and initiatives, backed by network television, radio and newspapers, all designed to interrupt the smooth marketing of the political parties, to force candidates to confront issues they would rather ignore and to inject genuine debate and excitement into the campaign. For a precious three weeks, the people will have power. We must flaunt it.