Andreas Whittam Smith: Ségolène, Hillary, and their big conversations

Might not Mme Royal's willingness to consult be read as a sign that she hasn't many ideas of her own?

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The methods by which Ségolène Royal is campaigning to become the next president of France are an example of a new internet based, participative way of mounting an election campaign. She is hacking out a path to power that many political parties around the world are considering.

Mme Royal will delay setting out her detailed policies until she has completed a very large consultation with voters. By the time this is finished, the electoral contest will have been under way for some weeks. But she says that she must first listen. French voters are at once supportive and impatient. Some 52 per cent of voters think that holding such debates is a good thing but, at the same time, 55 per cent think she is wrong to wait so long before describing her programme.

Mme Royal is not alone is making a great show of consulting voters before announcing policies. Hillary Clinton is doing something similar. When she announced last week that she was forming a "presidential exploratory committee", she did so by means of a webcast.

In her very accomplished video, she told visitors to her website (www.hillaryclinton.com): "I'm not just starting a campaign, though, I'm beginning a conversation -- with you, with America. Because we all need to be part of the discussion if we're all going to be part of the solution. And all of us have to be part of the solution."

And as she signed off, she said this: "So let's talk. Let's chat. Let's start a dialogue about your ideas and mine. Because the conversation in Washington has been just just a little one-sided lately, don't you think? And we can all see how well that works. And while I can't visit everyone's living room, I can try. And with a little help from modern technology, I'll be holding live online video chats this week, starting Monday. So let the conversation begin. I have a feeling it's going to be very interesting."

I quote Mrs Clinton's words at length because I found her presentation impressive. On the day of her announcement, she first emailed a large number of influential people, including bloggers, to tell them she was going to make her intentions clear in a few hours time. This really was reaching out via the internet.

In Britain the political parties are cautiously following this line. But Labour's method has a restricted, enclosed feel to it, as if New Labour were a sect - which perhaps it is. On its website, the Labour party announces that policy is made through a process called Partnership in Power which is designed to involve "all party stake holders (including members, local parties, trade unions, socialist societies and Labour representatives) as well as the wider community" - in other words, a coven of militants with the "wider community" outside the magic circle. Compared with Mrs Clinton's warmth, how old-fashioned New Labour now sounds.

Political parties in the Western democracies are inviting voters to join policy debates because they think that by these means they will reverse the growing distrust that conventional political processes engender. They have seen the surveys that measure this phenomenon. A recent poll on electoral reform in California, undertaken by the New America Institute, found that "70 per cent of voters are more likely to support recommendations made by a panel of average citizens than they are to support the ideas of a government committee or even a panel of independent experts". In this country an ICM poll for the Power Inquiry found that 70 percent of people have more trust in a jury of citizens rather than politicians or officials to come to fairer decisions regarding the House of Lords or party funding.

What cannot yet be ascertained is how sincere politicians are in their use of participative techniques. However, if the effort involved is some guide, then Mme Royal's exercise is genuine enough. Her website has been receiving 20,000 messages per month. Contributors also evaluate each other's ideas by awarding stars - five for the most interesting. Then 45 staff undertake the difficult but engaging work of reading and analysing this material and of preparing a synthesis, subject by subject, of the views expressed. Finally Mme Royal will base her proposals on the results.

On 11 February the candidate will make known the answers and begin to spell out the policies she is putting before the electorate. This will be a difficult moment. Will the participative syntheses be consistent with each other or will there be contradictions? Will it matter if the website recommendations haven't been costed?

In any case, whatever the conclusions of the consultative exercise, Mme Royal is the official socialist candidate and the Socialist Party has already painfully prepared a programme upon which its various factions can agree. Will the participative exercise trump the official party line?

Then let us suppose that Mme Royal goes forward into battle with a programme based at least in part on the consultation. Might she have difficulty is articulating policies that she has not thought through for herself? Might not her willingness to consult be read as a sign that she hasn't many ideas of her own?

Worse still, might not voters come to feel that their president should be capable of making up her own mind? All this is to play for in this most fascinating of French elections. If Mme Royal wins, she will have opened up a new road to the top.

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