Helena Kennedy: This is our chance to seize power – it may be the last one we get

We cannot leave the task of making change happen to politicians alone
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The Independent Online

Returning to work after a break, many of us will look towards Westminster and feel a return of that depression we felt before we took off. I am afraid the effects of the expenses scandal linger on, reminding us that our political system is a total mess. There is a pervading sense of resignation – that it is all hopeless and real change is impossible.

While understandable, that is the opposite of what we should be feeling, especially in the months before a general election. Democracy matters. Everything else rests on our democratic representative system. The collective power that results from people acting in concert is what sustains our institutions.

The period when politicians clamour for our attention to garner our votes is the very time we need to exercise what power we have, and that is why it is precisely now that we need to make our power work harder than ever, in order to extract a binding commitment from the next Parliament to change our politics for good.

In reality, our politics was broken long before the depressing revelations about second homes, dry rot and moats. Turnout in elections has been in steady decline since the 1980s, reaching new lows in 2005. Poll after poll reveals worsening trends, whether they concern our faith in politicians or our faith in the system.

In a modern society, we expect more from our politicians than being consulted at an election every few years. We expect more decisions to be taken closer to where we live. We want more choice in our politics. We want more transparency in decision-making and demand greater accountability from the individuals and institutions that make decisions on our behalf.

The 2006 Power Inquiry, which I chaired, asked why disengagement from formal democratic politics in Britain has grown in recent years and how it could be reversed. Its recommendations feel more pertinent than ever. After months of taking evidence, the final report found that there urgently needs to be a rebalancing of power away from the executive and unelected bodies towards local government and those elected to Parliament. It said there needed to be greater responsiveness and choice in the electoral and party system. It also called for citizens to have a much more direct and focused say over political decisions and the policies that affect our lives.

But while political leaders acknowledge the growing gulf between our democratic structures and people's belief in the system, few feel willing, or able, to make reform the priority it needs to be. We have been promised new constitutional settlements and sweeping reform by the major parties. Yet, on the big items, we are still waiting for action.

Less than a year from the next general election, there is an opening that may lead us to achieve lasting change. If we can ensure we achieve a Parliament committed to reform, we can rebuild its connection with people and restore its legitimacy. In so doing we will invigorate our institutions and society as a whole.

We cannot leave the task of making change happen to politicians alone. Every citizen can play a role in ensuring we do not return to business as usual following the general election of 2010.

The new organisation Power-2010, launching this week, is designed to change the next Parliament using the strength of concerted public action. What is different about Power2010 is that there is no agenda. We're not asking the public to back our goals. We're asking the public to create them. Over the months before the general election we are going to build this public agenda for changing politics and stage a mass popular "vote" for the five reforms people most want to see the next Parliament carry through.

This is the Power2010 Pledge; a public commitment that every candidate standing at the next election will be asked to make. It could be around cleaner party funding, the power to elect the Prime Minister, introducing primaries or changes to the voting system. It might be on House of Lords reform or the right to recall MPs. The key is that the public both determine the options and select their priorities. This gives the Power2010 real legitimacy and allows the public to have a direct say in how the next Parliament makes a binding commitment to change.

This is our chance to change politics. It is our best chance in a generation. And we only have the months between now and the election to do it. We know that the British democratic system is in dire need of reform. It would be easy to walk away. It would be easy to let those in power continue to set the rules. I am asking people not to do that, but use this vital period to participate in Power2010 where we, the public, can set the rules and change the entire political game.

Ideas for changing politics can be submitted at www.power2010.org.uk