Helena Kennedy: This outdated political system has alienated voters

Politicians are no longer accorded deference and are seen as no better or worse than anyone else

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Lord Astor denied paying for sex with Mandy Rice-Davies. On being asked to explain this, Mandy famously told the trial following the 1963 Profumo scandal: "He would, wouldn't he." Her comment still resonates because four decades on, citizens are even more sceptical of people in public life, casting a wary eye over every public pronouncement, denial or justification. Like other professionals, politicians are no longer accorded deference and are seen as no better or worse than anyone else.

Lord Astor denied paying for sex with Mandy Rice-Davies. On being asked to explain this, Mandy famously told the trial following the 1963 Profumo scandal: "He would, wouldn't he." Her comment still resonates because four decades on, citizens are even more sceptical of people in public life, casting a wary eye over every public pronouncement, denial or justification. Like other professionals, politicians are no longer accorded deference and are seen as no better or worse than anyone else.

And yet the odd thing is that the political system has yet to acknowledge, let alone respond to, this vast shift in public attitudes. It still expects us to cast our vote every four or so years and then let our supposed superiors in Parliament get on with making the big decisions with little reference to our views.

This election makes the point starkly. Despite massive public protest and widespread opposition, the last parliament voted for war and the Conservative Party has not offered a programme for government at all. Not surprisingly many are left wondering what other decisions our elected betters will take on our behalf between now and 2010.

Trust in our political leaders has not been high for many years, but at least other bonds compensated for this in the past. Many of us shared an ideological or class identity with those we elected. You could rest assured that one or other party or faction in Parliament took your interests to heart. And there was always the hope that one day your views might guide the levers of state. But now the great ideologies have lost their appeal; the parties have very similar core beliefs and the two big economic classes of the 20th century have dwindled or fragmented.

This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many of us are better off, better educated and have more choice over our lifestyles than ever before. We hold ourselves in much higher esteem and trust our own judgement far more than the generations of the 19th century for whom our political system was designed.

With such trends, it can hardly be a surprise that people feel increasingly distant from a political system that takes deference and the superior intellectual powers of MPs for granted.

If we want to know why voting is in decline, why party membership is in free fall and why an extreme cynicism towards politics is the new popular consensus, it is to this history we must look.

Postal voting is not the solution as it dispenses with the public moment which should be at the heart of our voting system. The Power inquiry, which I chair, is searching for a more profound response to this crisis. Its final report is not due out until early next year but an interim study called Beyond the Ballot identifies more than 50 innovations across the world which give citizens a more direct say over individual political decisions and politicians between elections.

In British Columbia, a Citizens' Assembly of 160 randomly selected citizens spent a year investigating the province's electoral system. It recommended a switch to propor- tional representation which will be put to a referendum in May.

A number of American mayors now hold carefully facilitated meetings which attract thousands of citizens (all in the same room!) to set annual priorities for city budgets, plans and other policies.

And one innovation which has proved particularly popular with the inquiry's "citizens' panel" has been the power of recall - the freedom for a community to demand a popular vote of confidence in an elected representative. An important way, maybe, of making MPs accountable to their constituents rather than to the leaders of those decaying parties.

The key to the high levels of participation and interest these innovations generate is the real and direct influence they offer citizens over the decisions that shape their lives. They treat people like intelligent grown-ups and they respond in kind. It suggests that part of the problem in Britain is not the ordinary citizen's lack of trust in politicians but the politicians' lack of trust in the citizen.

On their own, of course, these innovations will not solve the deep alienation from politics that has built up over decades in Britain. They can only ever be a part of a wider programme of change to the structures that cut people out of political decision-making. But their spirit and their success are things from which we must learn before popular alienation from politics is irreversible.

'Beyond the Ballot: 57 Democratic Innovations from Across the World' is available free at www.powerinquiry.org

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