Johann Hari: Do we want a democracy or a pantomime?

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The next general election is hurtling towards us with the force of a damp sponge. We have, at most, 20 months until Decision Day– but who expects there to be a great fizzing debate? Who thinks we, the people, will have a chance to dig deep into our country's problems and tell our leaders how to put them right? Nobody. Instead it will be like an X-Factor final in a bad, bad year: which empty shell sounds sweetest? It's a bleak thought: in one of the world's oldest democracies, none of us expects democracy to work as it should.

But elections do not have to consist of the airless circulation of soundbites, bike-riding photo-ops and ignorance. We can do better than this. While we still have time, the three main parties can together table a Democracy Bill before parliament – to make sure we can make an informed choice between them. I would put at the very top of this bill public funding of political parties, and proportional representation. But Cameron's Tories have combined with a weird coalition of Labour Party Blairites and Bennites to thwart both. So let's stick here to simple measures all three parties could swiftly agree on before the looming election.

Item One: Deliberation Day. The American political scientists Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin have come up with a simple democracy-deepener. Declare every general election a national holiday, and offer every citizen £150 to take part, there and then, in a day of debate, modelled on jury service. In the morning you watch a televised debate between the main political leaders, and then you divide into groups of 15 who go off for an hour to discuss what you've seen. Together, you figure out a series of questions you want to put to local representatives of the political parties – about any issue on earth. Then, when all the groups come together, the "foreman" of your "jury" puts your questions. After lunch, you reassemble to debate what you've heard. Then you vote, and take your cheque.

The national political debate would then no longer consist of10-second soundbites. Suddenly, politicians would be able to talk in proper nuanced paragraphs – and we could argue back. We could move beyond thought-halting slogans – like "tough on crime" or "war on drugs" – to a more rational discussion of the evidence. To Independent readers, this might seem unnecessary, but two-thirds of British people tell pollsters they have not had a single conversation about politics in the past two years.

What kind of meaningful democracy can emerge from that? For many, Deliberation Day would be a bottle of Perrier in a political drought, a chance twice a decade to think seriously about the future of their country and their planet.

Item Two: ban opinion polls during the election campaign. Great slabs of election coverage are dominated by the horse-race: look at this Mori poll! Have you seen this Harris? People know the result of the election in advance – so they don't bother to vote. In France, they stamped this out by banning polls in the run-up to voting. It forces the media to cover the issues, and it injects suspense. Their turn-out was almost double ours.

The Democracy Bill also needs to deal with the way we receive our information in between elections. Put bluntly: newspapers – the most sophisticated way of analysing the news – are sickly, with ageing and dwindling readerships. In the US, they are dying. At times, being a newspaper journalist can feel like being a coal-miner in 1985. While blogs can be great, they depend on newspapers doing the heavy lifting of sending costly reporters out to conduct investigations. If newspapers die, a large part of our democratic debate dies with it.

So... Item Three: In the US, the president of the Carnegie Corporation, Vartan Gregorian, has proposed a solution: a law requiring universities to add a small amount to their students' tuition fees, to pay for a daily newspaper subscription of the student's choice. It would help inform young voters and get many into the ink-habit, giving newspapers access to a lucrative new demographic. Poor students don't pay fees, so their bill would be picked up by the state. As an added bonus, papers would be pressured to be more progressive, since this new student market tilts left.

We can take these three steroids to bulk-up our democracy now, or we can sit back and snore through another narcoleptic election, only to wake up sometime afterwards with a jolt to ask why our government isn't doing what we wanted. Isn't the few billion pounds this Democracy Bill would cost us a price worth paying for a proper participative democracy, rather than this feeble husk?

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