This election campaign is boring and trivial - but it doesn't have to be this way

Froth built on froth, gossip drawing on gossip. This is what passes for politics in our democracy
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The Independent Online

Is there a serious election campaign happening when my back is turned? Is there a corner of Britain where somebody in the past fortnight has mentioned climate change, Iraq, Europe, education ... or anything other than MRSA, refugees and Gypsies?

Is there a serious election campaign happening when my back is turned? Is there a corner of Britain where somebody in the past fortnight has mentioned climate change, Iraq, Europe, education ... or anything other than MRSA, refugees and Gypsies?

The aggressive triviality of the campaign is having a deadening effect on the electorate. This week, I have made an effort to talk to those mysterious creatures called Real People who live somewhere beyond Medialand. It's a strange experience, like wading through the wreckage left by an apathy-tsunami, with only the odd rock of disconnected rage to break up the emptiness.

"None of it makes sense," said one woman on an estate near where I live in the East End of London, showing me the handful of leaflets that had dribbled through her letter box. "Forward not back? What does that mean?"

The few people who had followed the coverage of the election campaign saw it as happening in a strange parallel universe. "They don't talk to people like us. They talk to each other and to journalists. It's all about who's up and who's down, and I'm sure if you know the people that's very interesting, but when I want a soap opera I watch Coronation Street, dear," said Anna Castle, a woman in her sixties .

Even when an actual issue emerged, it was usually distorted beyond recognition. Look at the biggest issue of the campaign so far. One man told me he knew "for a fact" that asylum seekers are given £40,000 a year each (in fact, it's £40 per week). Another guessed asylum seekers make up 20 per cent of the population. One told me it was "obvious" that refugees are more likely to be rapists. These people aren't stupid: they have been lied to. How many Britons know that asylum seekers and immigrants make a net contribution of £2.5bn to the economy? How many politicians or journalists have tried to tell them?

I returned home from a day talking to mystified or furious voters and tried to watch political programmes with Anna's eyes. Michael Portillo was wittering on about whether Blair likes Brown. Somebody asked if Michael Howard was "a strong leader". Five minutes passed and nothing - literally nothing - was said about the world at the other end of Westminster Bridge. I flicked over to a news channel: somebody else was talking about how some Tory grandees had challenged Howard, another Westminster tale with no real-world meaning. Flick again: an analysis of the opinion polls. Will Letwin lose his seat? Will Howard keep the leadership?

Froth built on froth, gossip drawing on gossip: this is what passes for politics in one of the most powerful democracies in the world. Politicians and the press often collude in this cretinisation of the electorate. And I kept thinking: what if they held an election and nobody came?

If ordinary voters want to find straightforward information about how this election affects their lives, they have to wade through so much rubbish I don't blame many of them for giving up. Look, for example, at an issue that affects at least two million: the minimum wage. Un-noted by the press, Labour is committed to a nine per cent rise this year and more rises year on year - hundreds of extra pounds for cleaners, hospital porters and dinner ladies. This kind of cash makes a real difference if you are skint. The Tories, by contrast, are committed to freezing the minimum wage, gradually driving its value down in real terms.

But I spoke to five people who admitted to being on the minimum wage, and none of them were aware of this hefty potential change in their lives; all said they would seriously consider voting Labour because of it. It's a shaming indictment of the media that the only way to get serious attention for this policy would be if Blair and Brown had a bust-up row about it.

If we wanted to take democracy seriously - if we wanted general elections to be more than a quadrennial plebiscite approving whatever the political class has already decided - what would we do differently? In an iPod age where we all expect to be able to access 10,000 songs in a second, it is bizarre that our political choices are restricted to two homogenous parties (or, at best, three). In every area of our lives we expect personalisation and nuance - but when it comes to politics, we are expected to be blunt and bovine. Only a multi-party proportional electoral system can make politics compatible with complex consumer preferences, giving us a political menu that stretches from the Greens to the BNP.

There are smaller measures that could help to make general election campaigns more lively. Perhaps the boldest proposal for making our democracy meaningful is put forward by American political scientists Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin in their book Deliberation Day.

It's deceptively simple: they suggest that election day is declared a public holiday, and every citizen is offered £150 to participate in a day of deliberation on democratic issues. It would be structured like jury service: citizens would form groups of 15 and would watch a televised debate between the main political leaders. They would then retire for an hour and discuss the questions they want to ask of local representatives of the parties. All the groups would then reconvene and the "foreman" of each "jury" would put questions on behalf of his group. After lunch, there would be an afternoon session repeating this process - and, finally, payment. I explained this idea to the Real People I met this week, and most said they would be keen.

Ackerman and Fishkin believe this would drive up wider political standards: politicians could be capable of communicating in more than soundbites and idiot-speak. They would know that their statements are going to be subject to widespread scrutiny, rather than just skewed media scandalmongering.

To readers engaged enough to buy The Independent, this might seem irrelevant or patronising. But two-thirds of British people tell pollsters they either never discuss politics, or spend less than 10 minutes a week on it. What kind of meaningful democracy can emerge from such ignorance? Doesn't it simply encourage voters to get lost in a sea of £35bn-counterpledges and either drop out altogether or judge politicians on the shininess of their smiles? 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.

It's too late for this election, but on 6 May the government - whatever its political hue - should begin seriously discussing ways to make British democracy meaningful. The alternative is to carry on with campaigns like this one. Do we really want to be trapped in this political Groundhog Day, where once every four years we spend a painful, barely democratic month witnessing the airless, grinding circulation of ignorance?