How often in the past three months have we looked enviously across the Atlantic and asked why it is that we can't do grass-roots politics with the same healthy verve and populism that distinguishes the United States in a presidential election year? Hillary and Barack may have made 2008 a vintage primary season, but every US presidential contest has its rousing town-hall meetings, its lawn posters, its corny lapel buttons and its spectacular school-gym balloon drops.
This may be the age of television and the internet, but it does not stop the candidates from touring the highways and byways every hour that God gives them, taxing the capability of crackly microphones, shaking hands, kissing babies and answering impertinent questions from the floor.
There are many reasons to despair of our own political scene. With only three weeks to go to 1 May, how many council election events are bringing in the crowds? How many election hustings are actually being held? Is anyone even trying to raise the local election turnout from its shameful 30 per cent or so?
In this respect the contest for London Mayor has so far been extraordinarily disappointing. There can be no excuses. In Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, we have two high-profile, outspoken candidates going head to head out there, and a dozen other candidates, including a sparky Green, Sian Berry, and for the Lib Dems, the former Met officer Brian Paddick.
But how many genuinely public meetings has either of the front-runners held? How many have they advertised? To be sure, they put in fleeting appearances at markets and on riversides – picture opportunities for the local television news – and they took part in a pitiable debate on BBC's Newsnight. But town-hall meetings, school gyms, garden squares? Where are these would-be mayors spending their evenings? It is certainly not trying to win over ordinary voters.
What cannot be said – and here my gloom lightens a little – is that London is not interested. I'm sure the same applies elsewhere. In the past five years or so, there has been an upsurge in grass-roots political engagement that may be almost without precedent. Debates, question times and the like – even on seemingly abstruse subjects – play regularly to overflowing houses.
What you need to link up all these would-be participants with mainstream politics is a real contest, and a sense that one individual's voice or vote really matters. The widespread feeling that "we the people" were ignored over the Iraq war may be a reason why so many have subsequently looked outside party politics for their controversies. Another reason is surely the preponderance of safe seats, whether for the local council or Parliament. The turnout in marginals can be 20 or more points higher than in constituencies where the result is a foregone conclusion.
Any open hustings event for London mayor, held at an accessible location at a sensible time of day, would be oversubscribed many times over. I say this with complete confidence, because this is what happened when one such event was held earlier this week. The trouble was that it was "members only" and so popular with members that there was no outside advertising. More than 2,000 people crammed Westminster's Central Hall to hear Livingstone, Johnson, Paddick and Berry answer a series of policy challenges from dozens of local community groups, united under the umbrella of a 10-year-old organisation called London Citizens.
This was a rapt audience of all colours and all faiths, with their local affiliation proudly displayed. There was something of the revival meeting, the mega-church about it, leavened with a measure of the BBC's Question Time. Boris took his smattering of boos in good spirit. Ken came across as genially managerial.
But what was also obvious, even inspiring – aside from a real sense of civic pride and a pent-up yearning to have a say in the future of the capital – was the number of hugely articulate and potentially first-class politicians Britain has in the making, of absolutely every colour and creed.
We British can do grass-roots politics; we really can. All it takes is some big characters and a real contest. If only they would invite us to take part.
Too young for free bus passes
Richard Elloway, a 61-year-old pensioner, has gained a very British sort of fame. This week he became the first person to travel free from Land's End to John O'Groats using local buses – a record made possible by the introduction of free bus passes for over-60s at the beginning of the month.
Now you can call me mean-spirited, and you probably will, but I really wonder about all this free bus travel for every sexagenarian. The nationwide extension of the free local bus pass scheme cost £1bn. Why is the taxpayer spending this money to subsidise many – I have in mind primarily men under 65 and still working – who could well afford to pay for their tickets?
Scarcely a day goes by without my encountering, on my London bus route, hale and hearty, expensively dressed grey-heads, cheerfully presenting their "freedom pass" to the driver. They sometimes justify their free travel with a quizzical laugh to no one in particular, asking why they should not claim what is, after all, an entitlement.
Well, here's why. I have no objection at all to those of pensionable age qualifying for free bus travel. Indeed, as an enthusiastic bus passenger, I look forward to showing my own "Freedom pass" one day. But with everyone living longer and the pensionable age standing at 65 for men and rising progressively to 67 for both sexes, I see no reason why the bus pass should not come with the pension – whenever that is – rather than with the completion of six decades on this earth. Of course, disabled people should continue to benefit at any age.
Mr Elloway, a retired teacher from Devon, clearly anticipated the criticism of us jaded "young-ies", and used his week-long trip to raise funds for Breaks4Kids, a charity under the auspices of the Youth Hostel Association, which provides holidays for disabled and disadvantaged children. So well done, Mr Elloway, on every count. You've drawn my sting. It's just that not everyone is like you.
* What is a debate? I ask only because, to my mind, a debate is a formal duel of oratory and argument, with two or three advocates on either side. It involves showmanship, posturing and fierce differentiation. Increasingly, though, the term has become debased.
Anything that involves a panel and a talking point is dubbed a debate these days, with the result that those taking part don't really know whether they are "debating" or "discussing" or being consulted as specialist authorities.
When panellists interpret "debate" differently, you end up with something that is neither fish nor fowl – and not a satisfactory elucidation of anything. Time to go back to basics.
* Daffy Ducks, human-size bottles, supercharged wheelchairs and, yes, a good number of world-class athletes will throng the streets of London tomorrow, willed on to the finish line by thousands upon thousands of well-wishers. Local heroine Paula Radcliffe may have ruled herself with an injured toe, but there will be more than 46,000 others to cheer on. If last year is anything to go by, more than 35,000 of those who started will force themselves up the Mall, to be enveloped in a Batman-style tinfoil cloak as they collapse.
Part carnival, part pageant, part international championship, the London Marathon has raised more than £200m for charity since it began in 1981 – a feat unmatched by any of its rivals; three out of four runners are also fund-raising.
With so many participants doing so many different things, London has evolved a unique combination of clockwork organisation and laid-back cheerfulness. It is the single reason why I, an inveterate non-runner, persist in thinking that we are not only supremely qualified to stage the 2012 Olympics – but will make a brilliant success of it, too.Reuse content