Steve Richards: The grotesque distortion of regarding politics as a boring version of 'Big Brother'

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The Independent Online

Forget about the rain. A summer of hyperactive fun is about to begin.

Tonight Big Brother returns. Once more, millions will vote to evict those they loathe but partly adore. As if that was not enough, the World Cup is looming. Again this will be sweatily draining entertainment. The radio phone lines are jammed already with callers giving their views to angry or prematurely euphoric hosts. Rooney's too crocked! Walcott's too young! Sven has no passion (at least when watching football, ho, ho, ho). If there were a referendum on England's best starting eleven, the turnout would be overwhelmingly high.

Yet none of this impacts directly on our lives. The only lives that change fleetingly as a result of Big Brother are those of the participants. If England win the World Cup, the direct beneficiaries will be the multimillionaire players alone. Still there will be sleepless nights over the coming months as we agonise about the fate of those with whom we identify or in some cases identify against.

For reasons that are complicated and dangerous, the opposite applies to politics. Voters are disengaged and disillusioned although politicians take decisions that impact much more directly on their lives. Political leaders across the spectrum are viewed with disdain or indifference, while unashamedly loutish footballers are idolised.

Some argue that if politics were presented in a Big Brother-style, it would be viewed with a similar, passionate interest. The theory was taken to its logical extreme when George Galloway became a member of the Celebrity Big Brother house. Even admirers of Galloway admit this was not a wise career move. But the theory does not work because politics is presented much of the time as if it was Big Brother. Who should we evict from the Cabinet this week? When should Blair be evicted from No 10? Evict Prescott from Dorneywood!

The unrelenting presentation of politics as a darkly comic soap opera is a grotesque distortion, but makes its mark. The misleading and sycophantic presentation of footballers and Big Brother non-celebrities leads to deification. The equally misleading portrayal of the political soap opera turns off voters.

They turn away with good cause. Look at what has happened since the eviction of Charles Clarke from the Home Office. As I predicted, the interest in the issue of foreign prisoners has largely faded. The eviction mattered much more than the substance. Indeed, now Clarke has gone, it appears that it was not his fault. Irrationally, but predictably, it is the Human Rights Act that is now getting the blame. Let's evict the Human Rights Act! Stand back from the frenzy and what is obvious is that Britain is governed by a group of well-meaning but cowed and flawed politicians, terrified that they will be up for eviction next.

These thoughts are prompted by the launch of Labour's "Let's Talk", an initiative, with its echoes of Alan Partridge, that is easy to mock and, of course, was ridiculed in some newspapers. I attended the launch on Monday expecting the worst, but came away sensing that, in one particular way, the organisers were on to something. There are lessons here for the way politics is practised and, equally important, the way complex issues are conveyed.

At the inaugural event, six groups chaired by Labour MPs discussed various aspects of public service reforms. Those sitting around the tables were by no means ultra-Blairites selected on the basis of their undying loyalty to their leader. Labour MPs John Denham and Karen Buck chaired groups. They have both raised questions about Blair's future in recent weeks. Other participants were frontline workers, business leaders and those from the voluntary sector. Some were Labour members. Others were not.

The issues raised in discussions with Blair included the dangers of the Government acting on the basis of perceptions about crime rather than reality, the fears that hospitals were being privatised by stealth, the limitations of choice within the NHS when health care is unavoidably rationed, the distorting impact of targets set from the centre.

In response, Blair acknowledged that choice was not a panacea, but he sought to create incentives within a system so as to raise standards across the board. He cited the persistent frustration: why is it that some parts of a particular public service work well, and in other parts the system fails? With good cause, he defended the use of national targets but accepted that there was a need for fewer and more sophisticated ones. In a separate discussion, he highlighted the successes and limitations of Sure Start, pointing out that those who took part in the innovative scheme have by definition decided to act. How to get under the radar and help those who were unwilling to be helped or are indifferent to the help being offered?

The tone on both sides was discursive and thoughtful. The implicit theme will dominate politics in the years to come and was the understated source of tension within government during Labour's second term. It relates to the role of the state in the provision of public services, the degree to which power can be devolved to local providers and users while national governments retain responsibility for the quality of services and raising the cash to pay for them.

The event was contrived and unreal, yet it managed to be authentic, conveying a greater sense of what governing is really like, the dilemmas and challenges, than most political events. The limitations were obvious. Much of the Government's programme has already been decided in advance of the discussions that took place on Monday. Such forums can be used to reinforce a leader's prejudices rather than challenge them. Informed critics within traditional party structures can be bypassed and replaced by more shapeless forums.

Still there is a need for more such grown-up conversations in the open if the debased political culture is to change. Why not discuss more openly the dilemmas of the forthcoming public spending round? Pivotal ministerial discussions take place behind closed doors and announcements made about the provision of huge sums of money that no one can relate to. Voters do not make the connections. To take one example, NHS walk-in centres open up around the country. Most people seem to think it is a coincidence that public spending has increased. They do not make the connections. In Big Brother, they vote and some one is evicted. The connections are easily made.

Let the summer begin. I am a football addict looking forward to the World Cup, and recently held my own during a three-hour nocturnal car journey with Carol Thatcher, victor of I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! But politics is not just a boring version of the jungle. It matters. Politicians must find new ways to show it matters. Let's talk.