A silly, bogus consultation - yet it could force people to face some hard choices

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As a means of reconnecting the Government with the people, the consultation exercise to be launched today is - of itself - most unlikely to succeed. It would be cynical to point out that "listening to the people" is what political parties say they will do when they know they have to change their policies but either have no idea what to change them to or do not want to reveal their intentions at the moment.

It is what Labour did in the 1980s, with "Labour Listens"; it is what William Hague did with "Listening to Britain"; but they were in opposition. Now Tony Blair is doing it in government with the "big conversation" about an open-ended document called "Prospectus". It would be cynical to point out that Mr Blair's idea of consultation is often to decide what he wants to do and then ask people what they think. It would be cynical to point out that this has all the marks of a public relations stunt designed to counter the impression that the Government was not listening to the voters about Iraq or tuition fees. And it would be cynical to ask how much the taxpayer is paying for all this, and whether it is a proper use of public money.

So let us be cynical and pour scorn on the timing and nature of this exercise. Let us remark in passing on the curiosity of a Prime Minister who was once derided for slavishly following focus groups having become so frightened by the reaction when he did eventually hold firm to some unpopular policies that he resorts to such a transparent device in an attempt to restore the previous position. Let us observe the contradiction, into which ministers have already run, of launching a consultation while insisting that their plans for university top-up fees - which this newspaper supports, as it happens - are not up for negotiation.

Let us also note the impracticality of the exercise, with its silly, fashionable, gameshow-aping invitation to people to text in their suggestions on mobile phones. If the Government wants to know what people think, there are established research methods for finding out, which in the past it has deployed with great skill.

All this in turn reinforces the suspicion that the exercise is not an invitation to a genuine dialogue but to take part in a presentational scam.

And yet, there is more to this consultation exercise than that. It is possible that some good may come of it. In the first place, it is churlish to criticise Mr Blair for at least going through the motions of encouraging informed debate. Much of the background material prepared by the Prime Minister's strategy unit on the long-term challenges for the country is important and challenging.

There are many issues where the short-term focus of journalism as much as the cowardice of politicians has militated against cool consideration of big choices. Many of these dilemmas are not amenable to resolution by opinion poll. As Michael Brown points out in this paper today, people tell opinion researchers that they want better services and lower taxes, for example, a refusal to choose that is pushing Labour ever further into the area of quasi-taxes and user charges.

The debate about Europe is also bedevilled by short-termism, whereas a longer view may offer a truer picture of the kind of constitution that politicians could safely put to a referendum, to take one example.

These are not questions that can be resolved simply by a publicity stunt either. But a consultation exercise could be part of the solution if two conditions are met. One is that it must ask the right questions - and asking questions is all the Government claims to be doing today. The other is that the politicians asking the questions have to show leadership as well. This is not a matter of Mr Blair closing off debate before it has begun, but of telling people what he believes to be the difficult choices that have to be faced if objectives such as greater equality are to be met. If today's exercise meets that test, it could conceivably be worthwhile.