Leading article: In search of democracy

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The Independent Online

Our One of the Above campaign to persuade as many people as possible to use their right to vote has started well. Facebook is running a registration drive among its 23 million British users. The Electoral Commission and many local councils are running information campaigns to remind people there is still time to register until Tuesday next week, 20 April. Our readers have responded enthusiastically, many of them suggesting that reform of the voting system is an essential part of democratic renewal, a subject to which we shall return in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, we continue our campaign today with a report from Liverpool Riverside, the constituency with the lowest turnout in recent elections, where our Political Editor detects welcome signs of a revival of optimism and political engagement. Indeed, as the election campaign got under way last week, the opinion polls nationally suggest that the record levels of alienation from the mechanics of democracy are abating. After the record low turnouts of the last two general elections, more people are expected to cast their votes this time round. The fury engendered by the revelation of MPs' expense claims is being overtaken by the interest in a close race and, as our ComRes poll today suggests, by an optimism that the ethical standards of the new Parliament will be higher than those of the largely unlamented assembly that is dissolved tomorrow.

However, that optimism needs to be supported by the way in which this election is fought. The next stage of our campaign to renew our democracy consists of a demand for greater honesty from the politicians seeking to earn our support. In our coverage of the election, The Independent on Sunday hopes to focus on the issues that we believe are important, rather than simply on ping-pong reporting of claim and counter-claim by the parties. We start by identifying the level of government borrowing as the huge issue that the two main parties want to play down. Jon Moulton, the business leader, argues today that the deficit ought to be the most important issue in this election.

Instead, what have we had? Gordon Brown could not be brought to use the word "cuts" for months and months, last year. After he eventually admitted that public spending would have to be cut after the election, he carried on as if he had not. David Cameron, after months of presenting himself as more fiscally responsible than Mr Brown, decided to offer an unfunded tax cut – in the form of cancelling part of a planned rise in National Insurance contributions – the week before the election was called. Yesterday, he casually gave up another half a billion pounds of revenue for his marriage tax relief. This was notionally "paid for" by the Tory insurance levy on banks. But if the deficit is such a threat to our economic future as Mr Cameron recently accepted that it was, he cannot be handing out sweeteners like this – leaving aside the multiple unfairnesses of the policy.

On one level, the voters know that the deficit is a hidden problem: 63 per cent tell ComRes they agree that "neither Labour nor the Conservatives are being honest" on the issue. Yet the Conservative U-turn on National Insurance may be a tacit admission that we voters cannot bear too much honesty about the state of the public finances. It may have been that the Conservatives' enthusiasm for tackling the deficit was responsible for the narrowing of the polls in recent months. Maybe, but that does not mean that this newspaper has to go along with a conspiracy of silence between the two main parties. It is worth noting that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable for the Liberal Democrats are significantly more blunt about the savings that need to be made, and slightly more straightforward about the taxes that need to be raised.

Politicians are fond of saying that there are difficult choices to be made, without specifying what they are or which options they favour. But there really are some hard decisions coming up. Our report today of the appalling treatment of a doctor who blew the whistle on poor NHS management raises profound questions of how to get the best out of the many billions that have been invested in the public services in the past decade. Those questions are not going to be resolved by pretending that resources over the next decade are going to be as plentiful. Symbolic policies and gestures are all very well, but if people really are to be persuaded that voting is worthwhile, they need to be presented with real choices. Watch this space.

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