Leading article: The urgent need to return politics to the people


The report published today by the Rowntree Trust does not mince its words. Of Britain's political system, it says: "The current way of doing politics is killing politics". Over 300 pages, it charts how far the present political practices diverge from the requirements of the 21st century, and recommends how political power could, in its words, be rebalanced.

This is one of the most wide-ranging studies of the workings of our unwritten constitution to have been conducted in recent years. That it was undertaken at all suggests how profound is the unease about the quality of our democracy as it has evolved in recent years. Whether this derives from the Blair government's extensive use of "spin" or, more simply, because our constitutional instruments were designed for another era, it is an unease we share.

From the declining turnout at elections to the pervasive public cynicism that seeks a secret agenda behind every Government initiative, there is ample evidence that our democracy is ailing - at least as far as mainstream party politics is concerned. But it is clear, too, that politics is bursting out in less orthodox forms, because conventional channels are inadequate to accommodate the causes about which voters feel strongly. There is a sense that people and politicians inhabit different worlds. This study, admirably, proposes practical changes that could be made to bring those worlds back together.

Among them are several for which this paper has long campaigned. Its call for a form of proportional representation to replace the first-past-the-post system in all elections is the very least that is needed to bring power closer to the people. The mismatch, so clear at the last election, between the distribution of votes cast and the representation of each party in Parliament is the most elementary deterrent to voting. In current circumstances it is a tribute to an enduring sense of civic responsibility that as many people vote as do.

Other welcome recommendations include caps on the permitted amount of private contributions to political parties, and state funding to support local party activity. A proposal that the right to propose legislation be extended to MPs and to interest groups outside Parliament could also increase the involvement of non-mainstream players. Linking individual participation in elections more closely to civics classes by lowering the voting and candidacy ages to 16 is a positive and forward-looking idea.

There is much else in this report that bears serious consideration. "Mapping" of quangos and other bodies, regular listing of ministerial meetings with business representatives and lobbyists, an independent national statistical agency and the statutory involvement of the public in decision-making by public bodies would all contribute to transparency - the lack of which currently fuels all manner of suspicions about the way in which government operates. A clear demarcation of powers and responsibilities between the executive and the legislature and between central and local government, as the report also recommends, is long overdue.

This is a hugely important report that should be considered and acted upon without delay. And while some parts could be implemented separately, it offers a clear and comprehensive blueprint for reform that deserves to be treated as a whole. The Government's sudden rediscovery of House of Lords reform as a priority this weekend may be a sign that it hopes to deflect attention from the many other aspects of this report by accepting a partially elected House of Lords. This would be to slide out of its wider responsibilities. Sympathetic MPs and peers must unite with the voting public to make sure that this does not happen.

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