Leading Article: Homes, taxes and Madagascar

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The Independent Online
Try this next time you meet your MP. Step up, take him or (occasionally) her by the hand and say the words "constitutional reform". Stand back and watch a strange physical reaction set in; the eyes stray to the watch, the legs begin to twitch, the hands to fidget. You are the unattractive dancing partner at the office party. He or she will want to get away - to leave you to your lonely enthusiasms.

This is not entirely irrational behaviour. Traditionally, those who have campaigned for constitutional change - such as Charter 88 - have ploughed their furrow in a different field to that of the majority of voters. MPs are sensitive to this; they do not want to waste their time with you - discussing the Malagasy constitution or PR in Costa Rica - when they could be talking jobs, health and taxes with all your neighbours.

But, after reading the Rowntree Reform Trust "State of the Nation" poll, detailed in this newspaper today, your member may in the future decide to join you in animated conversation after all. For the poll suggests big majorities for certain reforms. For instance, the need for Scottish devolution has become almost consensual in Britain - only a tiny group of eccentrics oppose it. Likewise, more than three-quarters of adult Britons seem to favour a freedom of information act, a bill of rights and a written constitution. If voters are less enamoured of a change in voting system than they were, that could be because they believe that they can now get rid of the Government without it.

Sadly, these figures will not of themselves propel politicians into the reform camp. They will still use their own devices to measure opinion: the postbag and the doorstep. Whatever the poll says, few feel strongly enough to write in and say that they are incensed about the lack of formal codification of citizen's rights, or stand at the door, ignoring their negative equity, to moan about the House of Lords. Which is why we are right to suspect that even New Labour, under that nice Mr Blair, will be tempted to renege on its commitments to reform after winning an election.

However, there is another, much more ominous message from the Rowntree poll that should strengthen the argument for changing some of the ways in which we are governed; these are the findings about just how low politicians have sunk in the estimation of the voters. There is a sharp upward trend in the numbers thinking that Parliament works badly and that our system is "out of date".

This disenchantment is dangerous - and it is only in part caused by the personal activities of MPs themselves. Much of it is a rationalisation of a rather diffuse perception that we are not well or openly governed. Wise politicians will seek ways of channelling these feelings into much- needed reform. So next time you meet, you could ask your MP: "Are you wise?"