LEADING ARTICLE:Why consumers are today's great reformers

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Great political reforms are usually the work of great social movements. The suffragettes in this century and the Chartists in the last rallied huge demonstrations in their cause to extend the franchise. What made them so potent was the combination of a simple, powerful idea and a political force prepared to carry them forward with a single-minded determination and clarity of purpose. There was no doubt about how the extension of voting rights touched both those in power and those wanting a share of it.

Judged by those standards it is easy to see why the latter-day advocates of constitutional reform are unlikely to make much headway, in England and Wales at least. Their ideas are at best unexciting, often complicated - all those calculations about proportional representation - and, worst of all, distant from the questions that dog people everyday. How good is my child's school? Will my job still be there next year? How will I ever sell my house? Should I be protesting at Newbury this weekend or should I go shopping?

Tony Blair made an effort this week to make constitutional reform seem sexy and interesting. But even that did not really lift the gloom that covers the idea of political reform. The debate seems to be a conversation within and between the elite about how it should conduct itself. The conservative Establishment (standard-bearer for the moment: Lord Howe) is battling with the modernising Establishment (joint leaders: Mr Blair and Sir Richard Scott).

This debate means a lot to the Establishment because it is about their jobs, their status and their perks. They care whether there is a House of Lords, elected mayors, regional governments, more council elections. The rest of us are to be little more than spectators.

That said, there is plenty of spectacle, some of it minor, some more dramatic, for us to view. Last year, there was the Nolan inquiry into political sleaze. Next week, Sir Richard, one of the UK's most powerful judges, will challenge a closed system of government that thinks it is a law unto itself. He will offer a rare glimpse of a culture of government which has been corrupted by its unaccountability and closedness.

On Wednesday, Mr Blair sketched out Labour's ambitious reform programme: abolition of the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, a Bill of Rights, Scottish and Welsh devolution, a Freedom of Information Act, elected mayors for London and other big cities. It would be the most extensive programme for constitutional reform since the Second World War.

These proposals touch all of us. On paper at least they would amount to the most far-reaching extension of political rights for decades. For once a politician is offering to give us something for free and he might mean it. In a country with no written constitution, a second chamber partly populated by the descendants of royal hangers-on and arguably the most secretive government in western Europe, one might expect such a sweeping programme of reform to provoke debate. Instead it has been met with indifference. Harriet Harman's choice of school for her son got us talking. The lottery is a staple of conversation. The future shape of British government leads most of us to yawn.

Tony Blair is not the leader of a great popular crusade to extend political power. He is a member of the Establishment seeking to revive flagging trust in the institutions of his trade. The motley and often disorganised forces of reform - in the judiciary, politics and the media - have not captured the public imagination. The big demonstration this weekend will not be over a putative Bill of Rights or an elected mayor for London: it will be in Newbury as protesters rally against the building a new bypass.

One reason why reform proposals make so little headway is the power of the opposition they meet. The conservative Establishment is far from complacent. It has set out to discredit the Scott report even before it is published. Mr Blair's programme for constitutional reform has produced a similar reaction, resurrecting the ghost of the Duke of Wellington, who battled against change in the last century under the motto: "Beginning reform is beginning revolution."

This week, Brian Mawhinney, the Union flag draped behind him, warned darkly, but equally ludicrously, that unseating hereditary peers could "pose a threat to our entire constitutional settlement".

The anti-reformers play to a powerful conservatism. People have become so cynical about politics, they expect so little from it, that even a radical programme of reform is unlikely to get them excited. The great movements to extend the franchise were based on the notion that much could be achieved through Parliament: universal suffrage led to social legislation and ultimately the creation of the welfare state. These days, most people don't expect conventional politics to achieve very much for them. These days, if you want to change your life, you don't look to legislation: you go down to the gym, learn a new skill, go out shopping, or buy a lottery ticket and pray.

It is not that Britain is unsuited or unready for far-reaching change. Take this week alone. British Gas is splitting up because it is ill-suited to face competition, which will provide much greater choice in the gas market. A satellite broadcaster is threatening to uproot much of sport on television in the name of choice. We are still debating the rights and wrongs of parental choice in schools. In all these instances, large and powerful institutions are being reshaped in the name of individual choice.

Consumerism, individualism and self-improvement are perhaps the most powerful social currents of our times. Untapped by Thatcherism, they are still coursing through society. Mr Blair's reform plans have failed to excite because they have failed to tap this source of energy. He has to convince voters that an elected city mayor will make a difference to their lives. He must explain what they will be able to do with a Bill of Rights that they cannot do already. What freedom can people gain from a Freedom of Information Act that they do not currently enjoy, and how would it change their lives?

If Mr Blair wants to rally a movement behind political reform, he will have to harness today's consumerist culture and convince everyone that modernised political institutions will extend choice and make it more powerful. He had better start soon. The anti-reformers are already well prepared for battle.