LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
Well, I think all of us in the newspaper trade can congratulate ourselves on an excellent first week of the campaign, conducted according to the finest traditions of British journalism. We are beating them, you see: it is politicians nil, hacks four. Sex acts in public parks, men dressed as rhinos and foxes, and a fight between two chickens have been the weapons used to keep serious issues away from public life, and very successful they've been. Well done, all!

That said, today's front-page story on pensions is, to my mind, our most important domestic news of the week. That's a real scandal, not a Sun one. Under-informed and worried people are encouraged to engage in insufficiently protected financial relationships with the pension companies, who are among the greatest and most powerful baronies of modern Britain. For tens of thousands of people, often frugal and careful, it is the financial equivalent of very unsafe sex indeed.

And where are the politicians, whose job must include regulating this? It is not as if they haven't been warned. This story is not a re-run of the great pensions fiasco of the late Eighties - but there are strong echoes. Then, people lost big sums of money because they were bribed by the Government to leave occupational pension schemes and buy into private schemes, often with big hidden charges. As it happens, the junior minister defending this duff legislation in 1986 was John Major. But the wider point is that it was a failure, not simply of individual ministers, but of the process itself, a failure of parliamentary scrutiny of vital legislation. Some 350,000 people were affected and things, it seems, have got little better since. Those who still say that politics and political reform don't matter to the real world might like to chew on that.

It was a new experience for me, but it is going to become routine for most of us. Opening The Independent's on-line debating forum earlier this week, I lost my Net virginity (an appropriate image, I guess, since our election site - http://www.virgin.net - is done with Virgin Net). Two hours passed in a flash as I tapped out responses to a bewildering range of Independent cybernauts and passing trade who wanted to talk about the election. They learned what was going on on the front page, and what we thought about Blair, Major etc.

But what did I learn? First that this works; it has advantages over the traditional letters page, since readers can argue with us properly, rather than by stately broadside. The disadvantages are that you progress by sentences or phrases, rather than by considered paragraphs; and that it eats up time. But it was a curiously comfortable, intimate pub-like atmosphere.

Most talkers were, I guess, young. Though a few electronic hecklers swept through, and one confused tapper was looking excitedly for sex talk, they seemed well informed about politics and had serious questions - about the way that sleaze had dominated early coverage of the campaign, the privatisation of London Underground, pension reform and so on. My strongest impression - and it's a gross generalisation - was of people whose political outlook could not be described by any single adjective, never mind party. Many were guardedly pro-Thatcher, anti-Europe but also strongly libertarian and green: it was, almost, Portillo-meets-Swampy. Are they purely People of the Net, or is there a big political constituency out there hiding beyond the frontiers of current parties?

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