Of the people, by the people, for the people: Ian Taylor reports on Channel 4's experiment in Westminster-style debate without politicians

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PUBLIC interest in politics may increase following the election to the Labour leadership of Tony Blair, but we British are still very unhappy with our politicians: poll after poll places them way down the league table of public esteem.

Distrust of politicians and their Westminster activities has a long post-war history. In the optimistic Sixties, criticism was directed primarily at the rigid and anachronistic rituals of the Palace of Westminster. More recently, criticism has often been provoked by disapproval of the predictable, partisan rhetoric of party politicians. However complex the issue - from the provision of health care or support for families to the effectiveness of schools - party spokesmen can reliably be expected to force that issue into a party 'line'.

Issues may also be simplified by politicians in their unending search for a 'soundbite' for radio and television. Here, the accusing finger points at the closed world of Westminster politicians with their 'spin doctors' and the lobby correspondents and national news reporters who daily reproduce a show of partisan and unengaging 'political debate'.

Throughout the Western world, television is widely believed to have a disempowering and pacifying effect on audiences, who then feel alienated from politics. In an attempt to re-engage people in politics, Professor James Fishkin in the United States has been experimenting with opinion polls and other instruments of public survey on television to marshall 'public deliberation' of a wide range of issues, and Professor Robert Bellah has been conducting research using a variety of discussion groups across the country.

Their aim has been to create a form of alternative democracy, to generate broader-based discussion than currently occurs either in Washington or on American television. In Britain, initiatives of this kind have been more muted, despite the best efforts of organisations such as Charter 88 and others, though Channel 4 in association with the Independent tried the Fishkin opinion-poll model earlier this year.

The situation may be about to change. On Saturday, in early evening prime time (7pm), Channel 4 will screen the first of a new series, The People's Parliament. Running throughout the summer, the programme will explore a different kind of relationship between politics, television and 'the people'. Filmed in Granada Television's House of Commons set in Manchester, and ostensibly reproducing some of the ritual of Westminster, The People's Parliament is an attempt to 're-empower' the disenfranchised electorate and explore the way in which a representative sample of people would respond to extended deliberation of difficult issues.

About 90 people have been selected from across the North of England to serve as members of the parliament, to debate a selection of the complex issues of the Nineties. Each programme deals with one subject, organised, initially, around speeches for, and against, a parliamentary motion and some initial debate. The MPPs (Members of the People's Parliament) are next presented with the recorded deliberations of a 'Select Committee', hearing evidence on the complexities of the issue from experts. The programme then switches back to the chamber to witness the response of the MPPs to the information they have just received, and to follow the re-thinking and strategic forming of alliances that emerges. In a concluding section, the programme shows the final voting of the parliament and the viewer is able to map the change of hearts and minds that has occurred since the MPPs' initial statement of intent.

Viewers will have to decide whether the format works as television and as democratically-inspiring political deliberation. Responses to the pilot programmes - on state benefits for single parents and banning physical punishment of children by parents - were very positive, not least because of the drama generated in the serious popular deliberation of topical, difficult issues.

Viewers seemed very quickly to identify with particular members of the parliament - whether with Pat Whitaker, an articulate grandmother of five, defending the disciplinary value of physical punishment of children, or with Kate Marnoch, a teacher in her thirties, astonished that such 'brutal' practices are still practised at the end of the 20th century.

There was a similarly strong and positive response to the woman Speaker of the People's Parliament, Lesley Riddoch, a thirtysomething Glasgow-born radio journalist, whose control of debates in a parliament without the discipline of party whips or given party lines, could make her a political star to challenge even Betty Boothroyd.

The People's Parliament will debate a range of pressing issues on which the left-right divisions of Westminster are frequently unhelpful: the legalisation of hard drugs, the supply of arms to oppressive regimes, Workfare - under which unemployed people would have to work for their benefit - sex education without parental consent, the defence of 'provocation' by women who kill, and positive action in favour of women in the labour market.

The first programme discusses the motion that persistent offenders below the age of 15 should be confined in secure units - an immediately topical issue that will inaugurate an important experiment in democracy by television.

The writer is professor of sociology at the University of Salford and an adviser to 'The People's Parliament'.

(Photograph omitted)