Treat us like adults

Our political system treats us like children. It's time it grew up, says Paddy Ashdown
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The two most important moments of 1997 were the general election and the death of Princess Diana. There is an intriguing contrast between them.

The change of government that swept Tony Blair into Downing Street was momentous, not before time, but not unprecedented. The tidal wave of applause that swept through the doors of Westminster Abbey after Earl Spencer's speech at his sister's funeral felt like something new. It symbolised a deeper change - in the culture, and in the relationship between leaders and led. The "establishment" was obliged - quite literally - to take its lead from a public it had for so long kept at a distance.

And this perception of "people power" comes at the same time as a stack of evidence that politics has reached a hiatus, a dead zone in which one series of political debates has run its course and a new dispensation is yet to come into focus.

It is agreed that the old political paradigm of left and right is now meaningless. The far reaches of each, Fascism and Communism, are part of history. Those who were less than totalitarian yet still unreconstructed - the nationalists and nationalisers - have been defeated. We are all centrists now ... But we are not the same. The left/right axis tells only one side of the story.

A fascinating survey by the Institute of Economic Affairs with MORI, Beyond Left And Right, has reclassified people not only according to their view of the degree of economic control that a government should have (essentially the driver of the left/right model), but according to their views on personal freedom - how much the government should legislate on social issues. Hence MORI reclassifies the electorate as conservatives (small c), libertarians, socialists, authoritarians and centrists.

This adds a dimension to the old left/right version but is not nearly sufficient in categorisation or comprehensiveness. Look no further than the fact that the report says Lib Dem support comes from "socialists" while Labour draws 23 per cent of "conservatives". We need to find another axis in looking for a new model.

So what is the missing differentiator? I feel it is connected with some of the non-political currents operating in today's world. The reaction to Diana's death showed that people are more confident about expressing themselves as a national community. At the same time, the public is better educated and informed than ever before. People are becoming used to more sophisticated choices: fewer live in council homes, more buy property; more travel independently, fewer take packages; niche markets are booming. "Customer care" and customisation is the name of the game. Successful companies are moving towards personalised packaging of products and services, away from homogeneity. A paternalistic approach to "staff" is being exchanged for an empowering approach to "people".

The common thread is that Britain is growing up. The public, with the notable and worrying exception of anincreasingly separate underclass, are refusing to be automated, mechanised, pigeonholed and stereotyped. They are managing their own lives, using new technologies and making their own decisions.

We live in a diverse, multifaceted, pick `n' mix society where people are treated like adults as consumers or employees, but still like children when it comes to voting. How many accept, for example, that "democracy" means having one vote every five years between three or four inseparable bundles of policies, each attached to a few high-profile individuals? How many believe that Westminster's adversarial bear pit serves as an appropriate forum for a 21st-century legislature?

So perhaps the missing differentiator for the new political paradigm is this: the degree to which people believe that the system needs reform, in particular through consultation, referendums and devolution of decision- making. This leads us to a new axis: between those who accept the rules (the traditionals) and those who don't (the radicals).

Traditionals give people a vote every five years; radicals want to give them a vote on key issues, nationally and locally, through referendums and introduce mechanisms whereby people can call for votes to be taken. Traditionals once in power believe people expect them to drive through their policies to demonstrate strength; radicals are prepared to give up or postpone their favourite policies if they are shown to be against the people's will. Traditionals fear U-turns; radicals fear losing the people's trust. For a traditional politician the worst nightmare is a party split; for a radical it is the absence of debate.

Let me say at this point that I do not believe that the radicals are all in the Liberal Democrats or the traditionals all in the other main parties. There are people in all major parties who want politics to grow up to match the maturity of the people. What is holding us back is the concentration of traditional thinking about the political and media establishment. This leaves us with a set of rules for Westminster and its coverage that resemble an elaborate 18th-century gavotte.

Westminster is treated by participants and observers as little more than a game in which you lose points or get "damaged" by "splits" or "movement", and win points for standing firm and disciplining errant colleagues. In such an atmosphere governments will understandably be loath to provoke genuine debate if every memo written by one cabinet minister to another means a week's worth of "split". They will resist changing policies as a genuine response to public concerns if they fear such action will be labelled a U-turn and cited for years as evidence of weakness.

Does it serve our democracy to suggest than any disagreement between ministers is unhealthy? Is it not more unhealthy to require the Cabinet to give the impression of total unity on every issue when logic and instinct tells you that such cannot be the case? Does it make us a more grown-up nation if a decision to hold a referendum or launch a review is labelled a "cop-out", implying that people would rather live in thrall to a strong government that disregards their views?

There are huge rows going on all the time about almost everything in Westminster and Whitehall. It would be a sorry state of affairs if there weren't. But we seem to hear debates only on those (often relatively minor) issues, in the great Westland tradition, where the Government is split or prone to move its position. Conversely, we hear nothing about many massive issues where there is no obvious split or U-turn going on. Currently the Government has umpteen reviews under way - notably into the minimum wage and the welfare state. Yet neither from Whitehall nor Fleet Street nor the broadcasting organisations do we detect any real urge to find out what the public wants to come from these reviews.

People are treated like cattle whose fate lies in the hands of those with more power and experience, rather than as educated individuals with views to express and judgements to exercise. For me, the radical platform for 1998, on which I am happy to stand, is that which offers people a chance to come into the political process.

In The Future Of Capitalism Lester Thurow argues that "societies flourish when beliefs and technologies are congruent; decline when the inevitable changes in beliefs and technologies become incongruent".

In Britain today technology is bringing people together in multifarious ways via mobile phones, the Internet, camcorders and satellites. Yet politics still requires them to visit a local school or village hall twice a decade and make a cross on a piece of paper. We can do better than this. It's time that our anachronistic and irrelevant system of politics caught up with the technological and commercial worlds that voters inhabit.

My New Year's resolution is to campaign for every opportunity and mechanism that will bring people into politics and help replace our dysfunctional system of government with a truly participative democracy. Have a radical `98.