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Monday, February 27, 2006

Power to the people

On the basis that there should be great rejoicing at a sinner repenting and entering the gates of heaven then today's conversion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reducing the voting age to 16 and local empowerment must be welcome.

He says the executive must give up power, and again backs changes to the unelected House of Lords. Labour dropped the idea of voting at 16 after the proposal was rejected by the Electoral Commission, but Mr Brown's aides say the chancellor is in favour, so long as it is part of a package of "citizenship education" in schools.

The chancellor's ideas were inspired by a tour of Britain in which he claims to have discovered "a new country being born". "We must address what today holds Britain back - low turnouts, youth disengagement, falling party membership and a long-term decline in trust - problems that owe more to our political system than our civic culture," he says.

Those of us who have been campaigning for these reforms all our political life however need to note the caveats, a sign that when it comes to actually legislating for change the Government is likely to back off. Mr. Brown is in favour of enfranchising 16 and 17 year olds only if he can be convinced that they understand what they are voting for.

I have news for him, disinterest, apathy and incomprehension is not age specific. The point is that we have to trust people to vote for their own reasons, to let them learn how to use power in their own way and to let them come to their own understanding of the political system and those who inhabit it. That is real empowerment. We should not go down the route of introducing a political diploma as a gateway to voting.

Secondly, the Chancellor is right that there is disengagement and distrust of politicians. I have speculated before that these trends took a sharp upward turn around the time that Parliament began live television broadcasts and people saw MPs at work for the first time, however there is of course much more to it than this.

Liberal Democrats always face a danger that their advocacy of electoral reform can be viewed as a panacea that will change all the country's ills. Indeed many seem to believe that this is the case. It is not. Nevertheless, the package that the Power Commission has put together is one that will start to address many of the issues that we are concerned with:

· Individual donations to parties to be capped at £10,000, and those from organisations at £100 a member
· First past the post to be replaced with a voting system boosting the chances of small parties and independent candidates
· 70% of members in the House of Lords to be elected. Only over-40s eligible, to ensure they have experience of life outside politics
· Each voter to allocate £3 of public money to a party
· Citizens to gain the right to initiate new laws and public inquiries
· Ministerial meetings with lobbyists and representatives of business to be logged and listed monthly

The proposals on party funding and on lobbyists are extremely important. As a politician I have a deep suspicion of people who hire out their access and knowledge. I believe that others would do well to share that mistrust. Equally, if there is one thing that turns people off, it is the sight of rich people using donations to political parties to obtain influence and peerages. These things need to be regulated but there also needs to be some form of public funding so that parties are less tempted to find loopholes around the regulations.

That the report recognises that first past the post voting for the House of Commons has had its day is welcome, what is not so good is that it does not go so far as to explicitly recommend proportional representation. Gordon Brown it seems, can not even sign up to that compromise. He says Labour must be prepared to reopen the debate on electoral reform for the House of Commons, a proposal he has previously opposed. In other words, make encouraging noises and then shelve the idea altogether. It is no wonder that people are cynical about politicians.
Gordon Brown has shown an interest in the commission by speaking at its launch and will also be at the conference on March 25th.

Lets hope he can follow this will concrete proposals.

Typically the right wing are scared rigid - not a word from Cameron, most of their papers didn't even report it (DM scathingly on page 7, ditto Torygraph, all the rest totally ignored it). Compare this to the front page coverage of the Guardian and Independent. An issue with plenty of eyecatching headlines like votes at 16 etc. and the support of the chancellor and the Sun,Star,Times,Express don't report it, they must be scared!
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