Monday, 18 August 2008
The next general election is hurtling towards us with the force of a damp sponge. We have, at most, 20 months until Decision Day– but who expects there to be a great fizzing debate? Who thinks we, the people, will have a chance to dig deep into our country's problems and tell our leaders how to put them right? Nobody. Instead it will be like an X-Factor final in a bad, bad year: which empty shell sounds sweetest? It's a bleak thought: in one of the world's oldest democracies, none of us expects democracy to work as it should.
But elections do not have to consist of the airless circulation of soundbites, bike-riding photo-ops and ignorance. We can do better than this. While we still have time, the three main parties can together table a Democracy Bill before parliament – to make sure we can make an informed choice between them. I would put at the very top of this bill public funding of political parties, and proportional representation. But Cameron's Tories have combined with a weird coalition of Labour Party Blairites and Bennites to thwart both. So let's stick here to simple measures all three parties could swiftly agree on before the looming election.
Item One: Deliberation Day. The American political scientists Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin have come up with a simple democracy-deepener. Declare every general election a national holiday, and offer every citizen £150 to take part, there and then, in a day of debate, modelled on jury service. In the morning you watch a televised debate between the main political leaders, and then you divide into groups of 15 who go off for an hour to discuss what you've seen. Together, you figure out a series of questions you want to put to local representatives of the political parties – about any issue on earth. Then, when all the groups come together, the "foreman" of your "jury" puts your questions. After lunch, you reassemble to debate what you've heard. Then you vote, and take your cheque.