Vote if you want to
I saw David Cameron in action again yesterday at the Power Inquiry's conference to discuss the findings and recommendations of their report. He's getting much better at speaking and growing into the role of leader. I'd venture to suggest that the majority of the audience were traditionally Labour, Lib Dem or Green voters, but he had them all on his side by the end of his session. Much better than the last time I saw him.
It's been a strange week for democracy in the UK. On Monday, IPPR decided it would be good idea to make voting compulsory in the future. I think this is a A Very Bad Idea, but hey, they're entitled to their opinion.
Their argument is that we need compulsory voting to counter greater voting inequality. From a social democratic point of view this sounds fair enough: Belgium and Australia have compulsory voting, and they have lower voting inequality, plus the Netherlands used to have it and when they abolished the system in the 1970s their voting inequality went up.
But I believe it's the job of politicians to go to where the people are, not to try and wrangle people into participation in a system that simply does not meet their needs. I'm with David Cameron on this one: "It's a bit like bribing people to come to your birthday party and then telling people how popular you are based on the fact that all those people have turned up."
Thursday saw Labour hit in the local elections and the Lib Dems tread water. The Greens, Conservatives and BNP were the winners, if that's possible in an election where the parties could only convince 36 per cent of the voting age population that any of them were worth voting for.
Tony Blair acted pretty quickly to reshuffle. We'll probably never know the real stories behind the botched elements like John Prescott keeping his title and perks or Geoff Hoon being confused about whether he was in the cabinet or not.
I think the reshuffle plays to the theory that Blair doesn't want Brown to rule for long, if at all. He's finally promoted the next generation into high profile positions. David Milliband gets a department of his own, as does Douglas Alexander. Ed Milliband (who was also very good at the Power Inquiry conference) and Ed Balls get ministerial roles. They're Cameron's competition, because they will develop the next wave of policy ideas and the new post Blair image for the Labour party. Brown's image and policies are already set because he's been around for so long - he'll have much more trouble reinventing himself.
After the Canadian Party
Canadian politics is interesting at the moment. No, really it is. It's uncertain whether the recently elected minority Conservative Government will last more than a few months and the Liberal Party have just set out to find a new leader as Paul Martin resigned at the weekend. Everything is in flux, so there are lots of debates and scandals for the media to follow, but I've been here talking about why none of this really matters because beneath the surface, democracy itself is in trouble.
It follows on from the work Tom and I did about the decline of political parties for the FT and I've also been talking about the recent Power Inquiry in the UK. More than one person here has said they think Canada needs its own Power Inquiry as the problems are very similar. My line has been that it's time to look outside formal politics for ways to revitalise democracy. I'm looking for examples of Do-it-yourself Democracy and I'm not having any trouble finding some fascinating projects.
What I've been saying tends to split people in a similar way to the UK. Politicians get defensive while everybody else says yes, they're much more likely to get involved in politics outside of voting or joining a party and they'd love to know more about how to do this effectively.
I recorded an interview about all this for The Current, CBC's flagship current affairs program with Anna Maria Tremonti which will go out tomorrow at 08.30 EST and be available on the web afterwards.
Update: the interview is archived here (scroll down to part three).
POWER to the people
The POWER inquiry was launched last week and got a heck of a lot of coverage. I went along to the drinks bash having read the executive summary and I've now had a chance to read the whole report. It took a while but was worth it. I like their direct style of writing and I certainly like their diagnosis of the problem.
The generally warm response the report has received is very different to a couple of years ago when Tom and I wrote about the decline of political parties in our FT Magazine piece called 'Party Poopers', and before that when Tom wrote It's Democracy Stupid and people didn't really get what he was talking about.
Our FT piece prompted John Prescott to call us Mekons on the Today programme, saying we were out of touch with what was really going on. He argued that Labour party membership figures were climbing again and that our assertion of the problem of falling trust in political parties was overblown.
John's been a bit quiet in the follow up to the POWER inquiry.
The most interesting criticisms of the inquiry I've seen come from the ever-excellent David Wilcox. He's decided it was all a bit top-down and I think I agree but I still think they've performed a valuable role by raising awareness of the problem.
My overall feeling is that the POWER inquiry's analysis fits with my experience of the current state of democracy in the UK and although I think their prescription is a bit limited, I'm glad they've got a proper conversation going.
The question that I'm now turning to is what comes next. I think we need to accept that political parties are never going to be as dynamic and vibrant as they were in the 1950s and 60s and that voting is only a part of democratic life. As Paul Ginsborg points out, "we will perhaps vote (an activity of some three minutes) 12 times at a national level and the same number at a local one - some 72 minutes in all, perhaps one-third of the television viewing we do daily."
What I'm interested in is people who are taking democracy into their own hands. People who are delivering democratic outcomes outside of formal politics by either taking decisions or delivering services themselves. Hopefully it's going to turn into a long-term project for me - watch this space.
Some POWER inquiry links:
- The legends at MySociety have already produced a version of the executive summary of the report that you can comment on.
- The good folk at Make My Vote Count have set up a linkdump of all the UK coverage the report has recieved last week.
Pinky and the Brain
David Cameron is a funny colour for a politician. Compared to the tanned orange of Tony Blair close up, he's positively pink. For some reason it doesn't look that way on TV, but when he walked a few feet in front of me on his way to the lectern at Demos yesterday, it was the first thing I noticed.
Cameron doesn't project the strange charisma of Blair either. He speaks quietly, his body movements are understated. He's not surprisingly tall, as Blair is. There's nothing remarkable about his clothes. His verbal mannerisms don't stand out except that there's something about his pronunciation and intonation that reminds me of another New Labour architect - Peter Mandleson.
Cameron's people rang Demos last week to ask if they would host the talk. They obviously wanted the undertone of the speech to be following in the footsteps of Blair. Demos played the most important role of the think tanks in developing the ideas that propelled Blair to power when he was leader of the opposition in the mid 90s.
I spoke to old friends of Demos afterwards who remembered Blair giving similar talks in 1995. For them the parallels were almost spooky but nobody was blown away. 'Cameron doesn't have the intelligence or drive of Blair' one told me, 'but he's found a position that has a lot of mileage'. That position is the centre ground of politics and having a narrative about what the future could be like.
But of course it's not about Cameron and Blair, it's about Cameron and Brown - the elephant in the Demos office during the speech. And it's Gordon who will have to make the next move. Cameron is holding back on specific policies because he wants to force Brown to go first.
My guess is that if nothing were to change between now and the next election, David Cameron would win and Gordon Brown knows it. So Brown has to do something drastic or inspired to ensure he becomes Prime Minister. He can't just rely on his past record.
From what I saw on Monday, Cameron isn't a natural but he has picked the right strategy. Brown will need to come out into the open if he wants to take him on and develop a story about where he will take Britain next.
Pick Me Up does Harrow