Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Power Enquiry

I can't remember who it was that said that Harold Wilson could "swallow a sixpence and shit a corkscrew", but it came to mind when I saw Gordon Brown's acceptance - in parts - of the conclusions drawn by the Power Enquiry.

But I'm still surprised at how charitably the whole report has been received so far. It seems to be largely to provide a summary of the kind of demands that non-parliamentarians have been making for some time.

Gordon Brown has welcomed the 'votes at sixteen' proposal of course. And he's up for further reform of the Lords. But whatever you think about Gordon, he's not the kind of adventurer who will give in to the core reforming demands of the Power Enquiry.

Anyone who thinks that Prime Minister Brown will weaken political parties or reform the voting system very much should be advised not to hold their breath while they wait.

However, to the detail of the thing: A few initial reactions - from the Executive Summary,
24. Citizens should be given the right to initiate legislative processes, public inquiries and hearings into public bodies and their senior management.

26. A requirement that Public service broadcasters develop strategies to involve viewers in deliberation on matters of public importance - this would be aided by the use of digital technology.

27. MPs should be required and resourced to produce Annual Reports, hold AGMs and make more use of innovative engagement techniques.

Citizens already have the right to initiate legislative processes. The only barrier is that they have to get someone to vote for them first.

Should this change? Call me an old stick-in-the-mud, but I don't think it should.

On the question of broadcasters involving viewers, I'd be happy with this if our existing broadcasters could come up with one format that brings the public and elected representatives together to discuss something like grown-ups first. Programmes that attempt to do it at the moment are pretty awful for the most part.

And as for MPs being 'required' to produce annual reports, I'd suggest that voters can ask them to do so if they wish. And judge the results. But if you require them to hold an AGM or write a report and you can expect the usual bland, stage-managed 'big conversations' up and down the country.

So, IMHO, these last two points would do more harm than good.

What no-one seems to be prepared to address is the question of how we can get more ordinary people discussing issues based upon evidence, rather than the ludicrous rumour and hearsay that makes up much public dialogue.

The real challenge to anyone who wants to improve democracy in this country is the question of how encourage people to have more civilised and thoughtful conversations with each other. Ones that are based upon well-reported information.

Much of the perceived political malaise seems to be a symptom of this failing in public life - and not the kind of superficial reforms that the Power Enquiry seems to be wringing it's hands about.

Cllr Bob makes a telling point about the authors of the report:
"...the members of the Commission seem to be lacking in any experience of, ermm,
how can I put this nicely..... democracy!"

(update: read Elephunt in Bob's comments)

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