Must we wait a generation for democracy, here and at the UN?
There is a way to reconnect people with politics and give our governments legitimacy, if tribalists would let us

By Polly Toynbee
Published September 16th 2005 in Guardian Unlimited
If the UN finds world governance almost impossible, the wonder is that it succeeds in keeping what slender global authority there is. World democracy is tough when even once-confident democracies everywhere are riddled with doubt about reconnecting with their grudging, disaffected voters. A BBC World Service poll found that 65% said their country was not governed by the will of the people. Since many are not democracies that's not surprising. But 64% in Europe agreed.
After our own shockingly low turnout, where the winner swept the board with the support of just 26% of the electorate, the parties now assemble at the seaside to pick over the results. Public interest in their debates will be minimal. Wise politicians in all the parties will be looking not just at where they stand now, but why democracy feels so perilously thin.

Recipes and remedies will be proffered, sometimes self-serving, sometimes delivered from the ostrich position, sometimes downright dishonest. But there will also be thoughtful attempts at self-criticism and reform. What's gone wrong? Can it be fixed?

A breezy view that there's no problem emanates from Labour's pollsters, the most cynical force behind the throne. Don't worry, they say. As soon as an election looks knife-edge, the voters will be back in droves. They don't vote on a foregone conclusion. That's partly true, but there is plenty of evidence for a deeper malaise. Many of the refuseniks were making a stand against the paltry choices on offer.

Running my own nose-peg campaign to persuade recalcitrant Labour voters to choose Labour or Lib Dem according to whichever best kept the Tory out, I had vigorous email disputes with protesters trying to register rage through the unsatisfactory channel of electoral silence.

Harriet Harman, the minister for constitutional affairs, has so far been the most vocal and honest. "We have been growing up a generation who are turning their back on democracy," she said in a speech this week. The electoral commission found 9% of people not registered: the young, poor and black vote less and less. Harman warns that the alarming class divide in voting is heading towards US figures, where 36% of the poor vote compared with 80% of the well-off. But the real problem, she says, is in making people want to vote. That implies offering something worth voting for.

First up on Sunday, the Lib Dems have always said that localism could renew democracy, though it was never a political hot seller. Say the words unitary authority, block grant or local area agreement and editors reach for their spike. (All the more admirable that David Edgar has devoted his new three-hour play at the National Theatre to the intricacies of local government and conflicts inherent between local and national powers.) But after years of hammering away at it, Lib Dem new localism may at last be on the agenda. If their tax commission promises to devolve all local spending down to councils, letting them raise 80% in local taxes, it would be a mighty shift: power follows money.

Labour's future thinkers are also reaching for such ideas. David Miliband, one of the party's big brains, is running Core City summits, assembling key players to look at obstacles to good government. In Newcastle, Birmingham and Leeds he is asking what stands in the way of doing better economically, culturally and socially? I caught up with his Bristol summit this week, where he chivvied participants along while listening to their frustrations. All the cities make the same complaints: the tiers of government, the planning system and the strangulation of ideas and initiatives from above. They want control over their own money. Among the Miliband entourage, the heavy hand of mission control in London was murmuring about Bristol's various failings over the years. But who subjects the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to inspection of its own byzantine governance or inability to join things up? Miliband seemed inclined to let go, a bit.

On display were all the old contradictions inherent in the eternal warfare between the central and the local. We want better schools dinners? Then Ruth Kelly must fix it. Voters hold cabinet ministers' feet to the fire over every dirty ward or school toilet, making it feel perilous to devolve responsibility downwards, even if it might get better results. If some councils' track records look doubtful, then government's own ability to micro-manage services for 60 million people deserves the same forensic scrutiny too. Expect the Tories to be calling for the new localism at their conference too, now that their power base has moved from Westminster to local councils: what an irony after Thatcher's depredations on town hall power.

But don't expect too much honesty from the parties about their own failure to enthuse voters into the polling booths. Choice, says Labour - to resounding lack of interest from voters. But the most fundamental choice is in who to vote for. The first-past-the-post system delivers just two and a half parties, fighting for the centre ground, while proportional representation would let a wider array of parties win seats.

Alan Milburn, writing on these pages yesterday, called for Labour to hold to the Blairist centre, forgetting the great flight of Labour voters leftwards to the Lib Dems. However, the centre or centre-left holds with greatest stability across Europe under proportional representation. A coalition of parties according to their relative strengths as voted for by the people commands a wider range of support. A coalition with a distinctive rainbow character can summon more popular support than our pallid centrist ready-made coalitions within whose walls all must pretend to agree. There should have been rebellion over the election last time: 26% is not legitimacy.

Robin Cook used to cast a beady eye on politicians agonising over low turnout while refusing to risk their seats to proportional representation. He used to point out how our system lets the votes of the poor be ignored, stacked up in moribund safe seats. Let every vote be counted fairly together and then every vote counts, as politicians need to secure each one. People will vote, given a greater choice of parties closer to their own views.

But this must wait for the next generation. Tony Blair, the anti-tribalist who never loved his party, abandoned the one great strength of that non-partisanship. Flirting with Paddy Ashdown, he once had a vision of breaking down party barriers and reuniting the two near-identical parties of the left through proportional representation. His legacy would have been to secure a broad, if shifting, coalition on the left in a land where Thatcherism ruled without ever gaining majority support. But his mistaken view of "weak" coalitions in Europe over going to war made him prefer "strong" presidential government. Remember that missed opportunity next time we get an equally "strong" government of the right again some day.

Tribal Gordon Brown seems equally uninterested in electoral reform. The assiduous wooer of party roots is not inclined to pull them up and tell them to love Lib Dem neighbours many hate for trivial local reasons. When it comes to the debate at Labour's conference on "reconnecting with the people", the platform will be taken by two unelected peers (Amos and Falconer) and one of the less popular cabinet ministers, Geoff Hoon. Hardly likely to reignite democracy. Roll on the next generation.