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Monday, February 27, 2006 

Power to the People: naive, half-baked and vague, but populist and a worthy start.

It's rather a shame that the Power to the People report by the Power Commission, chaired by the frighteningly sane Helena Kennedy, has come up with a range of proposals which on the whole are either seemingly unworkable or woefully lacking in detail. It's no surprise that Gordon Brown has quickly taken up supporting a number of the main pledges, rather cynically to make the impression that there is still some difference between him and Blair. The main proposals are:

· 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

Let's start with the good stuff. The ideas on donation are excellent, and have been a long time in coming. £10,000 is, if anything, still a little too high. It will most importantly however stop the hideous spectacle of Blair elevating to the Lords huge donors to the Labour party, and the diabolical rise of Lord Smallpox, aka Drayson. The logging and listing of lobbyists and business is a great idea - it's about time that such meetings were exposed, although again the number of ministers who upon leaving the job go straight into directorships and vice versa still makes something of a mockery of principles and independence.

On to the not so good stuff. First past the post to be replaced - fantastic, but to boost the chances of small parties and independents is so vague as to be worthless. The system of proportional representation to be adopted needs to be discussed and then put forward to be changed to, possibly by a referendum. Just saying that first past the post needs to be abolished isn't good enough. Are we going to have the transferrable vote system - putting the candidates in order of preference and then adding once they are knocked out, or a different system? The commission should have come up with some ideas.

On Lords reform they propose a magical figure of 70% to be elected - how? Do we go with Billy Bragg's proposal of distributing votes on a regional basis at the same time as a general election? Would it be a separate vote? Should MPs vote on who to elect? Coming up with a percentage to be elected is fine, but it needs to have backbone and explanation behind it. Lords reform also doesn't seem as urgent as it once did, as it now seems to be the Lords which is the biggest check on this government. Rather ominously, Blair has apparently now come round to the idea, having opposed it before. I wonder why?

Each voter to allocate £3 of public money to a party - this is going to sound undemocratic and snobbish, but do we really want more money, out of the public purse, going to the likes of the BNP? Would the Tories, indeed even Labour, want a decent amount of money going to the "traitorous" George Galloway in Respect? Such a proposal also seems likely to have to deal with voter apathy and people who just can't be bothered, i.e. "they're all the same". It sounds very good on paper, but in practice it sounds the kind of thing which would lead to an outcry when it becomes reality.

Citizens to gain the right to initiate new laws and inquiries - I know we often complain of feeling powerless, but isn't this what we have MPs for? You can also bet that such a proposal would lead to the loudest voices drowning out the reasonable majority. Before you know it, as demonstrated by the recent Today vote on the most powerful man in the country you have one-issue people voting in their thousands on something which either doesn't need changing or is such a small issue as not to worry about. As above, it sounds good when discussed but once a healthy dose of cynicism is added you find the democratic system itself being undermined by citizens outraged by an issue banged on about day after day in the Daily Mail. A better proposal would be to have a trial period, see what actually happens and obviously to give a committee a certain level of veto on those issues which are brought forward. The power to the people proposal is far too sweeping.

Finally then to voting at 16 - again, sounds great on paper. Then you think about it - are 16 year olds ready for party politics? Do they understand the issues? Yes, that sounds patronising and half the population at times doesn't properly understand the "issues", but 18 still to me seems a fair age. My political awakening didn't really take place until 16, and I'm sure that I wouldn't have voted then. It comes across as being an attempt to move the number of the electorate who voted up, which it likely would because of the novelty of the 16-year-olds at the time being able to. After those guinea pigs, it doesn't seem likely that it would infuse the youth population as much. I think the electoral commission had it right when it poo-pooed the idea, as populist and seemingly reformist as it is. 16 year olds are free to fight me for their right to vote, as after all, they're free to marry with parent permission, have gang bangs and poison their bodies with nicotine at that age. Whether it would lead to more of the younger population actually becoming more involved with politics, and not just with a single issue, is more questionable.

The power to the people report is a good start, but it is just that. Its ideas need to be fully fleshed out before almost anything in it should actually be put forward to become law. Either that, or I'm actually a closet Tory when it comes to constitutional reform after all.

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For those who argue that 16 year olds are too young to vote and that this change would make little difference to turnout. I would remind them that this is a minimum age, the majority would still have to wait until 18 or later to vote in a general election. For example I was too young to vote in 1987 by a few months, I had to wait until I was almost 23 before I could vote in a general election. This has a massive impact on those who have to wait this long, for instance..."In the 2001 election, for example, turnout among 27-year-olds was 49%, compared with 65% among 28-year-olds who had been old enough to vote in the 1992 election."

It will up to the individual whether the 3 pounds is donated to a party. If they don't tick the box, no state money will be allocated.

The commission suggests the Single Transferable Vote should be used and that closed list PR should definitely not be used.

The Lords proposals are arbitrary, but I can understand what they are trying to achieve.

I think I agree with you about the initiate laws proposal.

Thanks for clearing those points up. I agree entirely with your points about the plus points of having a general election just as you gain the right to vote; personally I first voted in the local elections when I turned 18 and have continued the habit but obviously to a lot of people local elections often seem a lot less exciting than the national equivalent.

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