28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Seven, The Fan

In which Willard is the bad date.

So, Date 7.

25 per cent of the way through the adventure. I'd had a couple of scrapes, but I was starting to find my feet, starting to think I knew what I was doing. In classic zombie apocalypse style, after surviving the first few encounters in the new world, I was starting to get a little cocky. Unfortunately, I was about to make a big mistake. I'd say my first big mistake, but hey, if you've read the blog this far you'd know that's a lie.

I think one of the reasons I was getting cocky was because the blog has been so well received. I was starting to get friends asking me for advice about what online dating site to go on; how to write their profiles; all that sort of thing. Of course, why you'd want dating advice from a bloke who managed to almost get his finger gnawed off on his first online date is beyond me. What can I say, some of my friends are even bigger losers than I am.

As well as people asking for advice, I'd started to get my first few people asking me out via the blog. Now, when I put the invitation on the about page, I never thought anyone would actually click it, but there I was, six dates in, and I had a message out of the blue. It read:

You will probably be inundated with emails saying either I am the love of your life or I will show you the weirdest date in the world. So I'm chancing it because I haven't laughed as much in ages. Let's go on a date.

Me and the lady in question exchanged a couple of emails, and I was fairly convinced she wasn't an axe murderer or, alternatively, the enraged husband of a previous date. With an axe. And hey, even if he/she was an axe murderer, it would be a good blog, right? So, I arranged to meet her on a wet rainy Sunday evening at my local pub. It must be said, if anyone is doing well out of this odyssey, it's the landlords of that place.

Now, most online dates, you don't know much about the other person. The whole reason you're going on the date is to get to know them. But in this case, I knew absolutely nothing about her. Not her name. Not her age. Not what she looked like. None of her interests and hobbies. None of her convictions for manslaughter. Especially after my experience with the Lizard girl, I was worried about who I might be going on a date with.

So, I sat at a table in the pub, in that weird limbo of smiling politely at every single woman who walked in - even the toothless hags, of whom there are a surprising amount swarming around Belgravia of a Sunday evening. Of course, making eye contact with woman after woman, you start to feel a bit self-conscious after a while. Anyway, after about ten minutes of waiting, flipping through my copy of the Economist, an absolutely stunning, drop dead gorgeous blonde woman walked in. She looked around the bar, caught my eye, walked over and said "Hello, are you Willard? I'm your date".

I was absolutely, probably visibly, stunned. She was literally one of the most attractive women I've ever been in the same room with. So, we ordered some drinks, and started to chat. Depressingly enough, she was one of those people who simultaneously looks fabulous, but was also incredibly smart, witty, charming and amusing. It's fair to say I was pretty smitten from the off.

She was a journalist; we chatted about working in the media, writing for a living, the horrors of working in local news. She was a huge fan of Tolkein and Pink; both things I'll admit a strong liking for. Moving on into personal stuff, we both laughed sharing stories about friends going on catastrophic drug binges - mine involving a lighting technician taking a huge amount of 2CB during a shoot, running around shrieking "I AM THE GUY! I! AM! THE! GUY!" until he was restrained by security, hers about abandoning a friend in a creche for people in the midst of hallucinations on a Thai beach.

We were getting on along famously. So, what was this big mistake I made? Well, about three drinks in, she asked me, "So, why are you writing the blog? What made you want to do it?".

I replied, "Well, I can give you the glib, funny one line answer, and we can move on, or I can tell you the real dark, sad truth." She, assuming I was joking, opted for "dark sad truth". I was enjoying her company enough I felt I could be completely honest.

So, I told her about the two women who had broken my heart over the last five years. I told her dark, sad stories of heartbreak and betrayal and tragedy. I told her about what it feels like to slide an unused engagement ring out of the desk drawer it sits in, alone and gathering dust, looking at it, then slowly closing the drawer with tears in my eyes and thinking "I won't sell it today". I tell her about what it feels like to be at a friend's wedding in San Francisco where you're introduced to everyone as "This is Willard, he's sort of in the wedding party - he's the guy who the Bridesmaid stood up".

Once I started talking about the exes - the girls who had been "the one", once upon a time, it was like a hole in a dam. I couldn't stop talking about how emotionally broken I was. All the pain just poured out, in an unstoppable tide. They say you shouldn't talk about an ex on your first date. "They", in this case, are absolutely right. I walked her towards the tube home, and as soon as she gave me a very chaste peck on the cheek goodnight, I got the sense she wasn't feeling it.

I got a polite and pleasant email from the Fan the day after the date; I'd asked her out a second time, and she politely declined, but we agreed to stay in touch as friends. One advantage of this online dating lark is you learn to take yourself not being the other person's cup of tea much better. Now, I'm not saying it was all the exes chat that put her off - she was exceptionally tall (over 6ft I'd guess) so, with me at 5'10", I think there may also have been an element of the old fairground "you must be at least this tall to ride" as well - but it felt to me like it was a factor.

So, the big thing I learned was not to mention the exes; not to load too much on a person you've just met. I find it mildly amusing that in a blog about bad dates, for the first (and hopefully last!) time, I was the bad date. Like I said at the beginning, a big mistake, but one I came through in one piece, at least. Next week will be tough - Jewish Dating and Uniform Dating!

This post originally appeared at 28 Dates Later. Stay tuned as we catch you up with all Willard's dates so far.

Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.