To defend political democracy, we must change how we do politics

David Blunkett sets out concrete ideas for the future of politics.

Few among us have been untouched by the major changes of the past five years. The crash that unfolded from 2008 saw jobs lost, an enormous rise in the cost of living, and economies retracting and failing across Europe (including our own).

It was in the United Kingdom that we could see most visibly both the problem for, and the failure of, traditional political action. The inability to save the rest of the economy from the shortcomings of both domestic and international banking would have been totally catastrophic. The failure was not the actions taken but, paradoxically, not explaining that this was one moment of our recent history where political democracy was in the ascendant, essential to saving us from those very unaccountable forces which exercise such overwhelming power.

But the last five years of political and economic turmoil has resulted in politics and politicians losing trust and confidence by the people on whose behalf action is taken.

Faith in democratic institutions has fallen to dangerously low levels, as demonstrated in the 2012 Audit of Political Engagement by the Hansard Society. Their survey revealed the proportion of the public who say they are "very" or "fairly" interested in politics has dropped by 16 per cent and now stands at 42 per cent, falling below 50 per cent for the first time since the audits began.

This is problematic in two ways. First, a widespread disengagement with the political process aids extremist candidates. Demagogues will always seek to exploit those people frustrated by the mainstream parties who seem unresponsive to their concerns, but the success of George Galloway in Bradford West in March 2012 was a warning that we must not be complacent.

Second, it gives rise to "technocrats". It could be described as nothing short of a coup in terms of what occurred in Greece, with the removal of the Prime Minister, and in Italy, with the removal of both the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

Britain is not exempt from this growing trend. Peter Kellner, President of YouGov, tested in spring 2012 the proposition "Britain would be governed better if our politicians got out of the way, and instead our ministers were non-political experts who knew how to run large organisations". Almost as many people agreed, 38 per cent, as disagreed, 43 per cent.

But it is at this moment we need politics and, dare I say it, politicians more than ever. Both to articulate the language of priorities, as described by Aneurin Bevan, but also to mediate and decide between contradictory demands from the public and short term pressures alongside long term imperatives. How much should we cut spending; do we need to raise taxes; how do we structure our health and education systems – making progress on these complex issues can be met only by elections, political engagement and democracy.

Yet in order to defend politics and therefore political democracy, we need to change the way in which we "do" our politics. Today, I have set out several concrete suggestions that will help us achieve this.

For government to directly support mutual action and key campaigns would be unusual but not unthinkable. In the spring of 2012, Which? organised, under the heading of The Big Switch, almost 40,000 people coming together to negotiate a much better personal deal in relation to domestic energy consumption. The winning tariff from Co-operative Energy saved consumers £183 per year. However, the campaign was extraordinarily complicated and the energy companies difficult to deal with. Government support for such initiatives would be transformational.

Similarly, nurturing the process of getting people to run their own facilities locally can be seen as one of the few positive developments from the austerity agenda. There are good examples in North America of how services have been reshaped to offer this new way of meeting need. In Oregon in the USA, for example, people with mental health conditions are helped to live independent lives through a personal budget. They are assigned an advisor to identify goals and how to best use the budget to buy goods and services which will help them achieve these aims. "Co-delivery" would help people to help themselves.

At the heart of pioneering a new approach service delivery, we also need new finance mechanisms to help tackle the widening gap between rich and poor. This should include lifelong accounts developed jointly between the individual and contributed to through government funding. A return to mutual forms of saving and investment, including local and regional investment banks, must also be considered. And the development of microcredit should be utilised as a way to provide acceptable rates of interest to millions of people caught up through exploitative levels of APR, as well as an engine for bottom-up job creation.

And at the centre of all this, we must refocus politics on core issues that matter most to people. Taking on the challenges of an ageing population and affordable retirement, and mobilising civil society through volunteering (including direct support to the million young people out of work and training) will require engagement, creative thinking and determination.

By placing the power of government behind innovative and mutual self-help and successful political campaigning, it would be possible to foster a new spirit of engagement with the political process. Above all, we need to think again as to how best to touch those who feel alienated not only from politics but from the process of public life and decision-taking. In other words, from the society in which they live.

In Defence of Politics Revisited, by David Blunkett MP with a foreword by Ed Miliband MP, is available in full on his website

David Blunkett has published a pamphlet titled "In Defence of Politics Revisted". Photograph: Getty Images
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A clinically-approved birth control app is changing the way we think about contraception

The particle physicist Elina Berglund has created an app that is 99 per cent effective. 

Women around the world using the contraceptive pill have long complained to their friends about its perceived side effects – weight gain, acne, mood swings to name a few. Some more recent studies have verified that anecdotal evidence – a Danish study from 2013 confirmed that there was a 40 per cent increased risk of depression for women who were on the pill, compared to those who weren’t.

Frustration around the inadequacy or ill-suitability of certain methods of contraception is rife. One woman, Elina Berglund, decided to do something about it.

Formerly a particle physicist at CERN (and a member of the team responsible for the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle), Berglund co-founded Natural Cycles, a contraceptive app, with her husband Raoul Scherwitzl. Approved as a contraceptive app earlier this year, it is downloadable on a smartphone and relies on a relationship between body temperature and fertility to tell women when they're fertile.

But contraception campaigners have viewed the concept with caution. Widespread use of the pill, condoms, and diaphragms comes after decades of campaigns against reliance on "natural methods" – not to mention the opposition of religious organisations like the Catholic church. 

At first glance, Natural Cycles might not seem all that different from the Vatican-approved "rhythm method", which is based on observing the exact stages of a woman's fertility cycle and avoiding sex during ovulation. This can be, according to the NHS, up to 99 per cent effective – but in reality it is closer to 75 per cent, because "people can make mistakes". 

Users of Natural Cycles take their temperature daily and input it into the app (which costs £6.99 a month). The app then compares the figure to its own dataset and uses an algorithm based on Berglund's days from CERN. It also asks for other data, such as the dates of user's periods and whether they are planning for a pregnancy or not, to create a personalised calendar.

If it’s safe to have unprotected sex, then the in-app calendar will show up as green. If not, the in-app calendar will show up as red. On those red days, users should find methods of contraception if they aren’t seeking pregnancy.  

Menstrual tracking apps are all the rage (there are around 1,000 of them on the current Apple app store). But recent studies have shown that those apps are often inaccurate and lack any scientific basis. 

Natural Cycles, by contrast, carried out three clinical trials, each time expanding the dataset to reduce errors. The most recent, written up in Contraception, involved 22,785 women across 37 different countries in settings that mimicked real life. The co-authors pointed out that in instances of perfect use, one out of 100 women become pregnant accidentally. However, in instances of typical use, seven out of 100 women had the same result.

When Natural Cycles first gained publicity, Berglund pointed out to the press that “now they (women) have a new, clinically verified and regulatory approved option to choose from”. Berglund and Scherwitzl are looking into getting Natural Cycles prescribed on the NHS, like the pill.

So is Natural Cycles the future of family planning? The first thing to make clear is that the app cannot actually function as physical contraception – on “red” days, the app advises users to use a condom if they’re having sex and don’t want to get pregnant. It cannot prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases either. 

Nor is the app really marketed to those who may benefit from the most information about their sexual health – 16 to 25-year-olds, who are also the age group most likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour. 

A spokesperson for Marie Stopes, the reproductive health NGO, said: "Apps to track fertility are a high-tech version of what women have been doing for years with a diary and a thermometer.

"For anyone trying to get pregnant, they might well help. However, if you want to avoid pregnancy, it’s much better to choose a reliable, long-acting modern method of contraception like an IUD or implant. Traditional methods, including tracking fertility, carry a much higher risk of unintended pregnancy."

The app relies on an algorithm, meaning it is only as effective as the data that it receives from users. It is also not free, which may exclude its usage by certain sections of society. A blog written for NHS Choices emphasised that the data collected in all the trials was collected from women who were already signed up for the product, making it likely that they had an incentive to continue with this specific additional contraceptive, as opposed to looking elsewhere. Even so, a third of users who had signed up still dropped out, potentially because of the maintenance required to get results from it. 

All the same, Natural Cycles has 380,000 users and counting. It has received clinical approval to be marketed as a medical device, and it seems to be meeting a need – 70 per cent of Natural Cycle's users come from hormonal contraception, according to Berglund. In her account of Natural Cycles in the Evening Standard, Kate Wills highlighted that the Apple Watch had all sorts of health inputs, but no way to track periods.  All kinds of apps exist to make modern life easier – why has it taken so long for one that addresses a concern for so many women to make its way into the mainstream?

The history of contraception is littered with examples of women being ignored. Early birth control studies vastly underplayed the potentially debilitating side effects of hormone fluctuations on women’s mental health and physical appearance, often treating users as though they were hysterical. Add into the equation the stigma around accessing contraceptives safely and non-judgementally, and it’s easy to see why a relatively painless and private form of contraception might be appealing. 

Natural Cycles may well work for some women – those who are in stable relationships, hoping to get pregnant and fastidious enough to note their temperature every morning. But it doesn’t prevent diseases, requires a steady commitment and – here's the clincher – can't take measurements when you’re hungover as alcohol can affect your temperature. There's also a big difference between the "perfect" use of the app, and the likelihood of pregnancy when used in a "typical" fashion. So long as that's the case, old-fashioned contraception seems unlikely to be swept away by a digital revolution.