The English nation, Rousseau observed, has delusions of freedom: free only at the moment it is electing MPs, but "as soon as the members are elected, the people [are] enslaved; it is nothing". But its collective inconsequence can rarely have been so palpable as now.
Barely more than a quarter of the electorate now trusts politicians, according to the Electoral Commission. Its head, Sam Younger, has warned of a fatal disengagement from politics - a mood not so much of apathy as alienation. But a new movement of voters has an alternative to abstention, turning conventional notions of electoral politics on their head.
On Tuesday evening, 2,000 people at-tended the largest public meeting of London's mayoral campaign at Westminster Central Hall. However, Ken Livingstone and the three other major candidates for mayor were not allowed to ply for votes but simply required to answer five "yes or no" questions. The candidates were asked to agree to a four-point "people's agenda" promoted by an organisation called London Citizens, which counts union branches, churches, mosques, student unions and schools among its members. Taken to shopping malls and door to door for public endorsement, the agenda has been signed by an estimated 15,000 people.
In contrast to party manifestos, it is very specific. Top of the list is a demand that the mayor champion a "living wage" for Londoners of at least £6.70 an hour, to be paid throughout bodies such as London Transport and the Metropolitan Police and set as a condition of awarding contracts to private companies.
Neil Jameson, the lead organiser for London Citizens, says: "So many other people put their energy into the hustings, which is a one-off opportunity to get the candidates to say what they will do for us if we vote for them.What we are doing is completely the other way round, with people presenting their agenda to the candidates and the candidates having to respond to that."
On Tuesday, Livingstone agreed that, if re-elected, he would establish a unit to introduce and monitor the "living wage" and enforce it on all Greater London Authority private sector contracts as they are renewed. But London Citizens does not just take it on trust that he will do as he says. It also asked candidates for a commitment to meet the organisers at least once a year to monitor compliance. "That's why you need a permanent political organisation," says Jameson. "We want to be a major player on any issue that affects families and neighbourhoods in London."
In Cambridge, another citizens' group is trying to turn the tables on candidates for the European Parliament. It has recruited a Liberal Democrat list candidate, Rosalind Gill, to an international initiative known as Simultaneous Policy (SP), which includes a commitment to the Tobin Tax on foreign currency transactions and a new, more effective, Kyoto agreement. More candidates are expected to take the pledge before next month's elections, and SP groups in Reading, Bristol, Edinburgh and Hereford will vote as a bloc for whichever party has made the most pledges.
According to John Bunzl, the businessman who came up with the idea, the premise behind SP is that the most necessary policies for social justice or sustainability (such as the Tobin Tax or a global tax on fossil fuels) are "out of bounds" because governments fear being put at a competitive disadvantage to other countries. So the campaign, which has spread to Canada, Spain, Australia and Italy, aims to pressure candidates at national elections to accept the policy commitment. The theory is that this will eventually reach a critical mass of converted governments, triggering simultaneous adoption of the contentious policies so that nobody loses out.
The idea's backers include Tony Benn, Noam Chomsky and East Timor's foreign minister, Jose Ramos-Horta. Mike Brady, co-ordinator of the Cambridge group, says that at the next general election the campaign will try, by bloc voting for candidates who sign up, to swing the outcome of constituency votes. "For those candidates in marginal seats, it will become the difference between winning and losing the election." As Bunzl sees it, people are starting to take policy formulation out of the hands of politicians and saying: "We'll vote for any of you that adopts or pledges to implement our policy."
For the political class the electorate's mutinous organising may seem sinister. But it may be the one thing that can save electoral politics from its inexorable slide into irrelevance.
Mathew Little is a reporter with Third Sector magazine