Forget the Pop Idol gimmicks

Observations on constitutional change

It was somewhere way past number 30 in the long list of commitments, in a Queen's Speech dedicated to reinjecting "respect" into our civil society. Those of us still breathing - after a diet of ID cards, cuts to incapacity benefit, more private capacity in the health service and more security crackdowns - learned that the government will legislate to "encourage greater voter participation in elections". Amen to that, except what Tony Blair has in mind is not what the rest of us, the millions of angry voters of 5 May, quite have in mind.

According to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the solution to the democratic deficit lies in e-voting. This "could not only improve the efficiency of counting votes but also have a profound effect on turnout, especially among younger voters". It points out that members of the public are already happy to vote by telephone and the internet in TV shows such as Pop Idol and Big Brother. "Given the market segments at which many of these programmes are targeted, voter participation in them is likely to involve a significant proportion of young people and others who, traditionally, do not participate in political elections," it goes on.

In disbelief, I tried to read the report for myself but it has no print version. It looks forward to touch screens in the booth, computerised counting, internet and text-message voting. Thus will trust and "respect" be re-established. "The long-term goal of the government is to provide more choice to the electorate in the hope that this will also increase the numbers prepared to cast their vote."

There is a moment when satire goes sour. We are at such a moment. The force which shapes public opinion - the academic Raymond Williams called it the "structure of feeling" to make it material - is turning. The hyperactivity of the legislative programme in the Queen's Speech is designed to deny and defy this tide. In pre-war days, when spin was spin and no lives were lost, one might have written with amusement at the eagerness of Tony Blair to define his swansong in such a tough-guy manner.

For the first time, the constitutional change agenda is broadening its base away from the political cognoscenti and into what could become a mass movement. The issues at stake go far beyond the previously rarefied discussions on the merits of various systems of proportional representation. Among the number of political meetings and demonstrations held since the election, one was organised by Compass, an increasingly influential organisation that is seeking a new direction for progressive politics. Elsewhere, a packed Make Votes Count meeting launched Storm for Reform, an alliance of groups demanding electoral reform. It held a vigil outside Downing Street on the morning of the Queen's Speech. Driving past in her horse and cart, Her Majesty and her consort seemed bemused. Before them was not a waving crowd, but protesters wearing gags across their mouths to symbolise their loss of votes that count.

This is a manifestation of the reality, post Iraq. That punishment could not follow at the polls has deepened the sense of humiliation. The election verdict was a rejection of a Conservative message that frightened and alienated, of a Liberal Democrat alternative that proved feeble, and of a war Prime Minister who garnered little over 35 per cent of the vote - and 22 per cent of the available electorate - a record low for a "victorious" party. Enchantment will not be restored by electronic gimmicks and text-messaging.

Anthony Barnett's blog on British politics appears at: www.opendemocracy.net