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Last Updated:  Friday, 14 March, 2003, 15:07 GMT
New party pledges 'direct democracy'
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online politics staff

People's Alliance logo
Sceptics see the People's Alliance as a publicity stunt
After a smattering of press speculation, a name change and a postponed launch, a mysterious new political party has finally broken cover.

Under the People's Alliance, all new laws would stand or fall by the votes of the public at referendums.

Hailing its internet launch as the first of its kind, the alliance - formerly the New Party for Britain - said it would scrap current benefits and give one allowance to everyone - rich and poor.

The party is still keeping many of its backers' names under wraps, but Howard Hodgson, famed for turning a family funeral firm into a multi-million pound empire, has emerged as its spokesman.

The leader of the Scottish Conservatives has already branded the new party "fascist and undemocratic" before the launch.

Critics are likely to deride some of the "radical" policies now unveiled as "pie in the sky" thinking.

In an interview with BBC News Online, Mr Hodgson insisted the party "will win seats" at May's Scottish elections, although he would not predict a figure or say how many candidates it would field.

The party, which has had PR advice from former senior Tory official Jenny Ungless in the past, has already twice postponed its official launch, although snippets of details have appeared in the press.

'Not extremist'

Mr Hodgson rejects sceptics' claims that the launch is just one big publicity stunt.

He suggests it went public before it was ready to give journalists a proper angle.

"If you have not got an angle to give them they will make up their own - so you end up being 'secretive' or dubbed by the Scottish Conservative Party as fascist.

"If you have seen these policies, they are anything but fascist. They are very, very democratic."
Howard Hodgson
Hodgson has written newspaper articles about the UK's worst estates

Mr Hodgson does not see the party as a breakaway Conservative group

Instead, he says the founders are mostly non-political people disillusioned with both the Tories and Labour.

He put the delays down to the fact that he and other friends who had been thinking of starting their own party decided to join a group being bankrolled by Scottish industrialist Robert Durward.

The comments of Mr Durward, who says he will not seek office even within the party, have sparked the most controversy.

In 2001, he suggested in a letter to a newspaper that the army could run public services.

Mr Durward has said that comment was made about the government's handling of foot-and-mouth disease - and did not mean he really wanted martial law for the whole country.

Martial law is certainly not on the People's Alliance platform, says Mr Hodgson - "unless the people decided they wanted martial law".

That, of course, is a reference to the party's most eye-catching policy - "direct democracy".

Referendum pledge

Mr Hodgson, whose books include How to Become Dead Rich, explains the thinking: "We do not get public scrutiny in this country because people do not think it makes a difference.

"People want to vote for Pop Idol like mad, but they do not want to vote for politics because they do not think it makes a difference."

The direct democracy comes in two ways:

  • Allowing people to propose laws which must be put to a referendum if there are enough signatures.
  • Deciding all new laws by referendum, with voting electronically or by telephone from the age of 16, once they have passed through Parliament.

Ministers would keep their executive decision-making powers.

But surely use of plebiscites is exactly the kind of policy used by dictators to manipulate public opinion?

Mr Hodgson says the power for the public to initiate laws by referendums guards against such dangers.

"It is a democracy and we trust the people to decide and the fact is we have to go with that decision," he says.

There would be safeguards to ensure minority groups' human rights were infringed, he says.

Referendums would not be binding if turnout was below 35%, for example, and constitutional changes would need a two-thirds majority.

Regional role

The party has stepped back from its initial promise of scrapping the Scottish Parliament, although it would not build the expensive new chamber.

Westminster MPs would spend half their week sitting in devolved assemblies.

The economic policies will also prove particularly controversial.

OTHER KEY POLICIES
Funding hospitals only on the basis of the number of patients they treat, not by "Soviet Union block grants"
Paying health bills of patients who go private when not treated "within a reasonable period"
Fully elected House of Lords, with non-political peers, aged 50 and over, elected for life to "review" legislation
Docking benefits for low-level crimes
Mr Hodgson explained he wanted to see a universal benefit - or "guaranteed minimum income" which would rise with age - replacing current benefits.

"It is totally your right and it's paid to you whether you are sleeping in a doorway on Shaftesbury Avenue or whether you happen to be staying at the Ritz Hotel," he says.

The sums are "not finished", but Mr Hodgson suggests the idea would prove less expensive than means testing for benefits and would eliminate fraud.

No figure has been put on how much the benefit would be, although he says it would be "enough to live on".

Home moves

Under the proposals, there would be one single tax rate for every pound earned above the minimum income level.

But in order to be affordable, would the benefit really be enough to live on, especially in a city like London?

Mr Hodgson says benefits would stay for those who prevented from working by disabilities.

And he suggests the idea could encourage more people to live with their families for longer - alleviating housing pressures.

Unlike many recent small parties, Europe is not a headline in its policies.

Mr Hodgson says he is "not particularly Eurosceptic", although he is against joining the euro and is critical of "unelected" European commissioners.

He suggests Euro-issues would be raised by people in referendums.

A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said the new party had "very strange ideas about how democracy has worked and should work in Britain".


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