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Last Updated: Friday, 17 February 2006, 17:15 GMT
The battle to bridge the gap
Feature
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News political reporter

Tony Blair removes graffiti at a community project
Ministers are trying to show they care about grass roots worries
Whether they are joining a Make Poverty History march or meeting constitutional reform zealots on a wet evening in Nottingham, politicians are trying to get to grips with campaign groups.

Some commentators believe the way some voters are pursuing their politics more through blog than ballot box is evidence of a gap between politicians and the public.

Ministers, MPs and councillors are trying to work out just how to straddle that chasm and show they are champions of public concerns as much as the leader of the local community action group.

The low turnout in recent years - 61% at the last general election - has led to collective angst in political circles and spawned a rash of reviews and initiatives to tackle the problem and harness the efforts of activists.

Taking control

While big demonstrations in Britain's cities get headlines, much campaigning is driven at grass roots level by people worried by what is happening in their local communities.

The Home Office tried to tap into that activity when it launched its Civil Renewal Unit in 2003.

The unit last year started the Together We Can scheme to showcase the government's commitment to "empower citizens to work with public bodies" and give people "control" over their communities.

A computer terminal
The internet could be one way to 'empower' communities
Henry Tam, head of the Civil Renewal Unit, says the campaign will not show results overnight but can ensure the public's ideas are fed right to the centre of government.

"Inevitably there will be people who feel that this is just a window-dressing, box-ticking exercise; that well meaning individuals and community groups cannot really make a difference; that the bureaucracy of government will wear down good ideas," he says.

But he insists ministers right up to Tony Blair are genuinely committed to community empowerment and believe it can both improve public services and make government departments more efficient.

Web power

Ministers and Whitehall officials, as well as opposition politicians, are grappling with the same issues.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's department has tried to tap into the way the internet is being used to build new campaign networks.

Through its e-democracy project, it is trying to "harness the power of new technology to encourage citizen participation in local decision-making".

Ken Clarke, former Chancellor
Ken Clarke worries about local questions in a national Parliament
Online surgeries held by local councillors and internet petitions are among the ideas being trialled in 22 areas.

The scheme is also taking onto the internet the idea of "citizens' juries", where members of the public are recruited to analyse councils' decisions.

Away from government, the Hansard Society brought together a group of MPs, peers, journalists and political experts to examine what more Parliament could do to communicate better with the public.

And the Power Inquiry, set up by the Rowntree Trust, is holding a series of "democracy dinners" around the UK to examine the causes of disillusionment with the traditional political system and find new approaches for engaging people.

At the same time there are calls for caution in moving too far from a representative system, where elected MPs make the decisions, to "direct democracy" where power is handed to the people.

Prejudice fears

Philip Parvin, co-author of a new report from the Hansard Society, says it is right to encourage greater debate among the public on political issues.

"We support getting people involved in debates but are sceptical about getting people involving in making decisions directly," he says.

"There are entrenched interests and prejudices and so on and that is where the strength of our representative system comes in.

"Leave it to MPs, but on an informed basis through debate."

'Pavement politics'

But former chancellor Ken Clarke expresses concern about the way MPs are increasingly obsessed with "pavement politics" - campaigning on local issues - as a way of keeping their seats.

He argues that MPs increasingly use prime minister's questions to ask about very local issues specific in their areas.

Mr Clarke tells the BBC News website he is not sure how the trend sits with talk of "new localism" and decentralisation, where such decisions are not supposed to be taken at national level.

"We want to have more responsibility locally and then the public insist you raise a very local issue in Parliament," he says.

His concerns expose yet another dilemma for politicians trying to show they are relevant and in touch in what could be a new age of activism.




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