The row over MPs expenses has once again drawn attention to people's disenchantment with, and disengagement from, democracy in Britain today. In a new policy paper from the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos, Jonty Oliffe-Cooper
suggests the expenses crisis is a symptom of a much deeper problem, one that will require radical reform of both central and local government and a rethinking of the relationship between the individual and the state.
Oliffe-Cooper has a refreshing take on current debates, such as strengthening the role and power of Select Committees and giving local government not only a greater role, but new powers to tax and spend to increase its independence.
He also brings new ideas to the table, such as the election of 69 independent 'Commons Senators', who would be legally forbidden from standing on a party political platform, and creating a single access point to enable people to find information, access services or report a problem.
His focus is, of course, primarily on democratic processes and structures. But is this a problem of democracy, so much as a problem with politics? It is important that there are more opportunities for people to participate directly in decisions that affect their lives and the life of their community.
But it is also important that people are able to come together to debate the bigger questions that should be at the heart of politics: what kind of society do we want to create? What are the values we want to base it on?
The wisdom of the late twentieth century was that a free market will deliver economic stability and a strong society; that the self-interest of individuals will maximise the common good. This idea has driven politics for over two decades. As a consequence,
politicians have appealed to people's self interest, as individual taxpayers and consumers of public services. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that voters now assume the same of politicians.
The economic crisis has profoundly challenged that view. That is why I believe we need a new politics for the 21st Century: one that is concerned with furthering the interests of society as a whole; with making the world a better place.
The continued public support for global justice movements and environmental campaigns such as Climate Camp, for example, suggests that people do
want to be part of some part of something greater than themselves. They do want to get involved in their community and in issues that concern them; they want to make a difference, but they no longer see politics as an effective way of doing this. They
would rather join a pressure group; volunteer for the Samaritans; or buy Fair Trade. As has often been pointed out, Amnesty has more members than any political party.
Civil society organisations have appealed to people's concerns and aspirations, and their desire for a better world, in a way that political parties have not. They bring real passion to politics and make our representative democracy work better through meaningful citizen participation. That is why campaigning organisations, and their supporters, should be encouraged to make their voices heard.
But while an active and vibrant civil society is essential to a healthy democracy, it is only one side of the coin.We also need strong democratic institutions to act on behalf of all citizens; to ensure equality, fairness and due process; and with the legitimacy to take decisions in the wider public interest. People's disengagement from politics potentially undermines confidence in democracy as a legitimate means of mediating between conflicting voices and interests.
Reform is needed to increase the accountability of central government and to devolve power to the local level wherever possible. But any proposals put forward must also find room for different voices to be heard: for participatory democracy to be strengthened as well as representative democracy.
In this way a healthy democracy can inspire and provoke debate about the good society, what it is and how we might all work together to achieve it. Indeed, that is why NCVO has started a debate about what the good society means to inform our manifesto for the next election.
Stuart Etherington is NCVO chief executive
For more on the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos; visit: www.demos.co.uk/projects/progressiveconservatism