POWER inquiry calls for radical power shift in British democracy

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Monday, February 27, 2006

The Right Honourable Helena Ann Kennedy, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws QC, chair of The POWER inquiry

The POWER Inquiry, set up in 2004 to examine participation and involvement in British politics, today published "Power to the People", its final report, making 30 key recommendations designed to "save British democracy from meltdown".

The recommendations include decentralising power, from central government to local government, replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system with a more responsive one, reducing the voting age to 16, and giving citizens the right to initiate legislative processes.

The Independent newspaper covered the story with a front page splash titled "Blueprint to give power to the people". The paper has been "campaigning for democracy" ever since the 2005 general elections, in which the Labour Party won 55.2% of the seats with just 35.3% of the votes. The newspaper ran a petition urging the Prime Minister to institute urgent reform of the voting system.

The final report credited the use of proportional voting elsewhere in Europe with both a reversal of declines in voter turnout and the formation of flexible, responsive coalitions,

"[I]t is significant that most European countries have proportional systems which should provide a wider choice of parties from a more diverse political spectrum who all stand a good chance of winning places in Parliament or even in a governing coalition. This therefore raises the question of whether this factor can be treated as a genuinely significant cause. We feel it still can. Firstly, because it is such a commonly cited factor in all the expert and public evidence received by the Inquiry. And, secondly, because there is recent research to suggest that proportional systems have, on the whole, limited if not halted election turnout declines in comparison to Britain."

The POWER inquiry is funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Limited, and the inquiry is holding a conference on Saturday, March 25, 2006 to discuss their findings, before formally ending.

Chair of the inquiry, Helena Kennedy challenged politicians to "rise above their party ranks and start treating democratic reform as a non-partisan necessity - not a political toy".

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman said that the report dealt with many issues, which were all matters to be debated within parties and between parties, adding that the report had added to the debate.

Oliver Heald, Shadow Constitutional Affairs secretary for the Conservative Party, welcomed the call to give more power to MPs, but opposed the plan to drop the voting age to 16. The Liberal Democrats acting president Simon Hughes welcomed the report, saying "British Democracy is in crisis whatever the Government pretends - most voters are ignored and most people feel they have no influence".