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Westminster Watch

BarrowPress the right buttons and politicians of all parties are not found short of encouraging rhetoric about democracy and the need to reinvigorate it. Those who will face the electorate in a few months know that the expenses-fuelled unrest earlier this year will return to haunt them. Issues of legitimacy, both for the system as a whole and for the individuals within it, linger on.

What's more, there have been enough rumblings from the electoral fringes of late (including unpleasant ones from the likes of the BNP) to indicate that established political operators are still vulnerable. Expect a multi-pronged charm offensive some time soon.

That said, 'it's one thing talking up democratic change, it's quite another finding levers to pursue it which don't instantly switch off the very people they're supposed to empower.' That was the judgement of one parliamentary aide recently.

An abiding problem for reformers is that things like PR get, well, bad PR. Constitutional issues, parliamentary re-engineering and electoral reform bore the pants off most voters, reckon pollsters and pundits. Such concerns are seem technocratic, specialist, complicated and nerdy.

Curiously, the same response is often heard from those taking to the streets and airwaves to combat climate change, stick up for the health service, attack global poverty and advocate many other causes. This despite the fact that they all need the system to work better and more accountably in order to succeed in their main aims.

Recently I mentioned a joint initiative of civil society groups and reformers called Real Change, seeking to put democracy back at the heart of debates about all the other issues that seem to touch people's lives rather more immediately.

No sooner had the coalition been launched than it, too, found itself changing. A significant injection of resources from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trusts generated an enhanced campaign called Power 2010, which is seeking to combine traditional democratic renewal agendas with an injection of fresh ideas.

Getting to actual and aspirant MPs in the postbag, at meetings and through websites is bound to be a priority. Those gathering around Power 2010 need quite a head of steam if they are going to persuade candidates and the media to take these issues seriously. For it's clear that what doesn't form part of the agenda before a new government is formed is going to be much harder to push forward after the ballot dust settles.  

But in spite of these difficulties, many sense a larger stirring of Britain's political class. Gordon Brown's attempt to float an electoral reform kite that Labour dropped shortly after its 1997 landslide may strike cynics as the pose of someone staring down the barrel of defeat. But when hardened opponents of PR like Roy Hattersley switch sides on principle, you know something bigger is happening.