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TONY TRAVERS - HOW CAN POLITICIANS WIN THE POPULARITY CONTEST?

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Whatever happens in the general election, the pollsters will have won. The companies coaxing opinions from an apath...
Whatever happens in the general election, the pollsters will have won. The companies coaxing opinions from an apathetic public are now better known than some of the parties fighting the election. MORI, NOP, ICM, Populus and YouGov tell us what we think and how we might vote. Increasingly, they have also helped local government target resources more effectively.

Polling analysts have told us many times we are fed up with politics and politicians. A collapse in turnout at the 2001 general election, coupled with clear evidence that the electorate is becoming distrustful and alienated, has spurred the beginnings of a debate about how, at its most extreme, to rescue British democracy. Yet tabloid coverage of the 2005 election campaign is way down on the column inches printed in 2001. If turnout drops again this year, we can expect even deeper political soul searching.

Anyone who understood why voters had become so disenchanted with British politics could surely have become powerful by now. Last week's LGC gave a glimpse of how it is possible for a politician to be judged to be different, and therefore popular. In a major survey of council managers, London mayor Ken Livingstone was more 'admired' than chancellor Gordon Brown and prime minister Tony Blair added together. How can this possibly be?

Mr Livingstone is a maverick, an odd-ball and beyond categorisation. He is also a survivor of a bygone political age. Mr Blair wasn't an MP when Mr Livingstone became leader the Greater London Council. He may yet be mayor of London when Mr Blair has stepped down as prime minister. Like him or loathe him, Mr Livingstone manages to convince a sceptical, Paxmanised British public that he is different from the rest.

But there are few examples of such a political counter-culture. As national politics becomes more homogenised, blind loyalty to the national leader has become the key to most politicians' future. MPs - or even council leaders - who step out of line will be squashed by party HQ.

The same forces that are making national politics such a turn-off have already trampled over localism. Top-down democracy simply cannot work. It is small wonder local election turnouts are even lower than the paltry figure achieved nationally in 2001. The attempt to guarantee virtually all the public services for over 50m people from a couple of houses in Downing Street is straightforwardly crazy.

Pollsters will continue to ask people about their opinions during the next fortnight. But when the real election comes, many will make it clear by the simple act of not voting what they truly think about the alternative, centralised proposals for government offered to them on 5 May. More local choice - coupled with more maverick politicians - would surely lead to higher turnouts. What about an opinion poll to find out?

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