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Tony Travers

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The US certainly appreciates the value of decentralised democracy, says LGC's columnist.

The American presidential election is the most interesting political tableau in Britain this January. Gordon Brown may have attempted to relaunch himself by ‘renewing’ the NHS via a move to preventive medicine, but this is hardly an innovative idea designed to set pulses racing. It can only be a matter of time before a ‘new’ policy of enhanced local democracy is announced.

Barack Obama’s surge in the Democratic primary election is, by contrast, electrifying. The Iowa caucuses, involving political meetings in people’s homes, represent the kind of civic involvement Hazel Blears could only dream of. This week, we have seen all the presidential hopefuls on parade in New Hampshire attempting to convince that state’s voters to support them.

New Hampshire, US, has virtually the same population as Hampshire, UK. Yet, in common with other American states, it can set its own taxes and laws, including the death penalty. Can anyone imagine British party political leaders devoting day upon day to efforts to convince people in Winchester, Romsey and Basingstoke to vote for them? Of course the US has a very different political system, but there can be no doubt that America’s bottom-up, localist, political system requires candidates to take notice of people in small towns in Iowa, New Hampshire and, during the months ahead, in Ohio, California and other key states.

The federal nature of US democracy will soon be much on display. Indeed, it is this highly decentralised system that has generated the candidates on offer.

Senator Obama is an Illinois politician who has emerged onto the national political stage. His leading Democrat opponent, Hillary Clinton, had to build herself a career in New York State, following her spell as spouse of the governor of Arkansas.

Republican candidates include another former Arkansas dignitary, Mike Huckabee, Arizona senator John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, who made his name as mayor of New York City. All of these individuals have emerged from a state or city-based political elite.

The contemporary British route into national politics generally involves a few years working as researcher to an MP or for a think tank, or occasionally a period in a London-based charity or as a television producer. It is essential to be close to Westminster and party headquarters. Occasionally, a city leader makes it into Parliament, but rarely do they prosper. Once there, all MPs are pulled beneath the waters of ‘postcode lottery’-dominated national politics.

As we watch the US presidential hopefuls criss-crossing America in their appeal for votes, British electors should take note of what decentralised democracy looks like. We should remember what we have seen when, during the next UK general election, the major parties concentrate from a national call-centre on 150,000 floating voters. Giuliani or Clinton may win, but Ken Livingstone or Alex Salmond certainly couldn’t.

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