The English nation, Rousseau observed, has delusions of freedom: free only at the moment it is electing MPs, but "as soon as the members are elected, the people [are] enslaved; it is nothing". But its collective inconsequence can rarely have been so palpable as now.
Barely more than a quarter of the electorate now trusts politicians, according to the Electoral Commission. Its head, Sam Younger, has warned of a fatal disengagement from politics--a mood not so much of apathy as alienation. But a new movement of voters has an alternative to abstention, turning conventional notions of electoral politics on their head.
On Tuesday evening, 2,000 people attended the largest public meeting of London's mayoral campaign at Westminster Central Hall. However, Ken Livingstone and the three other major candidates for mayor were not allowed to ply for votes but simply required to answer five "yes or no" questions. The candidates were asked to agree to a four-point "people's agenda" promoted by an organisation called London Citizens, which counts union branches, churches, mosques, student unions and schools among its members. Taken to shopping malls and door to door for public endorsement, the agenda has been signed by an estimated 15,000 people.
In contrast to party manifestos, it is very specific. Top of the list is a demand that the mayor champion a "living wage" for Londoners of at least [pounds sterling]6.70 an hour, to be paid throughout bodies such as London Transport and the Metropolitan Police and set as a condition of awarding contracts to private companies.
Neil Jameson, the lead organiser for London Citizens, says: "So many other people put their energy into the hustings, which is a one-off opportunity to get the candidates to say what they will do for us if we vote for them. What we are doing is completely the other way round, with people presenting their agenda to the candidates and the candidates having to respond to that."
On Tuesday, Livingstone agreed that, if re-elected, he would establish a unit to introduce and monitor the "living wage" and enforce it on all Greater London Authority private sector contracts as they are renewed. But London Citizens does not just take it on trust that he will do as he says. It also asked candidates for …