Rotten Boroughs, Rogues, 150 MPs ... All Have to Go; CRUNCH TIME; Vince Cable Spells out a Controversial Ten-Point Plan to Save Our Democracy

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Byline: Vince Cable

The conference season is here again, with three weeks of wall-to-wall speeches and countless fringe meetings on every issue under the sun. For the thousands of party workers, these are the climax of the political year. I still get a buzz from our own Liberal Democrat party conference, which gets the season under way this coming week in Bournemouth.

I remember my first few times - being awestruck by the famous names I encountered and nervously memorising my unmemorable contributions to obscure debates. It is important for the big names to thank and listen to the grassroots workers: the people who give their time and commitment, usually without reward. But beneath the razzmatazz and in the margins of meetings, there will be a sense of unease that politics, in general, has a bad name - that politicians are no longer trusted by the public and even that British democracy is in some danger. Party conferences reflect that wider political crisis. All the main parties are struggling to maintain membership and the activist base is getting older. A typical working person can no longer afford a week off in a hotel and has increasingly been replaced by the well-heeled and the professional business lobbyists.

Much of the genuine passion has gone. The older generation will remember those dramatic Labour debates about public ownership and nuclear disarmament, Liberal leader Jo Grimond's stirring oratory about Europe and Conservative chairman Hailsham ringing his bell.

My own party maintains a tradition of contested, unpredictable debate. But, for the most part, conferences are now rallies where the leadership performs, mainly for a television audience, and the biggest uncertainty is the length of the standing ovation.

What politicians must do in the next few weeks is work out, with their party members, how to restore public confidence and enthusiasm in party politics. The challenge is clear. Millions no longer bother to vote.

I recently visited a Midlands city where an important council by-election saw a turnout of less than one in ten. Many people who are still interested in politics channel their time and energy into single-issue campaigns and protests, not parties. The poisonous residue of the expenses scandal still pollutes Parliament. There is a worrying drumbeat of extremist politics on the angry fringes, with fascist parties such as the BNP making inroads.

As for my contribution, I will suggest a ten-point plan to counter the decline of democratic politics.

1. Reform party funding. It is dangerous and corrupting for parties to depend on large donations from rich donors with a dodgy past, who evade taxes and try to buy influence. Some donors are honourable; others expect favours to be returned. There have to be strict limits on individual donations and limits on party spending between, as well as during, elections.

2. Cut the cost of politics. Despite the recent scandals, I believe that most MPs do an important job representing their constituents, holding government to account and legislating. But we don't need 646 MPs and 740 unelected Lords, when the United States, five times bigger, has 535 Congressmen and Senators.

We should cut 150 MPs and elect a smaller second chamber. …