Hutton and the bonfire of the votes

The judge has spoken and top BBC heads have rolled but the jury is still out. Lord Hutton's conclusions appear so perverse that the initial shock is being replaced by increasing public scepticism. If the learned judge fails to convince the electorate it would not be new; there are echoes of the Falklands war case in which a jury rejected the judge's direction. Clive Ponting, a civil servant at the Foreign Office, leaked information relating to the Argentinian warship, the General Belgrano, to Labour MP Tam Dalyell. Ponting was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act and Judge McCowan virtually instructed the jury to return a guilty verdict. The jury took a different view and acquitted Ponting. I suspect that Lord Hutton's conclusions would meet the same fate.

It is dangerous for politicians to believe that the electorate will fall into line with judicial pronouncements from on high. Forensic accuracy may be the aim of the legal process but if Hutton does not have the ring of reality he will not convince the public, particularly if a cogent case against his report is increasingly argued in the media. Labour politicians who believe that a judicial report, however weighty, can carry them through to the next general election will be in for a rough ride. Hutton's conclusions will undoubtedly play a role in that somewhat mysterious process that goes to make up the public's collective mind on polling day, but if party leaders use the report simply to lambast their opponents it may well feed the dangerous disillusion with all mainstream parties that led to the lowest turnout ever at the last election, and which has since fed extremist parties.

Parties content to win, however few electors actually turn out, and leaders who claim that "the people have spoken", are playing with fire. We are in a volatile and dangerous situation. Neither Bush nor Blair won the votes of more than a quarter of the electorate, and the statement of Thomas Jefferson over two hundred years ago is truer than ever: "we do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate." The increasing alienation of millions of citizens has an effect on the lawlessness and the lack of respect for authority that impinges on all our lives. Increasing repression, longer sentences and all the panoply of anti-social behaviour orders, simply tackle the symptoms and not the disease.

In this context the other Big Event of the past political week should be seen as healthy. For a government with a Commons majority of 161 to scrape through with a majority of five on a major Bill, is sensational. If the Labour Government, and, perhaps more importantly, its business managers in parliament, are prepared to read the political runes and, for once, act with some humility, this splendid parliamentary occasion could play a key role in reviving public confidence and restoring a degree of political health. Look at the facts. Parliament did its job. The legislature held the executive to account. The House of Commons forced the government to negotiate amendments to its legislation. In the face of massive pressure, MPs on the government side held their nerve and refused to troop through the lobbies as their whips demanded. Having tasted blood, MPs and whips alike need to ponder the implications for future legislation and indeed for Parliament itself. Arrogance is out and negotiation is in.

I sense that the voters quite like to see their MPs asserting their independence. Nothing last week need be fatal for Labour, providing it does not revert to the tactics of ritual abuse. A party that grasps the public mood and recognises that leaders and even ministers are vulnerable and even human, will reap an electoral dividend. Tony Blair and Michael Howard could profitably recall the great tactical error of Winston Churchill in the 1945 election campaign, when he claimed in a BBC broadcast a month before polling day that "no socialist system can be established without a political police. They would have to fall back on some sort of Gestapo." Churchill and other Conservative leaders continued this attack until they realised that the electors neither believed the charge nor were bothered about it in the face of so many practical matters that were far more important to them. Labour, of course, won a huge majority on polling day.

The public is not apathetic towards politics, but only towards party politics. Conservation issues attract huge public participation. The RSPB and the National Trust have memberships in the millions. Demonstrations against the Iraq war, or to challenge the World Trade Organisation, attract thousands, but voters have ceased to make a connection between political issues and political parties.

Following the events of the past week Tony Blair is probably more likely to lead the Labour party into the next general election than he was before it, but he still has a very long path to traverse before polling day, probably in late 2005. It is a path still strewn with uncharted boulders from the Iraq war and its aftermath. His much-hyped "conversazione" with the electorate needs to be transformed into debate and discussion across parties, rather than within one party. If the opposition parties are challenged to participate, and independent personalities chair such meetings, the events of last week could provide a rare opportunity to change our political culture and to reverse the relentless trend towards apathy and disillusion.

30 January 2004