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Theresa May: A 'Commission for Democracy'

Speech to Conservative Future members at Conservative Central Office

"During the 1968 US presidential election campaign, the US Senator Robert Kennedy finished every speech with one phrase borrowed from George Bernard Shaw:

'Some men see things as they are and ask "Why?" I dream things that never were and ask, "Why not?"'

Robert Kennedy was a man with a vision for his country, who in his lifetime achieved a lot but who was cut down before he could achieve all that he wanted to.

Some people have traced the decline of political participation in America to the day Senator Kennedy was killed.

That may, or may not, be the case - but what is certain is that the gradual demise of political activity on both sides of the Atlantic is a crisis that has to be addressed.

Consider these facts:

· Last year's General Election saw the lowest national turnout since 1918.

· 61% of people aged 18-24 failed to vote.

· Just 34% of people bothered to vote in this year's local elections at all.

We can examine many possible reasons for this crisis, but the traditional excuse of voter apathy simply does not do justice to the problem we are facing.

I believe that part of the answer to this problem can be found by looking at the attitudes of young people.

Young people aren't disinterested in politics - they're disinterested in party politics. They feel that the formal structures of Westminster-based political parties do not adequately represent their views.

Plenty of research shows that young people think formal politics is 'dull' and 'boring', but it also reveals that they do have a genuine interest in playing a part in decision-making.

They care about the state of the health service, the future of education, the prospect of getting a god job - but they think all politicians are the same.

They are increasingly used to questioning people in authority. They are encouraged to use their own minds to think about issues and not to simply accept things at face value. Politicians do not intimidate them anymore - indeed, in many cases they look down on them. The age of deference has been replaced by the age of reference - reference to one's peers but not to those in authority.

As one young person put it, last year's election was simply 'a case of who will screw me over the least'.

The attitudes of these young people tell us one thing: politics itself is not failing. Traditional party politics is.

Why is this?

Some people claim it is all down to sleaze. I disagree. Certainly the antics of some MPs in the past - including Tories - have fed the mood of national cynicism but they didn't create it. After all, there are endless examples of misbehaviour - often widely publicised - by people in other walks of life but we don't simply assume that all business people are corrupt or that all footballers are philanderers.

Others argue with some force that politicians are seen as being 'all the same', 'remote' and 'out-of-touch'. They tell you what you want to hear, but they don't live in the real world. For some people, Parliament is one large museum, where irrelevant people sit around arguing among themselves while the rest of the world carries on regardless.

And a further cause is the gradual erosion of the powers of local government - under Governments of both colours - which has taken power further away from people and communities at a time when all politics is, in fact, becoming local.

At a time when a decision by the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve can have as great an impact on our economy as our own Chancellor, people are increasingly looking to their politicians to address and deal with their local concerns.

The priorities for those of us in politics today are to improve the standard of health care people receive and to ensure young people receive a better education in their schools and universities. These things are ultimately local issues, but the power of local government to deliver them has been diminished.

But while all these things may play a part in the political crisis we face, I believe there is in fact a far more fundamental cause: one which our party has failed to get to grips with even though it is largely a result of our actions.

Many of you in this room are not old enough to remember the days when there was a clear ideological difference between the two sides in world politics.

The days of communism versus capitalism are little more than lines in a history book for many people today.

The Iron Curtain, defined so eloquently by Winston Churchill, has gone - and with it has gone the clear demarcation between political parties and people's voting intentions.

For many of us, the television pictures of German youths of about your age hacking at the wall which divided them from their friends and relatives in the East marked a defining moment in our political lives.

But we have failed to realise the wider implications of these events.

We continue to think that people more or less vote along strict party lines according to their political ideology.

But for all but a minority of people in this country, the strict identification with any one political party has gone.

This presents us with an opportunity and a warning.

It is an opportunity to appeal to a wider electorate than we have ever reached before, but it is also a warning that we can no longer simply rely on our traditional position in British politics.

It is no secret that the average age of a typical Conservative voter is increasing.

To reach out beyond that core is not a luxury for our party. Without doing so we face an unhappy and unsuccessful future.

So we have to recognise that the things that influence people's vote have changed. Tribal politics has been replaced by consumer politics.

As people become used to making choices in their daily lives they also take a more considered approach to political parties. They want political parties to tell them what they will do for them. They want to know what positive benefit this party will bring which the other party won't. And increasingly today - as the young people I referred to earlier show - they look outside the traditional party system because they think it has failed them.

This manifests itself in two ways.

Firstly, people don't bother to vote in the first place.

More people vote in Big Brother than in many elections. Why? Well perhaps it's because when you vote in Big Brother you think it will affect the outcome. If people believed that the producers had decided in advance what was going to happen then no one would bother to vote. This may well explain why some people choose to stay away from the polling stations on election day.

But the second way people register their protest is by beginning to look for alternative people to vote for.

This can be equally as worrying.

In a democracy, people are free to cast their vote for whichever party or individual they choose. In recent times we have seen the election to Parliament of Martin Bell and Richard Taylor, who have addressed specific concerns of their voters.

We've seen an independent Mayor elected in Middlesbrough and a man dressed as a monkey elected in Hartlepool.

But some voters are taking drastic action to register their discontent with the mainstream political parties. No-one who values democracy can be comfortable with the recent success of the British National Party.

Some politicians and commentators draw the wrong conclusions from what's happening in places like Burnley and Oldham. They also misunderstand events in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. Look, they say, people can't be trusted. They elect monkeys and they elect extremist parties.

But I would draw the opposite conclusion. It's when you don't trust people that they turn to desperate measures. It's when politicians attempt to frustrate and ignore the will of the electorate that the electorate hits back with whatever tool comes to hand.

Every BNP councillor elected in this country brings shame on mainstream politicians.

There is only one solution. And that solution can be encapsulated by a great Tory theme, taken up by both Disraeli and Churchill: Trust the People.

Because at the heart of our democratic crisis today is this simple truth: People don't trust politicians because politicians don't trust people.

Politicians are still apt to treat their relationship with voters as paternalistic. "Don't worry about the issues - we know best."

But this ignores the impact of the change from tribal politics to consumer politics. The relationship between people and politicians has changed from one of protected and protector, to one of consumer and provider.

As people have access to more and more information about the world in which they live they are less ready to trust the glib phrases of politicians. They want clear answers and above all delivery.

At the same time public expectations have grown and politicians all too often feed those expectations rather than being straightforward about the problems. This breeds cynicism.

So there is a need for political parties to address both the causes and the effects of the electorate's progressive alienation from the political process.

Yet so far, this process has largely been confined to patronising campaigns and ineffective initiatives which fail to address the real issue at its root. Voting by internet or text message may have its place, but the core problem is not that voting is too difficult, but that abstaining is too easy.

So to deal with this problem, we need to begin at the beginning.

For that reason I am setting up a Commission for Democracy to examine how democracy can be rejuvenated and the credibility of politics and politicians restored.

This will be a non-partisan body, and I am delighted that David Butler, former Nuffield Professor, Dr Richard Taylor, the Independent MP for Wyre Forest and Peter Bazalgette, TV producer and creator of Big Brother, have already agreed to serve on it with me. I will be inviting further people to join us in due course.

The Commission will look at why turnout is so low particularly among younger voters. It will look at the way politicians present themselves and communicate with voters. It will look across the range of issues so that it can begin to find ways of re-engaging people in voting and in active politics.

Nothing will be ruled in, and nothing will be ruled out. Most importantly of all, the recommendations the Commission produces will not be the preserve of the Conservative Party. They will be published and will be relevant to anyone who cares about the future of our democracy. And we hope any recommendations or ideas it produces can be adopted by other political parties or groups.

As a party, of course we already have a very clear direction. The new political battleground is between those who believe in the power of the state and those who believe in the power of individual freedom.

It is between those who believe in centralised control and those who believe in devolving power to local people.

I have wanted to be an MP since I was about your age. I was attracted to politics because of a deep commitment to public service and a deep desire to make a difference. I was attracted to the Conservative Party because of a fundamental belief in the power of human freedom.

The right to vote is the finest example of this freedom in practice.

The right to be properly represented is this freedom made flesh.

The right to get rid of a failing Government is this freedom in action.

And in diminishing our democracy we diminish that freedom.

Freedom was the very dream the young people who tore down the Berlin Wall were chasing. The students who sparked the revolutions in Central Europe in the 1990s were pursuing that same goal.

We may take it for granted, but for many young people in our world true freedom is a relatively new phenomenon - and for many more it has not yet come.

So we have a duty to use it for the best - but we have not been doing so.

Too much spin, too much dishonesty, too much punch and judy politics has switched people off.

Too many politicians are all-to-ready to condemn their opponents before they know the full story. But such actions merely breed cynicism.

The only people who can change this are the politicians themselves - and I want our party to be at the forefront of this change.

We have to be prepared to tell it how it is.

We have to be prepared to resist the sometimes over-bearing demands of the media who want us to say this or that before we know all the facts.

We have to be a constructive opposition or else we'll be a perpetual opposition.

Our party has an ambitious agenda for our country, so let's go out and sell it.

For the first time in decades there is a sense that the fresh ideas that will shape the future are coming from the centre-right. Observers who attended fringe meetings at the various party conferences this autumn said that that there was a far greater sense of intellectual energy and fresh thinking going on among the Tories than anywhere else.

New think tanks are springing up. New ideas are being explored. New websites are full of debate and discussion. There's a real sense that interesting things are happening.

When we unveiled our 25 new policies at Bournemouth some critics were astonished. They didn't realise that we're a Party on the move, brimming with ideas.

The same process is even more advanced across the Atlantic and, as British Conservatives, we are encouraged by the recent achievements of President Bush and the Republicans.

I hope that New Labour in all its hubris remembers how powerful the Democrats looked not so very long ago. How quickly things can turn around when a party is prepared to be open-minded and embrace change.

The last time we had this initiative was in the 1970s when Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph set up the Centre for Policy Studies. Groups like the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute were developing the policies that would power the Conservative governments of the 1980s.

Young people in universities were drawn towards the political ferment. They felt, rightly, that this was a set of ideas that was going somewhere.

There's a lesson in this for us today as we stand on the threshold of a new era of Conservative creativity.

Ours is a philosophy that is at its strongest when it is in the vanguard of change. Conservatism is not static - it is dynamic.

By empowering people - in every sense of the word - we help to conserve the best of our society whilst continuously improving it. By recognising the limits of government we ensure good government. By trusting the people we ensure that the people trust us.

Over the next two years as we move towards the next election I intend to do what I can to encourage and assist this process of intellectual renewal. Today I have concentrated on one aspect of our mission - building a better democracy.

But there are others, rescuing and reshaping our public services, enhancing the quality of life for our most vulnerable citizens, maintaining Britain's security and independence in a time of dangerous global conflict.

The future is not a threat - it's an opportunity and we must seize it with both hands.

By being constructive, by being creative, above all by being optimistic, we will regain the trust of the people and then use that trust to make Britain a better place.

I still believe politicians can make a difference. As I said in my speech at conference, at it's best politics is a noble calling. At their best, politicians can do great things.

Winston Churchill was not voted the greatest Briton because he said something couldn't be done. He was voted the greatest Briton because he saw a challenge and overcame it, faced evil and rose above it, encountered bad times and refused to be worn down.

We need that same optimism and enthusiasm today. We need the vision to make our country a better place. We need to give people our trust.

And we need to look at how much better things could be in our country and start asking why not?"

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