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Every year the three major parties have a heaven-sent opportunity to reinvigorate our political life and demonstrate the qualities of active citizenship they seek to instil in society. And what do we get? A performance that makes Everton’s Uefa Cup campaign look inspired.

Take the Lib Dems. Can anyone recall what they contributed to the cut and thrust of policy this time around? The abiding memory is that of Charles Kennedy seeking to demonstrate his prime ministerial qualities by showing that he too can ignore the wishes of his party if it’s not expedient.

What about Labour? A party that can even contemplate arresting its own members under anti-terror legislation, even if that’s passed off as an embarrassing faux pas, has got to start looking long and hard at the chasm between its aspirations and the means it applies to achieve them. The conviction that we can achieve a happy, stable and tolerant society by hurling ever more Draconian legislation at those who step out of line is more Joe Stalin than Clement Attlee.

And the Tories, bless ’em. Well, they can certainly give us a debate. Here’s a party that has taken discussion of the arrangement of deckchairs on the Titanic to new depths. In its rush to ditch ideologies the public has rejected, it has morphed into little more than a bunch of well-heeled folk who vie to be nicest to children and animals (as long as they’re well-behaved).

It says a lot for 21st-century politics that the hero of this year’s conference season is an 82-year-old who had the temerity to use the word ‘nonsense’ in a Brighton auditorium. What’s frightening, however, is the way in which suppression of debate has permeated our professional world too. Question the relevance of the next set of hoops you have to jump through, be they a comprehensive performance assessment or an application for lottery money, and watch your funding vanish in a puff of smoke. Challenge the scale or quality of a new development and you’ll be sidelined as a troublemaker. Get a reputation for speaking out and you’ll rapidly be dismissed as one of the ‘usual suspects’ - a label as damning as it is meaningless.

We need to turn the idea of civic leadership on its head. Instead of taking our cue from politicians whose idea of effectiveness is to brook no dissent, we should be bold enough to hold them to account. Don’t forget it’s our money they’re spending.

Julian Dobson, editor

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