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Lessons from Charter 88

23 May 2005
Comments from: Stuart Weir of the Democratic Audit Peter Facey of New Politics Network and Charter 88 Saturday’s Independent published on its front page a huge list of the four thousand people who had sent in their names to support its Campaign for Democracy. The bottom right hand corner was turned up, in homage, intended or not, to Charter 88. I remember how Keith Ablitt, the exceptional typographer and designer who created the original Charter and the many adverts that followed, carefully explaining his concept of the upturned corner and its impact on potential signatures. Few forms of flattery are more sincere than imitation. But the imitation I look for most of all is support in depth. The problem with all ‘campaigns’ which focus on a single issue like voting reform is that the strength of their simplicity becomes a weakness. The government thinks it can just sit it out. Once initial support has peaked, where does it go? Once it starts to falter, it appears to lose momentum and soon becomes yesterday’s news. What are the conditions for a campaign to become a success? One option is money: lots and lots of it, hiring PR merchants and advertising agents, shaping opinion as columnists are dined and unusual outlets, especially in broadcasting, targetted. The Indepdent does not have this kind of money and anyway it has branded the campaign as its own. The alternative to money is ideas. There has to be an internal richness if there is external scarcity. The campaign must not become boring. Another, brilliant campaign also taking place now, which has gained a high profile in Britain is Make Poverty History. This has a rich hinterland of potential argument to keep it going, from trade to sustainable development. The constitutional agenda as a whole also has this potential. So indeed does “democracy”. It is about identify and nationality, about globalisation and locality, law, myth, culture and, in the United Kingdom, a new ‘settlement’ as well as the delivery of a fair voting system. Will the Indie grasp this and embrace the larger arguments, or will it make the mistake of thinking that because the outrageous election outcome was the original “story” it must stick to this and this alone?

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