Democratic dreams: why voting and participation matter

Democracy is demystified, and the ISV gets to see how voting and participation really makes a difference.

The group of Active Citizens are extremely lucky; their visit to the public gallery of the Houses of Parliament coincides with an appearance by Prime Minister David Cameron, who is debating the growing problem of Islamist insurgents in North Africa.

One MP states that it will be difficult to eliminate the problem while thousands of poor refugees languishing in the camps of Tindoug, south-western Algeria, provide a ripe recruiting ground for radicals.

Tilal Salih, British Council Programme Manager in Sudan, nods his agreement.

The debate finishes, and politicians - viewed through the thick glass of the gallery - move around the green leather clad wooden benches, and papers are shuffled.

A prime viewing spot

The next debate - about the changes in welfare benefits in the UK - begins.

Stephen Littler, of St Helens Empowerment Network, is also completely enthralled. A housing support officer, he is currently dealing with the problems caused by the benefit changes as part of his job.

'This is fascinating, I don't want leave,' says Stephen; but our allocated time slot is up.

Although the rituals, costumes, language and surroundings of the debating chamber seem arcane, the opportunity to see at close quarters how power actually works is rare for many of the Active Citizens.

A Pakistani participant explains that getting so close to the Pakistani Government would be impossible. I ask whether or not that is just because of security; they say it's because it is very difficult to meet and challenge politicians.

The experience links directly to the morning's discussion about democratic power, how to claim our rights and be heard.

Unique insight

The Active Citizens also have a tour of the buildings, and are given an insight into the subtle relationships between those who govern the UK, and those who make the laws.

The members of parliament (MPs) we see in the chamber debate the bills that are then passed into law.

'It's really great to see the debating and see the making of law by the MPs,' says Cherry Naing, of Myanmar. 'It's really inspiring for me to see this kind of engagement. I want to suggest to my MPs that we see the ways they work too.'

But MPs also sit in the cabinet, which governs the country - the executive. Although in the UK the queen is still the head of the state, our guide explains that the Parliament's history is basically defined by one goal - to take power from the monarchy, and concentrate it back into the hands of the people.

The group then get the chance to meet - and question - Sadiq Khan MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice.

Although his title sounds grand, Sadiq's origins are humble; his father was a bus driver for more than 25 years. We gather in one of Parliament's many conference rooms; the questions come thick and fast.

Why did the former human rights solicitor want to become a politician?

'As a lawyer, you can affect the lives of a few hundred people,' he replies. 'But as a member of parliament, you affect the lives of several hundred thousand - event though politicians aren't revered or respected. Most of the good changes that have happened in the world have come from politicians.'

Getting personal

One of the UK Active Citizens asks him about the current cuts in services in the UK.

'The Government is saying what we need is a big society,' he says. 'But when people come together and help each other we already have a big society. The big society already exists.' He says he wants to see more power given to local people, so they have control over their own budgets - perhaps to run the kinds of social action projects Active Citizens are involved in.

Reema Mukherjee, of India, asks how environmental policies - like recycling - have been implemented in the UK.

Sadiq says he believes it about carrot and stick; making it easy for people while at the same time providing sanctions for those who break the rules. But, he points out, London still has some way to go to abide by clean air guidelines.

A Pakistani Active Citizen asks how laws can be more firmly implemented in his home country.

'Before 1997, only 25 of Britain's 650 MPs were women; so Pakistan's young democracy isn't doing too badly,' Sadiq says. 'The problem is in Pakistan that there is a really a reluctance for the executive and the judiciary to have any arguments. But tension is a good thing; it allows you to find solutions. So we can't be too pessimistic.'

He adds that politicians have to show they are accountable - otherwise governments become little more than executive dictatorships. And with only a third of Britain's young people regularly voting, politicians need to find a way to engage more young people.

Ever busy, Sadiq is rushing off for an appointment - but he poses for a picture with the Active Citizens, and has one more thing to say.

'This is a fantastic way for people to have access to the real world of politics. And I hope to see some budding politicians here.'

An unforgettable experience

The night ends with a fantastic meal at the Waterhouse Trust, part of an East End-based social enterprise that runs several businesses designed to tackle deprivation, employ local youth and revitalise the local economy.

Radha Nair, Director of the Active Citizens programme, explains that the project has grown and grown. 'It started as an exchange programme, but has now become a leadership programme,' she adds.

Certainly, the day seems to have given the Active Citizens plenty of knowledge and inspiration to fulfill the hopes Sadiq and Radha have for them.