The People's Politician
Another day; another political expenses scandal. Six months on from the worst Parliamentary controversy in memory, the political classes are still reeling from the fallout. Some may even be facing criminal prosecution.
With a general election looming, MPs rarely have been held in lower public esteem. Polling, even before the expenses affair, suggests that an overwhelming majority of the public feel they have "not very much influence" or "no influence" over decision-making locally (73%) and nationally (85%).
The most commonly cited reason is a belief that politicians overlook the public's views:
• "Nobody listens to what I have to say" (29%)
• "Decisions are made without talking to the people" (20%)
(Electoral Commission Hansard Society / Ipsos Mori 2006)
This might be one reason why 17 million citizens who could have voted at the last general election chose not to.
Today, the BBC is helping to launch an new experiment to try and re-invigorate the link between MPs and their constituents - using what's known as "direct democracy" to test how far politicians are willing to do what local people want.
Does the electorate even want the power to influence its MPs' decisions on a daily basis? Do people have time? Do they care? Could this be a long-term way of rehabilitating politics and engaging those who've given up on it? Or will it be seen as just a reaction to this year's scandals?
Two long-serving MPs - both standing down at the next election and from very different constituencies - have agreed to take part: Ann Widdecombe (Con - Maidstone and the Weald) and Richard Caborn (Lab - Sheffield Central).
Ann starts today with an announcement in her constituency and a new website. Richard Caborn will do the same early in the new year.
For three weeks, they'll try to become as accessible as possible to their constituents - using online tools, social networks and text messaging. They'll aim to find out what issues their constituents want them to champion and turn into real action - whether in Parliament or elsewhere.
The process will be supported by a BBC-commissioned local poll, and online voting on local and national issues - and a vote for the right to petition the MPs directly on those issues.
There'll also be a chance for constituents to comment on the kind of MPs they want. For example, will they want the right to vote out their MP mid-term - using the so-called "power of recall" - as widely discussed this year?
At a public meeting, the MPs will then explain what they intend to do. This could mean them sponsoring a bill, even voting against the party line. But they'll have to justify in public any decision to go against their constituents' views.
Take a burning national issue like the war in Afghanistan. Would voters want their MPs to urge that troops be pulled out as soon as possible - regardless of the situation in that country? Do they feel that their MPs should champion a "proper" debate and vote in Parliament on our UK involvement, as some have been advocating?
An important part of the project is to test the way technology could change how people think about politics. Both MPs will be given a blog, the ability to vidcast and a Twitter account to post updates (Ann's is here).
It reflects a growing debate (for example, here and here) about the role of representative democracy (where MPs make their own judgements or follow those of their parties) as opposed to direct democracy (where policy is dictated by popular opinion via, for example, referendums).
Some of this debate is around devolving power away from the centre. For example, could we have People's Bills, as well the government's, at the next Queen's Speech?
A BBC2 documentary provisionally titled The People's Politician will be broadcast next year. Before that, we will be posting footage and analysis at the project's blog.
Is the internet really the voice of democracy or an easily-gamed opportunity for those most motivated to make their voice heard?
Both MPs are former ministers. Both have agreed not to seek any personal or party-political gain from the experiment. They won't be paid for taking part and the decisions they take won't be binding on their successors.
Let us know what you think by commenting below or at our blog.
Tom Giles is executive producer, BBC Current Affairs.