For some time now, government ministers and pundits have been bemoaning political apathy in Britain. And they should be worried. How can any government claim real legitimacy if most people can't be bothered to vote, no matter how big its majority might be?
So what happens when people do get involved? The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) received some insight into this recently with its campaign to oppose the Government's Planning Green Paper (Third Sector, 31 July). The CPRE can be thanked for generating a large proportion of the 16,000 responses - the largest number ever to a DTLR consultation. The problem was that any responses that could be linked to the CPRE were referred to rather dismissively in the final report as "arising from a campaign". The implication was that less weight should be put on those responses.
As Henry Oliver, the council's head of planning and local government, puts it: "It seems that if you enable people to feed into the political process then the result is devalued. Given the problems we have engaging people in the process, this seems perverse."
When it comes to influencing public policy, any charity or NGO's most potent weapon is its supporters. But if the attitude of the DTLR is going to feed through to other parts of government, and if the views of members and supporters are somehow to count less than those of the apathetic masses because they are "organised", then campaigning organisations may have to change their tactics.
To get taken seriously, mainstream campaigning may have to become far less polite, more to do with demonstration and direct action.
We will all be losers if the current tools of last resort were to become the everyday vocabulary of political conversation. But if the DTLR's attitude is any indication, that day may well come.