In the partisan world of British politics, insults and accusations of sleaze frequently make parliamentary debate seem like a soap opera. Now, with the launch of an American Idol-style political party, it may soon resemble reality TV, too.
On March 16, Sir Paul Judge, a multimillionaire businessman and former director general of the Conservative Party under Prime Minister John Major, launched the Jury Team, an umbrella organization for Independents that is recruiting candidates via its website (www.juryteam.org). There, any member of the public can announce their candidacy for the upcoming European Parliament elections by describing their political interests in an online profile, uploading a photo, and linking to their profiles on other social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. Then, rather than the party selecting which candidates to field in a traditional closed-door process, the public decides through text message voting. "The Internet has cut out the middle man in many areas of life, and we're doing the same with politics," Judge told a hundred supporters in Westminster on Monday. "It used to be 'one man, one vote,' but now it's 'one mobile, one vote.'" (See the 50 best websites of 2008.)
At a time when electoral turnout and party membership have fallen to all-time lows in Britain, the Jury Team is a bid to engage a disillusioned electorate. Currently, less than 1% of Britons are active members of political parties, meaning that between them the parties claim fewer members than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. As Judge wrote in a recent editorial for The Guardian newspaper: "Our politicians have been pathetic at increasing democratic engagement, even with the power of the media at their fingertips." According to Jury Team advocates, that could be deliberate. "There's never been a time when political parties have had such a firm grip on the windpipe of our democracy," says Martin Bell, a British UNICEF ambassador and former Independent MP.
By offering the other 99% of Britons a chance to run, The Jury Team intends to boost representation of people from outside traditional party ranks and end the tribal politics that they believe dominates Parliament; currently, only five Independents sit in the 646-member House of Commons. To bolster its image as the anti-party party, the Jury Team has no manifesto and espouses no central policy. Its name, organizers say, reflects that juries made up of regular people can make decisions about complex problems with integrity and without any vested interests qualities the Team feels carry more weight than does the experience of being a member of the political establishment. (The name also, of course, may reflect its founder's narcissistic joke: Judge and Jury Team.)
And the Jury Team is opening its doors to almost anyone: "If a few oddballs or eccentrics run, I don't mind it," Bell says. "It's time for a people's insurrection." But organizers still intend to weed out extremists: during registration, candidates must click a box confirming that they won't discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation, and that they will behave honestly and selflessly. (See TIME's Pictures of the Week.)
The group's first test will come during June's European elections, which choose the U.K.'s representatives to the European Parliament. After that, the Jury Team competes in the general elections, which will take place some time before May 2010. The Team plans to field 70 candidates for the elections in June and a confident Judge believes the movement will "release the same wave of energy as was unleashed by Barack Obama." It's early yet, but as of Tuesday morning only 10 people had created online profiles, and just 35 had voted by texting in the name of their candidate. (See pictures of Obama on Flickr.)
Among those 10 candidates is Miranda Banks, a sports psychologist who describes herself in her online profile as "dynamic and enthusiastic" and who believes "our people are our wealth." Speaking at the launch on Monday, she matched Obama for optimism, but struggled with the rhetoric. "We'll stick it out," she said of Britain's current economic difficulties, "if we have a picture that is so strong we can smell it." Mixed metaphors aside, pollsters shouldn't write her off just yet. In an age when people will pay to vote for aspiring pop stars more readily than they'll travel to the voting booths, the jury on the Jury Team is still out.