The Future of Democracy

Very interesting session in the Wilson committee room at Parliament’s Portcullis House last Tuesday 9th September. It was a MeetUp organised by GlobalNet21. I was busy with several other events last week, so taken until over the weekend to publish my notes.

Peter Hain (Lab) and John Mann (Lab) as the main speakers. [Caroline Dinenage (Con) had to pull out due to constituency business.]

Both MP’s Hain and Mann contrasted their own political careers – starting out locally engaged and (single) issue focussed, and finding themselves drawn into the process of democratic government – with those of modern “career” politicians. Typically starting with a politics related degree, internship experience with party or offfice, working in related politics or journalism field until securing candidacy (council or parliament), thereby becoming MP, junior minister, spokesperson, minister and finally PM. So many candidacies actually go unopposed. Coming from and becoming part of the Westminster press / academic / government “bubble” – and in so doing, reinforcing the bubble. Reinforcing the detatchment of polticians from “real life” of their constituents.

In parallel was the apparent decline in voter engagement and turnout statistics over the decades, though there was some suggestion these things did go in cycles. The idea of Halcyon days is simply nostalgia. Interpretations of current low levels could be an apathy due to most things being comfortably OK (the normal interpretation), or a specific message of public dissatisfaction with the political process and arrangements (though no-one felt the need to mention the Russell Brand effect even once during the whole evening).

Counter-intuitively, career politician or local activist, the time for working on engagenment is not necessarily in the run-up to elections, where both lobbyists and candidates understand the game of securing maximum counts for least effort, least commitment and minimum difficult, complex debate.

Similarly, engagement is not necessarily through policy setting and agreement. Strategic policy may often be the window dressing – the language and narrative expected by “the bubble” – but tactical action, using actual power to address specific value-adding issues is what draws public support for specific MP’s and hence their parties. Mann challenged the academia members of the bubble to use his advice as a case study for what it really takes to secure votes.

Parties and the “two-party system” were a topic too. Despite much wrong with the byzantine machinations of party organisations and activities, and with the effect of casting all issues adversarially, parties do in fact perform a valuable function in providing the platform, advice and vehicle for raising individual constituent issues into the government political process, getting both active individuals and their issues on to the agendas for debate, decisions and action.

In these days of ubiquitous electronic media, it is the otherwise most disenfranchised that are, relatively speaking, most empowered. Anyone however “ineloquent” of whatever social status can and will add their voice to a debate, a campaign, a petition. The downsides however are the ease with which cynicism and reactive or simplistic positions can spread, and given that real life is limited by resources and priorities – not everything can be most important or “paramount” – the empowerment to communicate raises expectations that can easily lead to disappointment, frustration and reinforcement of the said cynicism. A vicious circle I call “the memetic effect” in this blog – the catchiest but not necessarily the best ideas capture maximum attention.

There is a sense in which the public needs to understand that limited resources, conflicting priorities and unintended consequence over different levels and timescales mean not every issue can be solved by simple yes / no decisions. Basic “civics” education is so important for public understanding of the complexities, though clearly the more transparent and honest political dealings can be, the complexity needn’t be over-complicated. Explaining the difference between complexity and complication is err … complicated. Real priorities can be more readily apparent, the more people appreciate the real processes needed.

Interestingly, despite the counter-intuitive rejection of the value of “policies” per se, it is nevertheless clear that agreed values and shared human aims are fundamental to achieving consenus and focus on real priorities. Value itself is created by action, whereas policy statements of value simply support the process, and rationalise the decisions.

Many other specific ideas for improving the process came up. In no particular order:

Open primaries for candidate selection were recommended and a number of MP’s including Mann had used and promoted this concept. They are not a silver bullet – by the very virtue of being open – they are open to abuse and manipulation, but they are part of the reforms needed to encourage two-way engagement – candidates with the public and the public with the process.

There semed to be implicit consensus that larger constituencies with some form of proportional / AV representation really was overdue, and disbelief that the recent opportunity to enact this had been rejected. The simplistic first-past-the-post within arbitrary constituencies was part of the adversarial election-winning distraction from real value-adding action.

Quite mixed views on an elected second chamber. Clear objective for some. General agreement on the total numbers in the two houses has become too large. Personally, I believe reform in combination with the AV ideas above, does also need some “conservative” meritocratic appointees with timescales and policy horizons beyond the next election term office. It’s not so much that the elected individuals have selfish short-term vision, but that the process can artificially impose the term timescale. Conversely several mentions of checks and balances in any system, such as “recall” being essential.

Finally, in addition to the mentions of the empowerment of participants by ubiquitous social media, several mentions of electronic voting and also the voters responsibilities to vote, including some discussion of legally mandatory voting. No time for these to be aired fully. Enforced voting was generally rejected, certainly not without actual voting choices include concepts like “none of the above”. Electronic voting perceived by many as too open to manipulation by those parties providing and running the systems, but in fact my objection is that to maintain its value, voting mustn’t be made too easy – a click from the armchair, like any other two-bit quiz or feedback form.

Overall, an excellent session. Covered a lot of ground, but necessarily couldn’t do justice to all topics. Personally, I’m already sold on the need for increased engagement. Positively inspiring to encounter real values and practical wisdom “in the flesh” – all too easy to criticise those “in power” from afar, and demand the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Also particularly note-worthy of this event was the fact that it wasn’t run as a debate requiring yes or no agreements, but a conversation topic where the potential for change and improvement was a given from the off.

[Post Note : One to read later – hat tip to Sam @ Elizaphanian – particularly the comment thread from those “scientistic” types who see no value in “wishy-washy” topics like PPE anyway.]

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