Thursday, 18 March 2010

An experiment in democracy

At the height of the expenses row last year, some were speculating that the end of party politics as we know it was at hand, and that the next election might see an influx of independent, anti-politics politicians. That now seems unlikely (perhaps it always did) but there will almost certainly be more independent candidates than ever before, as well as a wide range of smaller parties with little or no experience of conventional Westminster politics. The potential for the people to destroy the party system and elect an entirely different type of Parliament is there, even if the majority of voters will in the end plump unenthusiastically for one of the usual suspects.

A Parliament consisting only or mainly of unaffiliated MPs is certainly an intriguing prospect. I suspect it would produce far less legislation, and any laws that were passed would be more closely scrutinised. And MPs, being fully answerable to their constituents rather than the party whips, would have to listen much more attentively to what their voters want. On the other hand, with most "independent" candidates you're asking people to vote for a personality, or at most for some nebulous "anti-politics" platform based around appeals to common sense. At least with conventional parties you're voting for a raft of policies set out in the manifesto.

Here's another idea: vote for someone who agrees to consult local voters on every issue that comes before Parliament and act in accordance with their wishes. Denny de la Haye, a 36-year old IT consultant and digital rights activist who also set-up the Police State UK blog last year, intends to stand in Hackney South and Shoreditch at the general election on just such a ticket. His slogan is "get a vote". Vote for him and you can keep on voting. As he explains on his website, launched yesterday:

Direct democracy takes 'one person, one vote' to its ultimate form. For each issue that arises in Parliament, every person in the country should be allowed to vote on that issue.... I think we should be starting to create a direct democracy right now, enabled by the digital technology that is already available to us. That's why, if elected, I promise that I will vote how the people in Hackney South tell me to vote.

For each vote coming up in Parliament, I will put a poll on this website. Every voter living in Hackney South and Shoreditch will have a login for the site, and will be able to vote in the polls using their computer or their mobile phone. Whatever the majority vote is, I will vote that way.

There are, however, three slightly vague exceptions: Denny de la Haye reserves the right to vote against any law which he deems racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory; in favour of civil liberties; and in favour of electoral reform.

Intrigued, I contacted Denny and posed a few questions.

Heresiarch: Is this just you or are there others standing at the election on the same or a similar platform?

Denny: So far it's just me. The plan is to build the web service in such a way that other candidates can also use it, if others would like to run on the same platform (they can choose their own exceptions, as long as they're not contrary to the core idea of direct democracy and there aren't too many of them). I have had one enquiry along these lines already, and I hope to get more over the next week or two, but I'm not sure if they'll be for this election or the next.

H: Has this direct democracy idea been with you a long time, or did it occur to you as a sudden epiphany?

D: A long time. I've wanted to be able to vote on issues since before I was old enough to vote. As the 'net has come into increasingly widespread use, its application to the idea is obviously tempting. The idea in its current form has been fairly crystalised for the last few years.

H: Are you funding the election entirely out of your own resources? How much do you anticipate spending on the campaign?

D: I am funding the campaign entirely from donations (there's a Donate button on the website), topped up with my own money where necessary (i.e. if I don't get enough donations for the registration fee). I wasn't kidding when I said I can barely afford my mortgage... I certainly can't afford a political campaign.

H: Realistically, how many votes do you hope to get?

D: I honestly have no idea. I hope the idea resonates with people - there's certainly an groundswell of opinion against party politics at the minute, although I'm not sure if people always realise that's what they're being let down by, or if they just think it's politics in general.

A lot will depend on how much publicity my campaign gets, and how well that filters back down into the people who can and do vote in this area. I suspect a lot of my publicity will be online, which is good for promoting the concept, but not necessarily useful for getting elected.

H: Edmund Burke wrote, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." Presumably you disagree?

D: Well, he's talking about a representative. My long-term goal is to cut out representatives from the process. I only have my three reservations because I'm still 'responsible' with the current system, and I can't bend my conscience past a certain point on some issues, regardless of the will of the people. If I were rewriting the actual political system, I'd only have one vote of 60 million nation-wide, and I could exercise my reservations on/with that single vote.

H: How do you define the scope of your reservations? An example: if your constituents wanted to vote for a ban on abortion or a return to capital punishment, would you regard these as falling within the excluded area?

D: Those are convenient examples for me, because although those are decisions I would strongly disagree with (very strongly in the case of banning abortion), I would be willing to vote the way I was 'instructed' on them. I can't give an honest answer to 'what is the scope of the reservations', because "it depends". I hope that in the majority of cases where I state (in advance, by the way) that I will be overriding on a given vote, the poll (which will still run) will show strong support for my position anyway.

If there's strong opposition to my position on one of these votes, then I think I have a duty to educate and inform people about what led me to my decision, and I hope I can win them over. If I can't, then I guess they have to vote for someone else with different exceptions at the next election. By then hopefully there will be a range of direct democracy candidates to choose from! ;)

H: Wouldn't your online polls be difficult for people who weren't connected to the internet, thus increasing their exclusion? Would you have any mechanism for compensating for that?

D: My site does briefly mention SMS voting as an option, although it needs more research to flesh out the details. Mobile phone ownership is fairly endemic, so I think that negates a lot of the disenfranchisement argument regarding Internet access. There are also public Internet facilities, for instance in local libraries, but I think the mobile phone route is the key one to explore.

H: Do you think enough people would be interested in the issues to make a direct democracy properly representative, or would the decisions end up being made by relatively small groups of people with a vested interest or particular obsessions?

D: There are two schools of thought on the levels of participation I would get. One is that people are fed up with politics and can't be bothered to vote any more - often expressed with "they're all the same" and "it makes no difference how I vote" - and it's possible that this lack of engagement will persist and will cripple my idea. The other school of thought is that my idea will encourage people to re-engage with politics, because their vote will actually count in quite a visible way, on issues they specifically care about. I have no idea which of these is true, but I think we should find out.

Regarding special interest groups swamping the polls... I think to a large extent my answer here is 'the people who care enough to vote, should get their voice heard'. If people feel strongly against something a special interest group is pushing, they should vote too, not try to remove the vote from the special interest group.

In general, this is all based on a belief that education and information are the way to achieve good decisions in a democracy, rather than disenfranchising anyone you don't trust to make the right decision.

H: Of the major parties, which comes closest to expressing your general philosophy?

D: Does the Pirate Party UK count as a major party? :) If not, then I guess I'd have to say the Liberal Democrats, in honour of their Freedom Bill - even if their Lords did commit some shocking errors in respect of the Digital Economy Bill.

So, is this a runner? The general view about people in Britain is that they aren't particularly interested in politics and are quite happy to be left alone by politicians for the four or five years between elections. But times have changed. The Internet has freed up debate and information. Demands for greater decision-making power to come into the hands of the people will surely follow. If nothing else, ideas like Denny's demonstrate that the potential for radical change is inherent even in the unreformed Westminster system.