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Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Reform and renewal - new forms of democracy

In the days following the 2016 referendum result, I posted the meme below on Twitter. It reflected the shocked reaction of the political establishment that we had not done as we were told, despite them having spent twice as much as the 'Leave' side on campaigning. It was meant as a joke - but too many on the establishment side have taken it as received wisdom. Leavers are too ill-educated, too ill-informed, too plain stupid to be entrusted with a vote on a matter as complex as EU membership - we've heard that so many times in so many variations not to understand that they actually believe it. 

Our system of representative democracy allows us to elect MPs and Councillors as representatives, not as delegates. Our representatives are independent. Parliament is supreme. Our strength comes from having universal suffrage, the secret ballot and the right to associate and campaign for political change. There's a saying that hard cases make bad law; using the Brexit mess to force changes to an essentially sound democratic system would be a mistake. Nonetheless, there are moves on both sides to do so. 

We have already looked at options to strengthen Parliament in holding the government to account, and as uncomfortable as it seems, the protracted Brexit approval process is actually an effective Parliament in action. Let's then look at the main contenders to augment or replace our current system of representative democracy

Deliberative Democracy
This is the favourite of the Remain side, who think that voters in their natural state are not fit to make important decisions. The schemes on offer vary, but all involve some sort of 'sortition' - the use of a voters' panel, a bit like Blair's focus groups, to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us. But only of course after being lectured by experts on the right choice to make. The experts would be neutral in the same way that the BBC is neutral. 

To me, this all sounds too much like the pointless design Charettes I have encountered. The architect generally conducts them to convince planners / clients that his or her ideas have community support. They involve the architect talking to a room of people for a very long time with tons of slides and display boards and then asking them at the end which shade of Farringdon Grey, of the three offered, they would like as a finish to the front door?

Direct Democracy
This is essentially about referendums. Referenda are valuable democratic tools that can engage the attention of the public in deciding important matters that have a binary choice. The Swiss in particular use them at all three administrative levels, national, cantonal and municipal. Swiss electors can challenge new Acts of Parliament in two ways, either by gathering 50,000 signatures out of 5.4m registered voters (0.93% - equal to about 420,000 signatures in the UK) or by 8 Cantons protesting. However, referenda in Switzerland - which I think work well -  are clearly intended to augment and scrutinise the normal system of representative democracy, not to replace it. The political power able to be exercised by the people is enhanced, not transformed. 

I really cannot imagine that a constant process of referenda on every matter that must be decided by local authorities is in any way feasible. School admission arrangements, planning consent for a chip shop, capital expenditure approval for a new public lavatory. A dozen referenda a week. You simply can't replace Councillors and a system of representative democracy by anything that doesn't degrade and lessen our democratic power. 

Referism
This is Richard North's idea for an annual, national referendum on the government budget. He's right in seeing that a government can't function without money - taxes - and wants to move the approval of that money from Parliament to the people. 

Simply, my problem with this is that the budget cannot be a simple binary choice. Only binary choices are referendable (if there's such a word). Public expenditure is too complex and priorities too personal to make this a helpful or constructive option. 

Power of Recall
Brexit has brought to the fore the problems of a Parliament based on representative democracy now we have moved to fixed-term Parliaments. Many constituencies are now faced with representatives in Parliament who vote precisely the opposite way to the majority of their electors, and there's nothing that voters can do about it for five years.

When I think of the options, I think about capital punishment, to which I am personally deeply opposed, but which I know would probably be approved by a national majority. MPs, as representatives, have consistently acted in opposition to the national mood in banning it. However, the bar would need to be high to enable a constituency's voters to unseat their MP on such a difference of opinion. 

On balance, I favour a Power of Recall, on the simple basis that 'The voters of xxxxxxx have lost confidence in the ability of xxxxxxxxxxxx to represent the constituency in Parliament'  BUT with a high enough bar to exclude vexatious motions.

Internet voting
Those of you reading this will by definition be part of a group able to use the internet to access democratic options and make choices. As a way of augmenting our fundamental democratic rights, the internet is invaluable. However, to extend it to replacing those rights is simply not possible. On just the matter of the secret ballot, how do you ensure secrecy in a household with just one computer? Or how, as a member of such a household, can someone explain that they want to walk down to the local primary school to cast a secret vote rather than click an on-screen box with the rest of the family? Think Tower Hamlets. 

Finally, the Power Inquiry pleads for the nations'  Electoral Quotients to be brought into line with the minimum standard for developed nations of + / - 5%. This was a problem in 2004, and it's still a problem. The nation has been here before; there was a time at which Oxford University elected two MPs but not a single one was returned by the whole of a newly-industrialised and vastly grown Manchester. The problem is the Labour Party - the Oxford University of the 21st Century - which will simply not relinquish its corrupt and anti-democratic seats. In its refusal to do so it insults British voters and degrades our democratic institutions. 

Recommendation 21: Text voting or email voting should only be considered following other reform of our democratic arrangements.

Recommendation 22: The realignment of constituency boundaries should be accelerated.

6 comments:

Budgie said...

The fundamental problem is that our "representatives" do not represent us. In many ways this is worse than the "rotten boroughs" of old.

What I expected after our Leave win on 23 June 2016 was that I would retire from politics and trust Parliament to implement our vote. Some hope.

What we've had is most MPs (500+) totally ignoring our vote (except to call us "uneducated" wacists), ignoring their pledges to us, and brazenly taking back the right to make the decision about the UK's relationship with the EU. And the MPs consensus view is that the UK should remain tied to the EU - Mrs May's deal which locks us back into the EU in all but name is apparently not Remain enough for them.

They don't represent us. Maybe they never did, but this is so blatant it is clear our democracy no longer functions.

Frankly unless we actually Leave our democracy is finished. Without actually leaving there is no point chuntering about governance reforms - we might as well ask Brussels to take over our government completely. And don't give me any of that self-serving Remain tripe about departures and destinations - we all knew before 23 June 2016 that Leave meant exiting the EU treaties, and not re-entering.

john cheshire said...

Budgie, I fully endorse your comments; that's exactly what I think. The problem is that our swamp may be even more difficult to drain than that in the USA. And there doesn't appear to be any interest in draining ours.
Mrs Soubry epitomises everything that is wrong with the way our public servants behave towards us. And now we apparently cannot even shout abuse at them in public.

Arsenal Fan 36 said...

I get a bit fed up with this overuse, and misuse, of the term "establishment" as a bogey man in the propagandist narratives.

The term British Establishment became popular in the 1960s. It means the Royals and the Landed. It includes the military, security, diplomatic and intelligence top brass, and it also takes in the established Church, along with the judiciary, the Governors of the BBC, and media owners. It includes the Tory Government and the Executive, along with senior civil servants and bankers, and many other ex-Eton, and other such schools bigwigs. It absolutely does not include trade unions, the Greens, Labour, the LDs, mutual societies, co-operatives, the general scientific community, and the like. Yes, Theresa May, Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson are all in it, as is the public-school educated Nigel Farage. Jeremy Corbyn is definitely not, however, and it is why you will read endless distortions about him in silly rags such as the Daily Express.

right-writes said...

Raedwald wrote: "Our system of representative democracy allows us to elect MPs and Councillors as representatives, not as delegates. Our representatives are independent. Parliament is supreme."

This is clearly not the case, our representatives DEPEND on the patronage of the whips and senior party operatives in order to keep their place. Kate Hoey comes to mind here, she is not toeing the party line, so she is facing deselection. There are many cases like hers from both the red and blue team.

Raedwald separates Direct democracy from Recall, I reckon that the two are inextricably linked, how does one test whether a particular representative is playing the "white man" if there isn't a petition and vote to test the case?

I still favour direct democracy, where the demos are in charge, but they elect representatives to represent the voters interests... Not delegates, but representatives qualified to decide, where consistent failure to abide in spirit might well lead to recall.

There are as Raedwald points out, two main forms of direct democracy, one designed to stop representatives making unacceptable assumptions and forming policy on that basis, the other designed to act on citizen initiative.

I reckon that as in Switzerland a number of days each year should be set aside as "referendum days" and the build up to these days is when the interested parties, propose, educate and discuss the upcoming votes.

People are not stupid, and given the opportunity will always take civics seriously, but people should also be free to opt out of either the whole lot, or just the votes that do not interest them. This gives the parties a new role as "tendencies" rather than castles, or towers of babel.

Who knows it might even lead to a bit of interesting discussion appearing in newsprint, rather than the unreadable tosh that is currently touted.

As for the voting system, whilst I realise that the old fashioned ATM is not absolutely full proof, if it is good enough for the banks, it is good enough for me.

Finally, this has been a fun series and succession of reads from my favourite blogger, the king of Ipswich :) but we all know the reality...

None of this is ever going to happen, all the while the lizards are in charge!

Dave_G said...


Referendum should be reserved for subjects of National importance - sovereignty, war etc and it is clear that we have been severely betrayed by the subversive methods used to subsume the UK to foreign control over the years. The issue of Brexit would never have happened had the public been fully informed and asked to vote on the various interim moves made to steer us away from sovereignty.

I used to abhor the thought of national identity cards - now, with the vast and increasing abuse of our country and the system I'm not averse to the idea any more.

An identity card with the same safeguards as digital currency would be unbreakable yet put the voting powers back in people hands as there would be no excuse NOT to vote with the security (and anonymity) that a digital i.d. could afford.

Anti-referendums could also be allowed such that any proposal that received sufficient (digital) support MUST be addressed in Parliament (or local Government/Council offices) in order to acknowledge public concerns. Too often the authorities use public complacency to get away with changes that, had they been easier to object to, would never have been contemplated.

We also need to address the idea of a Constitution (although Magna Carta seems ok to me - I'm no expert though...).

Overall the public have been weaned off responsibility and disheartened into acceptance of the current system - but only because those in control have had the time (decades of continued erosion) and the facility (aided and abetted by a corrupt and complicit media) but we're entering into a stage where the desire for inclusion is beginning to return mainly (imho) because of the anonymity that keyboard warriors live under the guise of. I wouldn't dream of standing at Speakers Corner and making these pronouncements but I've probably got a larger audience than Speakers Corner would ever allow me!






right-writes said...

Further, I forgot to write that as a fan of Cowperthwaite and in view of what Dave_G has written regarding the constitution.

My special interest in direct democracy would be in campaigning for initiatives that would have the effect of privatising the law, so that the law gradually returns to the position set out in the provisions of Magna Carta.

All citizens have a set of inalienable rights and if a citizen feels that someone or some body has usurped them, then you take them to court and let a judge decide on the merits.

What you don't do is, make every issue a competence of the executive and their civil service lackeys.

This is the same way that the US constitution was intended to operate, it is why the president often becomes toothless following the mid-terms, the accent is on those inalienable rights...

Unfortunately it has gone a bit wrong, but that is not a good reason to either abandon the concept or not to try again.