I firmly believe that the utopian government would be run by a single individual who was truly wise, rooted in a love of mankind, secure in self and non-aligned to any ideology but open to all, based on merit and evidence.
Unfortunately, I have to accept the reality that, as human beings have demonstrated irrefutably, no-one is above the potential for corruption in the face of absolute power. That utopia will have to wait.
That being the case and given that the only accepted system of government, in the West at least, is democracy, then we have to come up with a prescription for a form of that system that will better serve mankind or, at least, that portion of it that resides within the nation in question. If it worked, then rather than exporting it by force as some have wanted to do in the recent past, an example would be set which others could follow or indeed improve upon.
The Founding Fathers of the United States were one of the few examples in the history of the world where a country was able to craft a constitution from a blank sheet of paper. I believe they did the very best they could, given the knowledge and inclinations of the world from which they sprang. The USA has seen many amendments to that original creed, demonstrating that they have, over time, found much that might be improved in that original document and many would say there is still much to be done.
The problem is that the system then devised is ill-equipped today to make those changes, or at least to make significant changes. It must be recalled that there were many fundamental beliefs wrapped up in the creation of that document which most modern liberals would find objectionable if it were proposed today. For example, when the document espouses the values and responsibilities attributable to “all men”, it did indeed mean men, and was not including women. It equally meant all white men and was never intended to include black men or others of colour, most of whom at the time were, of course, slaves. Neither was universal suffrage meant to be part of the package. You will recall that these Founding Fathers were imbued with the culture of the England of the time where two Houses of Parliament, one elected under very limited suffrage and one existing by way of hereditary “right” were the norm.
The Senate, therefore, was never intended to be elected by the population at large but rather appointed at the whim of the great and the good who ran each state. It is also of very significant import that whereas the Constitution (or more particularly, the First Amendment thereto) called for the separation of Church and State and the tolerance of different religious beliefs, it was still rooted in the fundamental beliefs of Christianity which today remains very much a defining force in US politics. They might believe they have achieved a separation of powers but who can deny the insidious influence that Christianity, let’s reduce it to ‘a belief in god’, has on all things politic in America. You’ll look long and hard to find a Presidential, Senatorial or Congressional candidate that has ever stood on a platform of irreligion, non-religion or atheism, much less achieved office. Almost all invoke the Almighty in their campaign.
The greatest problem with mankind is that we appear to seek or at least revel in conflict. To many of us, civilised expression of opposing views is the way in which we seek the truth. In too many instances, however, it is the source of every instance of discord from personal relationships to global conflagrations. We are familial, tribal beings. It’s part of our inherent, evolutionary survival instinct. We protect first the family, our circle of friends, our school, our village, our sports team, our county, state, nation, faith, religion, club, cult, even our colour, our “race”. There is no end to our list of potential affiliations and whilst we naturally order them in, often conflicting, priority they each present opportunities for competition and conflict by their very nature. This is not something that is likely to change in anything less than, perhaps, a hundred thousand years, if ever.
We can all wish it wasn’t so, that to remove this would remove war and conflict but it would also remove the human race from the planet earth. Alternatively, we can accept it, work with it, educate prudence in its exercise and harness it for the benefit of all mankind.
Our democracies, however, are set up from their fundamental tenets to exacerbate it, to extol virtue into an US and THEM politics. In Western democracies we form political cults, ideologies, dogmas and we call them political parties. We appeal to the electorate to pick one or the other as if no reasonable person could agree with much of what one ideology espouses whilst empathising with bits of various others too and harbouring some ideas that none describes at all.
Even in the USA, which started with no political parties whatsoever, once the divergent ideologies began to appear they were fashioned into parties, an event which was generally considered a good thing by those politicians and observers of the day. Once again, this harped back to Old England with its very own Whigs and Tories, no less, before the Republican and Democratic parties emerged from the primordial political turmoil of the day. Personally, I think this was manifestly a lost opportunity. Then again, remember, this was all two hundred and fifty years ago and though, by my own viewpoint, that is a mere fag paper in the timeline of human history, it’s a very long period in the history of Western democracy.
Let me paint a picture that will be familiar to many individuals in many different parts of The West. Just suppose I were to believe in participation in my own country’s version of democracy. We have an hereditary Head of State, the German descended Elizabeth whose recent ancestory flows directly from the House of Hanover whose name, it was judged prudent, should be changed to something less German sounding after all the suffering of the First World War at the hands of that particular branch of the pan-European hereditary family of monarchies. As Thomas Paine wisely opined, “Virtue is neither inherited, nor perpetual”. The House of Windsor sounds much more home grown, though nothing could be further from the truth but given that we have an hereditary Head of State, we have no power to elect a leader, a President, say. Instead we get to elect “our representatives”, members of the House of Commons, who, notionally at least, are the effective arm of government.
Owing to the Party System, however, this right that is “granted to us” [sic] can be as good as useless to anyone wishing to influence government policy by dint of their vote. Let me illustrate. I live in a leafy constituency in the most affluent county of Surrey in the South East of England. Every constituency of Surrey will have had a Conservative Party MP since, well, since the Conservative and Unionist Party was formed, I would say and before that one of identical hue under a prior party name.
If I want a Conservative MP then I need do nothing, no point even bothering to vote, plenty of others will do that for me. If I don’t want a Conservative MP then I should consider moving somewhere else because I’m going to get one here, whether I like it or not.
Here’s the rub, though, suppose I really do want one and perhaps I even go out of my way to vote for one, there is no telling that a sufficient majority of people in other parts of the country do the same and thus no guarantee of any kind that my having a Conservative MP will influence the government of my country in the way that I might wish. If Conservative MPs do not form a majority of those elected, however, then I will be governed by Parties other than the one that I chose. People in democracies all over the world will be able to identify with this situation.
We are frequently told that we live in a “Parliamentary Democracy” which is a very potent turn of phrase but given that interpretations of the term vary according to the prevailing wind, the issue of the day and the individual quoting it, it bears some examination.
On one reading it is interpreted to mean that in electing our member of parliament we have delegated to them the representation of our constituency wherein they decide what is in our best interests. On another reading, it is the job of the constituency MP to represent all his or her constituents equally or “fairly”, a clearly impossible task but nonetheless a much agreed upon concept. In truth, and in general terms, our MP will vote according to the dictates of the party whip, an iniquitous measure in anything calling itself a democracy. Some, occasionally, might rebel against their party’s wishes and “defy the whip”, voting “with their conscience” as it is known. To do this occasionally is to fall out of favour with the leadership and thus never achieve a position of influence in government or indeed in opposition – a word that is intrinsic to my argument. To do it as of rote or habit is, apparently, to be granted leadership of the party if today’s notional leader of the British Labour Party is anything to go by.
If the point of being elected is to influence government policy on behalf of one’s constituents then, I’m afraid, the party whip system is designed to negate that purpose and to ensure adherence to a centralised party policy that doesn’t necessarily represent any constituency. A “rebel” MP may indeed give their constituents a voice but no influence and it is influence that all electors seek, else what is democracy for? In this Internet age, there are no shortage of opportunities in having a voice to express a point of view, if that’s all one aspires to. This blog being a perfect example.
In Party Politics we see the worst of all exhibitions of tribalism, of class and ideological warfare, an exhibition which can all too easily become real warfare of the blood-letting and fatal kind. In the interests of defending a particular ideology, no good is seen in anything “the other side” does or proposes to do, everything must be seized upon and turned to party advantage, ignoring any failings on the part of the party one represents. This is blind dogma and represents no-one but the most rabid fanatics on a particular side. It is demeaning and disrespectful of the people, the sovereign people, whom these institutions claim to represent and an insult and an affront to any principle of democracy. It is divisive and conflict-inducing. It is NOT government in the public interest. It is self-defeating in the sense that with each change of government there exists the chance to overturn the legislation of the former and so nations advance on the principal, at best, of two steps forward and one step back – some might say it’s the other way around.
Because of the Party System, there are many disputes that arise regarding funding of political parties, corruption, financial influence, voting irregularities and many related concerns. It is assumed by every elector of a certain age that all politicians seeking election will say almost anything to obtain electoral success and, not to put too fine a point on it, to lie whenever it suits them. They do this in the full knowledge that they will almost never be held to account [excepting LibDem Tuition Fee promise?] and thus proceed with impunity. They can always conjure up a reason why they felt obliged to change their policy later, “in the national interest” for example or, put another way, because their party whip told them to.
There is another matter, similar in my mind, that needs to be addressed to remove conflict from our political system and that’s the matter of geography. Once we recognise our tribalist nature and the need to curb its worst excesses, when we consider the ways of the modern world and of technology, it is archaic and anachronistic to pit one geographic area, county -v- county, town -v- town, region -v- region against another.
Racism is at best an over-abused term, if it can indeed be deemed a valid term in any sense in which it is used in modern day parlance, given that it refers to various differences in either physical appearance and/or cultural origin of all the members of the one and only human race. If you wish to tell me that badgers should not be allowed to live next door to humans then I’m happy for that to be termed racism.
If we are truly to accept what is implied, indeed what people mean when they use the term, we have to recognise it for what it really is and I would term that, in its widest possible sense as tribalism. Tribes can be formed upon many different notions, some of which I’ve already referred to. In the north of this country we have a geographical area which was once a separate country called Scotland. Today, it is peopled by folk who have far more in common with me and my neighbours than that which is exclusive to people who live “north of the border” as it is still referred to. Yet those who seek to garner power and prestige for themselves would harness this “sameness”, this geographical place of abode and imbue it with unique mystical properties, unique amongst mankind and certainly distinct from their neighbours, with which to form a separate tribe that can be used as an army in their crazed anti-mankind gaming.
This is cynicism of the highest order, it is “nationalism” at its crude, base worst. Religious extremism is no different. What difference to me whether my country is invaded by screaming hoards worshiping some 2000 year old seer of an ancient religion born of prehistory or by similarly screaming hoards of those seeking to avenge a hero of many hundreds of years ago, wronged by some hereditary leader who lorded over my ancestors, according to them.
Neither has any right over me, nor any authentic claim to anything other than that to which we are all entitled. The time is now, what’s done is done. Whatever was done, it was not done by anyone living today and just as no one has rights over me because of their birth, no one has claims over me because of mine, either. Stripped of all its pompous gloriosity, this national call to “arms” for independence is a grossly immoral abuse of the native gullible instincts that we each harbour at our core, in some degree or other, and which is what all civilised human beings will resist with every sentient fibre of their reason and being.
If Scotland lays such claims, why not Surrey? Why not Dorking? Why not my street, my school, my church? Most people on this planet are organised into societies in order to bring a degree of peace, security and prosperity to those that live within the borders of an area designated a country. We subscribe to that society through our taxes and in return we are given the benefits I’ve described. As we’ve already discussed, we can find many reasons to complain about the way we are governed but if we claim to be in any sense democratic then we accept the will of the MAJORITY of the population, not of any individual fragment of it.
Within democracies, there is only one nation state. Under the Federalist model, countries may be unions of states but all are subservient to the nation state, the country and this is a principle commonly accepted by most ordinary people as well as politicians, historians, constitutional lawyers and the like.
I have used the example of Scotland to illustrate my point but let’s look again at those smaller geographic areas, towns, counties, regions, what makes them any different given the premises I’ve outlined? In short, why are we still rooted in the concept of a geographic constituency, a concept born of old technology when there was, arguably, no logical alternative? Today there is arguably no logic to maintaining it and certainly no technological barrier to replacing it. A “constituency” was never a geographic term etymologically speaking. By one definition:
“Constituency, basic electoral unit into which eligible electors are organized to elect representatives to a legislative or other public body. The registration of electors is also usually undertaken within the bounds of the constituency.
Constituencies vary in size and in the number of representatives elected by them. In size they may number a few thousand or be as large as the country itself. Constituencies may be represented by one or by several representatives, depending on the type of electoral system employed. All constituencies within a state should, ideally, be equal in population. To achieve this as nearly as possible, periodic alterations of boundaries are made. Constituencies are most often formed on a geographical basis, but the basis could also be occupational”
In all electoral systems there is a basic principle inherent which attempts to ensure that each constituency approximates the size of another in order to spread representation equitably across the population. In a world lacking the sophistication of modern technology, geography was the logical choice though hardly one that avoided controversy. The term “Gerrimandering” encapsulates all the potential for abuse that exists when constituencies are organised along geographical lines and may be redrawn to suit a particular political advantage.
Imagine, for a moment, that we abolish all reference to geographical premises in constituencies and thus in the people we choose to represent them. Imagine, if you will, the benefits:
The end of territorial enmity in politics – no North-South divide, a divide incidentally that appears to exist in most countries in the world, regardless where these countries are situated. The end of both the fear and the actuality of being run by one geographical segment of the population against the interests or ignorant to the interests of another. The end of representation based around the predominate “faith” or ethnicity of a particular geographic area. Not only would Surrey have nothing to complain about, nor would Scotland, nor would Christians or Muslims, nor would Afro-Caribbeans or Anglo Saxons.
To those who tell me that “foreigners” couldn’t understand the needs of the Cornish or the Northumbrian, I would say “Why, are human beings so different in Cornwall or Northumberland? Are your human needs any different?”. Ah you have “local issues” but you have a local council who you DO elect on a geographical basis and, sure, they need to be given more voice at national level, that is true and entirely acceptable and the structure already exists to facilitate that with a little imagination applied.
I think most “right-thinking”, that is to say “civilised”, possibly even “liberal” minded people around the Western World would agree that we know it is necessary that we break down boundaries between “race”, aka ethnicity, colour, religion, class, occupation, etc. if we are going to succeed as a species, as a race, as mankind. This desire could not be better served in the first instance than by removal of geographic boundaries to constituencies of the electorate within a country and, who knows, a hundred thousand years from now, perhaps we dare to think of such a thing on a global scale.
So who would determine these constituencies, how would we draw them up, how would we define them? Again, we use modern technology. We use it for the noble purpose for which it was originally envisaged. Call it an opinion, these writings largely opinion after all, but I don’t believe Facebook is exactly what Tim Berners-Lee had in mind when he created the World Wide Web.
We create an algorithm, one that is policed by the Electoral Commission (in the UK) or by another similar body. We decide how that algorithm is to be constructed and how it is to be policed to ensure no abuse. To a large degree the algorithm should select randomly, that is to say, not by alphabetical order on the one hand and not by geographical, gender or faith based principles either. One could argue that it might be by profession but that re-introduces class. No, I believe it must be random so that each constituency represents, as best as it can, an average cross-section of society.
Most importantly of all the electorate could and should be divided is numbers equally between the available seats within a parliament. In this way, most unlike the present method, we can ensure that equal and fairly distributed representation is available to all.
I’ve watched helplessly as billions of pounds of hard earned taxpayer’s money has been burned on idiotically conceived IT projects of one kind or another over decades. Actually, most of them have all been of the same essential kind, an attempt to create a single database of the electorate for this purpose and then that purpose and so on. When will they realise you only need one database and then you simply need a range of applications that access that database, as necessary and appropriate. This is not rocket science, folks. We already have that database. It’s the one that is used to collect our taxes and what could be more appropriate in support of the old refrain, “No taxation without representation” than to use the same database for the purposes of representative elections.
Using that database removes the long-standing problem of voter registration, it removes endless cost and bureaucracy and it removes large elements of potential voter fraud. Every taxpayer has a unique reference with the HMRC database, several actually. For the individual the most commonly accepted is the National Insurance number and that is true in most countries.
In the absence of good reasons to consider otherwise, I would propose that only those parties that are registered on the National Tax Database and who are up to date with their tax payments are eligible to vote but I can anticipate controversy on that issue, controversy I would want to hear but am unlikely to think superlative.
Using an application for the voting process that validates the user against that database, removes electoral fraud almost totally. “Almost” because no system is inviolate but this is about as good as it gets. This enables voting to take place from anywhere in the world, at a time (of day) of choosing of the individual elector. It removes the need to count postal votes, which are wide open to fraud, is grossly bureaucratic and delays final declarations of results. Indeed, it removes almost all cost and bureaucracy of any consequence from the process. The less bureaucracy, the less opportunity for fraud or error.
“Electoral Booths” can still be established in supermarkets, libraries, council offices and so on to facilitate those who have no access to or familiarity with technology.
Incidentally, the use of the tax database brings me to another important constitutional change, the involvement of businesses in our electoral process. Businesses are major contributors to taxation, they are uniquely placed to decide what they feel they best need out of the political process to help them succeed, to grow employment, profits and taxes. It’s not to be the only premise on which matters are decided but their voice should be heard both as tax payers and in general as contributors to and users of the society in which we all exist. There will be some debate as to the form that participation should take. All individual business owners, shareholders and executives have at least one vote in their own right. The question is, should they have another, or more votes.
So, I’ve concisely described how we organise the electorate, the dissolution of geographic boundary definitions, how the voting will take place and the various ways of saving money by exploiting the resources we already possess, making the process more accountable and accessible. The next question is, given the dissolution of political parties, who are we going to be voting for and how will they be selected?
There is a “first principle” which needs to be understood before we progress. We will be voting for individuals who can appeal to their constituency in sufficient numbers on the basis of their character, their record, their promises, their personal appeal in short. You might argue that this is exactly what we do today but the difference is that today we know that, regardless what they tell us, if they are elected they will do what they themselves are told to do – by the party whip. It is also widely accepted that local candidates are mainly selected according to the party each represents, more often that for their individual suitability for the role. In the absence of party, we the electorate can truly hold their feet to the fire and measure exactly what they told us in their election pitch with what they subsequently did, in fact.
These representatives will be independent, by definition. They owe no allegiance other than to their electorate and their own conscience bar one: they owe allegiance to the nation when national interest must override constituency considerations and their own previous promises. So long as they are prepared to argue that justification, against which they will be held accountable at the next election, they would be free to vote according to conscience.
The next question on anyone’s lips must be where we will find these people, how will they be selected, how will their election be funded. Once again, we will exploit modern technology but always keeping in mind those who have little or no access to or familiarity with such things. Because we are using this technology, because we are no longer working within the confines of geographical boundaries, we are no longer hamstrung by the costs of the old technology. Sure, the wearing out of shoe-leather and the knocking on the doors of unoccupied houses, for the most part, lived in by people who would be unlikely to change tribal allegiance just because the local aspiring opponent has braved the elements, that would go – and good riddance most would say. The adorning of party posters in gardens and windows would go too – hurrah!
As for selection, we adopt a system of primary selections by the electorate. One can only stand for election among one’s designated group, selected using the previously described algorithm from the electoral/tax database. Each group would be provided, at Central Government expense, with a web site, a “micro site” within a single government provided web site so that every constituency had equal and directly equivalent resources at its command. Willing representatives would put themselves forward using the site which would be equipped with all the appropriate means of disseminating information, political solicitations and prospectus to all within the constituency.
Where an individual has no access to electronic means of communication, the government database would convert officially designated communications into postal messages which would be sent by mail at taxpayer expense. In 10-20 years such methods should likely be phased out but never until it is judged that this would not disadvantage some, perhaps older or poorer members of society.
The same application used to vote in the election would be used for selection at primaries. Others can decide how this electoral process would work, how many rounds there should be, how many candidates, etc. I also leave open the question of the voting system to be adopted, first-past-the-post, alternative vote or some other form of proportional representation. What is important, is that whatever system is adopted is kept under periodic review and adapted when issues are identified and after formal debate, a debate which, given the lack of party influence, would be entirely non-partisan.
In place of the soap-box and the door-knocking, which I would personally find very intrusive were I EVER to have experienced a contender knocking on my front door, we have technology once more. We have online web casts, group participation video conferencing, “televised” debates viewed through a web browser or mobile device, even an individual TV station for each constituency. We already have the ubiquitous Facebook and Twitter to mention but two though I would be averse to favouring any commercial platform in any official way.
Which leads me to the other partisanship which can arise, that of the career politician. Whilst wanting to be rid of career politicians and keep each representative or member of parliament rooted in their own prospectus or at least their current beliefs, rather than in their re-election, it is equally important to have a degree of continuity. It seems fairly widely accepted that limiting a leader to two terms of office is not an unreasonable thing to do. I’d suggest that the same should be extended to the members themselves. For at least four of their eight years we can therefore assume they are acting without re-election in mind, if we assume a four year term.
We now have, by the means I’ve set out in an intelligible precis (which would need considerable fleshing out to become reality, naturally), an elected house of representatives or members of parliament. They have been chosen from and by a widely differing constituency without geographical boundaries, upon no common ideology, creed or affiliation without variation in terms of economical/financial advantage or geographic hindrance.
They are, it must be admitted, currently without a leader or a manifesto though constitutionally, it could be argued that, a manifesto of what they are there to do could be crafted for them. As to how they get there, how they arrive at the ends defined in that manifesto, that is for them to agree amongst themselves by debate and force of argument.
A leader they must have and so must they have an Upper House for the purposes of scrutiny, inspection and improvement of legislation. In the US this role is fulfilled by the Senate, a body which was once appointed by the states acting individually in appointing two Senators each. Latterly they have become elected in much the same way as the House of Representatives is elected to Congress and the failings of this system, when combined with the party system, have never been more evident than during the Obama Presidency just ending.
In the UK we have the worst of all worlds. Ninety hereditary peers whose numbers are replenished through elections by the hereditaries themselves. To this are added twenty-six Bishops, god help me, and an ever increasing number of jobs-for-the boys, favour-repaying appointments of former Prime Ministers, currently numbering in the region of 800 or more.
There are strong voices in favour of an elected upper chamber but, I ask you, what would be the point if all it does is reflect the party political bias of the population given no other choice, the same population that elects the Commons. Hey Presto, what you have is a carbon copy of the American problem. No thank you.
Here’s my suggestion. I’ve just defined what I consider to be the fairest voting system ever devised for a democracy. I’ve ensured that it has no party political, aka ideological bias so as to obtain as independent a body of law makers one could conceive. Why not draw our Upper House, our Lords, from that same body of men once they have served their country for two full terms, learned their craft, earned their spurs and, one assumes, the respect of the electorate that voted for them a second time.
Here too, there must be a time limit on their service to avoid cronyism and complacency. Perhaps again the two term rule? One must also have a mechanism that maintains approximate numbers, adding when necessary from one-term members of the commons, perhaps, and removing when numbers need to be curtailed. Perhaps by a vote of the Upper House itself in both instances. Given the lack of party affiliation these measures should create a result that is at least somewhat randomly ideological.
I want to refer to something that has been referred to much in recent times, in consequence of the Referendum regarding the EU, commonly referred to as Brexit. It’s the reference to “the Sovereignty of Parliament”. As already stated, in my utopian world I would prefer a benign dictatorship but, given we are discussing all this in the context of democracy, I am much given to the position of Thomas Paine when he refers very specifically and pointedly to the Sovereignty of the People.
Parliament obtains its sovereignty by virtue of its election by the People and it is and must be that to the People it is responsible for how it carries that task. This is extremely pertinent to the current Supreme Court case where it is being debated whether a vote taken in a referendum of all the people, all those who voted of course, needs to be ratified by an Act of a Parliament which is riven with those who wish to frustrate the clearly expressed will of those very People.
It is claimed that the Executive cannot act alone as it is Parliament that has Sovereignty, I strongly disagree. That in which Sovereignty is actually vested, the People, has issued a very clear instruction to its elected Parliament, from whose number the Executive are drawn and appointed to govern, to get us the hell out of this rotten construction and it is not, on this occasion, a matter in which the Courts need be involved other than to confirm what I’ve just said, for the avoidance of doubt.
It would be a very different matter indeed if the Executive wished to enact something, of this scale of importance, of its own volition, without the instruction of the electorate in a heavily marketed and debated referendum in which more people participated than in any other historical electoral event.
So now we must return to the matter of the leader of the lower house of Parliament, the House of Commons as it is in the UK, the House of Representatives in the USA. I am currently of two minds and I’m not sure I much mind which it is though I lean toward the latter proposal on the grounds that it is cheaper and likely to be less divisive.
The first option is that we, to a degree, emulate the US system. That is to say, whilst we are not planning a Republic at this stage – one thing at a time – we are not talking the election of a President but in the UK, of a Prime Minister. That said, we could indeed concoct a mechanism where we have a national competition to select two, or at any rate no more than a few, candidates who would then be presented in an election by majority vote.
In the US currently this comes at a cost of around 100 million dollars per candidate and that ensures that corporate interests will pervade and corrupt the process, a process I am not willing to subsidise from taxation.
The second option is to have the Prime Minister selected internally by and from amongst those who have been elected as independent representatives to Parliament. Again, if we have done a good job of electing them in the fairest possible manner, should we not extend democracy within them to allow them to choose their own leader. This would also have the advantage of being cheap and quick. The Prime Minister would be responsible to those who have elected him and who are best placed to consider his performance at leading them. They would have the simple mechanism of a motion of no confidence by which to replace him or her and repeat the process. Perhaps a two third majority would be considered appropriate for removal.
In everything I’ve said till now, it must be clearly understood and recognised that the absence of official political party mechanisms does not remove the tribal tendency of humans to ally, one to another, with those in whom they perceive common goals, thoughts and aspirations. Left to their own devices, it would only be a matter of time before parties, by whatever name or noun they became known, would form as if by osmosis. There must therefore be a constitutional brake devised to arrest such a process, however such a grouping may be described, and to return representatives to the electorate where breaches arise in the principle of non-alignment.
This reminds me of one fundamental tenet of constituency representation that I haven’t so far discussed. Each representative is elected at the continuing discretion of the constituency to which he or she is permanently accountable. This, by definition, means that the sanction of recall is constant throughout the electoral term. Clearly, rules must be defined as to the nature of transgressions and the procedure for recall but in essence I am very much in favour of leaving the reasons in the hands of the constituency. It could be that they’ve simply taken a dislike to his wining voice or her choice of expensive trousers. Whatever it be, within the law, it should be for them to decide. Representatives must be constantly aware, not fearful but aware, that they are there only by virtue of and on behalf of their constituency. This is not the same as the threat of recall by the militant tendency of some parties, against the wish of the wider electorate. This is a prerogative exercised inclusively by that constituency. Historical abuses of the expenses system serve as an indicator of what might trigger a recall in the minds of the electorate. Support for the election of a despot or a pussy-grabber for Prime Minister might be another.
Now, folks, we have a problem. Turkeys are not fabled to vote for Christmas, nor politicians for electoral reform, especially not on this scale and against all their vested interests. So, no amount of agreement with my pleadings will amount to anything if we wait for our elected representatives to bring such change about. The solution is a single-issue party, in the first instance. One that could hoover up the “none of the above” voters, the politically disenchanted (a sizeable minority at worst), the youth vote and, given a charismatic and intelligent leader, a great many more besides. They would be armed with a manifesto based largely on what I’ve written here. Their task would be to assume power and enact this manifesto immediately. UKIP had many flaws but in demonstrating the potential for success of a single issue party, they were exemplary.
A leader would need to be identified and coerced. Dominic Cummings would have to be press-ganged into leading the election campaign. Funding would come from sources derived from that same modern technology, crowd-funding and social media, from which volunteers would be found in abundance.
There are other options but I rule them out because bloody revolution is not in my nature, not when I am calm and rational at least. That leaves massive coordinated civil disobedience. Perhaps the time is not yet right. Perhaps for this time to come we have to wait for an almighty spark to ignite the flame. A foreign war will not be such a trigger for in such times, the people retreat to what they know and seek comfort in the leadership of “experts”. A cataclysmic economic disaster would do the trick and one of those may not be far away so we should prepare.
On balance, I prefer my democratic option, working openly within the existing system in order to defeat it. Every vested interest there is will be opposed to us. The regional parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the unions, local councillors, the party machines of all the parties, the Commons and the Lords, the monarchy, big business, the lot. If you thought they rolled out the big guns to dissuade us from leaving the EU, think again. This is far bigger and, dare I say it, far more important especially if we are to revert to becoming a self-governing country, post Brexit. Are you with me?
12 thoughts on “Revisiting Democracy”
An interesting piece. My comments, or random jottings if you prefer, below. I have picked out what I see as the key statement within particular points to preface each comment. A bit out of order, as I moved my biggest point to the front.
“These representatives will be independent, by definition”
“I believe it must be random so that each constituency represents, as best as it can, an average cross-section of society.”
I put these points together because, viewed together, i don’t see how the system you propose can be made to work effectively. I know you are aware of my view of single issue parties. My thought process when I came up with the idea started from todays system, as you do, and en route, considered something close to what you are proposing here. But I could not make it work, which is why I would like you to expand a bit.
Considering independent candidates with ‘virtual’ constituencies.
The virtual consistency spread across the country means an end to easy individual canvassing, particularly door stepping. I agree that the internet is a massive resource, but also believe a significant percentage of the electorate ignore it in the case of politics, in the same way the majority of leaflets through doors get binned unread (I do not ignore, as I am sure you don’t, but I like to think I am politically engaged, and from your blog, and tweets, I am sure you think the same yourself. But we are a small minority, as evidenced by the small number of people who know the name, or even party, of their local MP. And on the odd occasion when they do, pick a topic and ask them what their MP or MPs party stance is. I am guessing blank looks on anything not currently prominent in the media) To my mind, this would push each candidate toward broadcast/print MSM to ‘get their message across’, something all candidates have to do. And the problem then become the limited ‘space’ available. With, say, 600 constituencies and only three candidates for each, that is still 1800 people fighting to be heard. It would not take long for like minded candidates to group together to improve their MSM presence, and therefore chance of success. The end result would be to strengthen the party system, something you are trying to break down.
Even if all your suggestions worked, and we had a free and fair election of independents, elected on their own merits rather than (blind) party allegiance, how would that work in parliament? With no groupings and party lines, 600 MPs would have at the very least 600 opinions on every question. Again pushing them toward alliances. Add in ‘If you support me on this then I will quid pro quo support you on that’ , which I see as inevitable, a party system will also emerge very quickly. The big elephant in the room is the setting of the legislative program that MPs consider and vote on. Assuming this is set by the prime minister, however chosen, unpopular (but necessary) legislation would rarely, if ever, see the light of day. I include taxation levels in that, by the way. Assuming a broad spectrum house, I can see half wanting tax rises, the other half tax cuts, with no decision, ever. Also, how would ministries function. I see massive difficulties getting a minister for anything elected from the rank and file without a long fight, leaving the country in the hands of an uncontrolled civil service. Even if a system could be devised that had ministers in place on day 1, without a cabinet, I see infighting rather than action. Unless of course they are required to form a cabinet to ensure cohesive policies. If collective responsibility is to remain, I see the most common decision, maybe the only one, is to kick cans down the road.
Sorry to sound so negative, but I do think your ideas need fleshing out quite a bit before they work, and therefore await that fleshing out with interest.
“ It must be recalled that there were many fundamental beliefs wrapped up in the creation of that document…”
I think the term ‘voter’ would work today. Most have roughly the same idea, a resident of the UK above a certain age. Would have to be written down though, to reduce (never would remove) argument’
The greatest problem with mankind is that we appear to seek or at least revel in conflict.
We do, in certain circumstances. I believe it is a fundamental of the darwinian nature of our cerebral development, at individual and society level. However, as you also say, we a also tribal at several levels, preferring to group with our peers rather than our opposites. I think it is a safe to say that grouping is our preferred norm, and, in todays world, conflict is something most of us (two notable exceptions right now) will work to avoid, and will only contemplate when we have no suitable peer group available.
“Our democracies, however, are set up from their fundamental tenets to exacerbate it, to extol virtue into an US and THEM politics”
I think this will always be the case. The great majority, including myself, have our own lives to lead, and it is too much to stay involved in everything. To that end, we cheerfully allow others to take responsibility for things in our lives that affect us directly. For instance, when I switch on a light, I give no thought to the massive infrastructure that delivered the electricity to make it happen, or the design of the switch that keeps me safe from electrocution, etc. I am happy to pay for that responsibility to be someone else’s. This mindset applies to all aspects of life, including politics. The reason the ‘us and them’ paradigm is more noticeable in politics is that it is one of the few aspects of life where we can be affected directly in ways we dislike, and even if we see a quick fix, it is difficult to achieve that fix. However, most people seem happy enough to engage only long enough to vote once in five years and whinge until the next election.
“We have an hereditary Head of State”
I like our current royal family. I like the fact that they add a strong identity to the UK, and love the sense of duty they have adopted as it provides a strong UK presence on the world stage, one which helps us interact and trade positively. I never consider their roots, however recent. I do think that their decision to remove themselves in all but name from day to day politics was a necessary and good one, and is a strong reason for my unwavering support of them. A final plus point. The royal family is the most dynamic institution in the UK today, changing massively in outlook and deed every generation.
“On another reading, it is the job of the constituency MP to represent all his or her constituents equally or “fairly””
I do think your comments on local councils is a good one. They do have powers at the local level for decisions that affect the local area, and strengthening that role is a good idea. Maybe also a way to keep national politicians ‘grounded’. There is a lot that needs fixing at a local level as well, most of which I think can be fixed through the lens of transparency, including a broader requirement to open local decisions up to local debate as part of the decision process. This sort of works with the advertising of planning applications, and parking management, although the decision process following such consultations is overly opaque One thing I would not do is give them more say at a national level. A powerful local opinion could easily negate broader country level decisions, creating more conflict and divides.
“A single database”
Slightly off topic alert. I have been in IT all my working life, and this is a bugbear for me. Without going into detail, it has dangers which must be addressed first, mainly that of access. I have no problem with my details being held on one or more databases. I do have massive problems with my details being accessed/used by all and sundry without controls. My personal preference is that any such database is held by an NGO run on judicial lines, with well defined and controlled levels of access.
“I would propose that only those parties that are registered on the National Tax Database and who are up to date with their tax payments are eligible to vote”
If the database was based on NI numbers, that works better for me. Not everyone old enough to work has been employed, so will be at best a dormant member of any tax database. I also see a big problem with restricting the right to vote to those people who are up to date with their taxes. The numbers are small, but the voices would be loud. There are many appeals against tax due on any one day, and would be on election day. As those appeals go either way, after the vote are those who’s appeals are successful allowed to add their vote after the event. The opposite is also true, HMRC are constantly finding people who have underpaid in the past. What would happen when they were found to be not up to date taxpayers when they had already voted. Should their vote be discounted later. A can of worms, I suggest, and best avoided.
“the involvement of businesses in our electoral process”
This is wrong in principle, defeating as it does the one man(voter) one vote principle. It would in practice skew the overall vote toward pro business candidates (at the last count there are 5.5m businesses registered in UK). Parliament has to serve all factions of society, 5.5m extra vote for one faction would be called bias by other factions, and they would be right in my view. I would be one of those shouting. I really think you should drop this idea.
On reading back to myself, I can see my comments could come across as critical rather than helpful. Please accept them in the spirit of debate instead, which was my sole reason when I wrote them.
John, a huge thank you for getting so involved in this. The depth of thought involved doesn’t surprise me, from past discussions with you, and fear not on the criticism front. I wouldn’t have made these thoughts public if I wasn’t inviting critique, that’s kinda the basis of what I’m proposing after all. Truth is that any democratic change on such a scale would inevitably have to open up to a very wide audience and invite commentary from anyone – and those involved must be willing to listen to it. I firmly believe in the power of human beings working in collaboration. No one individual has all the answers. No philosopher or politician in history, no religious founder, no cult leader, no expert. Education plays a huge part, obviously but as with recent electoral processes, to discount peoples’ opinion based on their academic achievements is a falsehood. There is such a thing as wisdom, there is innate common sense and in many ways it is often this that brings the high and mighty down to earth. Our jury system may be far from perfect but it will be a sad day for justice when we start vetting jurors based on their qualifications.
I see my role in this is a protagonist, to break with the mould and to dare to think outside the box which has clearly trapped us in a situation that few would say is working well. I’m guessing the majority of people feel either under or unrepresented and it’s not difficult to see why. Thus any drastic change must subject itself to the widest possible scrutiny. As with the Constitution created by the American Founding Fathers (which wasn’t subject to any initial, public scrutiny) the net result will not be perfect but it should at least form a sound basis upon which we can build, note taken of issues that arise and amendments made to reflect those. In short, I would want the next phase in our democracy to be the result of a wide and inclusive consultation but heaven forbid the net result be the product of a committee. I am aware of the contradictions in that statement but I do believe in responsible leadership.
I’m going to post a direct response to your valued criticisms separately, I wanted to make these general points separately so they don’t get lost in the specifics.
I agree with everything in your reply, particularly establishing the brainstorming (you did say outside the box, so I figured I was also allowed one dip into management speak) nature of this sort of debate. I do think it is important to continually scrutinise existing institutions and their operating methods, and I put our democratic system at the top of that list. We have both written up our ideas for moving democracy along in the right spirit of ‘Lets have an open debate, here are my views to include in that debate’, which is the best possible start point. I must say I am fed up with the broader debate in this area which is limited to ‘lets count our votes in a different way’, implying the system is fine other than not giving a particular faction a bigger slice of the same old cake. As you clearly say, its not.
I dont see much contradiction between ‘wide and inclusive consultation’ and ‘product of a committee’, btw. Two very different animals in my view, the first being transparent and open to anyone who feels the need to contribute, the second being a limited number of people talking in private.
Thanks for confirming that you approach this sort of debate is about critique, rather than criticism. As you must have hear many times before, it is important to understand your audience, and now I am sure we both do. Excellent. Late the debate continue.
So, here we have two people in reasonable agreement. Where to now? That’s the question.
John, my first thought is to address the process of change.
After a lifelong IT career, you will be well acquainted with such matters as, indeed, am I. Change is frightening for a majority of people, not entirely irrationally, and the scale of the change can only but impact this issue proportionately. Small changes=less fear, big changes=panic. We both also know that not only the fear of change but the physical ability to realise the benefit is adversely impacted if too much change is implemented at once. Excess complexity will lead to failure. Incremental change over time, even if that time is tightly defined and limited, is much more successful. Our ambitions frequently overwhelm us/others or at least fail to take into account the challenges that will arise – we are dealing with human beings and they’re even more complex than computer code. Targeted, realistic objectives (but constructed by a man in a hurry, not a bureaucrat) have to be the right way forward and that gives time to iron out the contentious or more experimental proposals with a view to implementing them successfully when the grunt work has been done.
Phase One can be nothing much more than the creation of a single issue party to put the plan into effect whilst the process of defining that plan continues in parallel. That would be my starting point. The goal would be “the best electoral/democratic system of government that the people of this nation can devise, in free and considered collaboration with each other”. It would be the duty of the temporary government to bring this to conclusion before the end of their first term whilst, as their day job, “making sure the trains run on time”.
Let me here address one of your concerns: “leaving the country in the hands of an uncontrolled civil service”.
I shudder too but the fact is that’s what actually happens most of the time, anyway. We all remember the excellent “Yes, Minister” TV series and we have all read that it is considered, still, a very accurate portrayal of political life in this country. Not everyone knows but during any general election campaign, indeed often in the run-up to it, the civil service is busy compiling position papers on every aspect of daily life based on the flavour of the potential, incoming government. In the last election, they had to delegate large numbers of staff to prepare for the possibility of a Corbyn government. The last thing they want is a bunch of ignorant and eager politicians coming into office with an agenda, so they prepare one in advance.
Take Belgium which, in 2010/11, took fully 541 days to form a government, during which time the country seemed to run as well or as badly as it always had.
So, during this first Parliament, I’d be happy, largely, to let the institutions carry on as they do today. We might actually find we don’t need a government after all but I jest, of course. One would have to plan contingencies, one would have to initiate some parts of the plan immediately, even if they were subject to change later. I’m thinking about control of ministries and the like.
Which brings me to the next question you raise: “How do we make the system run effectively? 600 MPs would have at the very least 600 opinions on every question, again pushing them toward alliances.”
You’ve very neatly summed up what I set out to achieve, 600 different opinions! I understand your concern, however, especially with regard to the formation of alliances. Every expert in political history and philosophy will reject everything I’ve written based on this one premise, of that I am assured. It will be used to rubbish everything else I’ve written. I get that and I understand why. I disagree that it cannot be managed and controlled. It was, of course, one of the objectives of the US Constitution and it floundered on this very point leading to the formation of The Federalists and The Republicans, later to a very different Republican Party and the Democrats. US politics is further confusing with the identification of Southern Democrats, Liberal Republicans, Conservative Democrats, the list is bewildering, to an outsider at least.
Without a series of checks and balances my proposal could never work. Yes, there will be horse-trading as you predict, that’s unavoidable but what I seek to avoid is enforced voting en-bloc, regardless of conscience/conviction, or indeed electioneering along tribal lines. The current debacle over Brexit could not be a better illustration of the problem. Both you and I are firm Brexiteers but where on earth does a committed Remainer go to air their grievance, other than the streets and Twitter? Where’s their representation? I am, of course, ignoring Chappers fantasy Democrats – a fantasy for now that’s for sure but in the current environment, any insanity is possible. So the first thing is to make a definition we can all agree constitutes “a political party” cannot run for government and cannot be formed within government. Every variation in the book to avoid definition will occur but one makes the definition elastic and improves/enforces it over time, through the upper house or by constitutional process, out of the hands of the lower house. It’s what lawyers do best.
We don’t try to obstruct horse-trading but we seek to control creeping, “pork-barrel” politics as practised in the USA. If we find that a large number of MPs believe in a given policy, they are in a position to argue and publicise that opinion and sane ministers would give it consideration. The key thing is that those same MPs may hold very different opinions on other matters and one should not preclude voicing opinion on the other(s).
Having the elected MPs choose their Prime Minister and having him choose his ministers, should create the functioning basis and I believe the US system wherein Parliament vet the proposed individuals as to suitability, would assist the process. Perhaps their appointment should be subject to annual performance review in the form of a vote? A confidence procedure/motion could also be entertained.
How the legislative programme would be created is another question you asked. The more I ponder it, the more I’m convinced this is almost as big a question as the whole range of what I’ve proposed so far! For that reason, I’m going to duck it in large part but let me contribute a few thoughts.
The last thing we want is a series of publicly driven referenda. Heaven forbid the question of capital punishment should arise in that scenario. On the other hand, we do want our government to reflect the matters which a proportion of its citizens is concerned about and not only those in a majority.
Above all there should be a major drive to simplify current legislation. I know this is a manifesto pledge of almost every election ever but I mean it seriously. Ten commandments are a fairly straight forward notion to get your head around but Tony Blair managed to preside over, last time I checked, 3000 new laws. How is that possible, let alone necessary?
I would like to return to the judiciary for much of this. If I have a basic “commandment” that says, thou shall not steal, how far must I go to define stealing? Can not a sane judge, with a lifetime’s experience of listening to every excuse and genuine mitigation under the sun, not come to a reasoned judgment to determine when a theft is a theft? Remove mandatory sentences, which are farcical sops to “public opinion” and give the judiciary a wide range of options from a pardon to life imprisonment. We already have institutions that can review inappropriate sentencing to avoid travesties and we find that very few cases, proportionately, arrive at a different conclusion.
I wasn’t planning to stray into the area of justice but it’s impossible to consider legislation without doing so. If an individual lies consistently so that LIBOR rates are set incorrectly, he’s committed theft, deception, fraud. I’d be happy to call it all theft and redefine it accordingly. Applying an army of intelligent human beings at this challenge would enable a massive reduction in both existing and new legislation. All we need to do is separate such things into two areas:
1. Did the actions result in an adverse impact to another party? – guilty
2. What is the scale of that impact? – degree, impacting sentence and recompense
3. Did the actor or his associates benefit from those actions? – degree, impacting sentence and recompense
4. Were the actions intentional? – degree, impacting sentence
Apply it to crimes of violence, financial violations, commercial dealings, burglary, theft, whatever – in outline it works for me. What I care about here, is that we reduce/negate the desire to legislate for the sake of it.
More responses to follow but to avoid indigestion, I’ll pause here.
Change. I agree with you on change, but would like to add another element which can help or hinder change, that of knowing and understand the result of the change in question. We have seen a couple of major changes that do contradict your small=less, big=panic.
1. Mobile phones went through three steps, 1. Want one, can’t afford it. 2 Getting one, great when I am out. 3. Who on earth wants a landline. Other than noises off about all that radiation, there has been little dissent other than the monthly bill. I suggest that this was a very big change but did not induce panic, because everybody knew what they were getting, and they knew that because they understood not what a phone was, but what it did.
2. Personal computers/tablets (and smartphones). There was never any particular resistance against them, but in the early days the general public did not exactly take to them. Unsurprisingly, in my view, the user/computer interface was on a par with wrestling a lion for friendliness. As the interface got better, they became usable by non techs, and are now not only enthusiastically embraced, they are also seen as essential. The rub is that no-one understands how they do what they do in total, meaning every user is happily working away on something that they do not fully understand.
My point is that change is seen as scary and resisted when people think they are getting into an unknown situation that they are being forced to adopt, which brings me to my main point here, adopting a new political system. Whether that is done through your single issue party, or based on a system of, say, royal commissions followed by public consultation repeated as necessary, or some other method, I would say that what is important is that the public at large are kept informed to the point that the end result is a change to something that is largely understood.
I would therefore suggest that the method of defining the change from now to your proposed system is kept separate from our discussion on your proposal. Not because i don’t like your idea in any way, but because it keeps discussion on your proposal cleaner as it separates method and result.
Civil service in charge. Your reference to Belgium is important. During the transitional period from now to new, if the civil service are restricted to keeping the trains running on time, with the now system limited to essential maintenance to cope with changes in the world that need addressing as they arise, it seems workable. Any objections I had are therefore dropped.
600 opinions. Based on your reply, I am warming to your argument. It would still be the case that the 600 would come together as two tribes, but that would be fluid. All business in parliament comes down to a vote with the options being Aye or Nay, my two tribes. The fluidity is that potentially(probably) every vote would have a different member set for each tribe, achieving, hopefully in large part, your aim of 600 independents. I would like to add in here something on the election process. With no party system to maintain ‘discipline’ there may be another way. Without what is currently seen as the need for continuity across the five year term, I see a need for some other way to hold the MPs to account. My suggestion is to go for one year terms, with one day of the year becoming known as election day. It would certainly keep individual MPs in line with their manifesto’s. This would also achieve something else. The increased frequency of voting would increase the engagement level of the voting public, which would mean a lot more awareness of each voters options, making the job of ‘getting the message out’ considerably easier. You suggested the prime minister could be voted for annually, so I am thinking my extension to the 600 is not too horrible for you.
Legislative program. I am with you on leaving the detail for now. Along with select committee membership, best left for now. Assuming this discussion continues, I am more than happy to let others of these questions to come back later, when they can be dropped into the larger framework as it solidifies.
The Judiciary Our views differ on this one. I have a strong opinion that Parliament makes the rules, the civil service enforce them, and business/people work within them. I put the judiciary with the civil service within this definition, because I do not like the idea that the rule makers also apply the rules they make. In this case I am thinking about the old ‘hanging judges’ and there recent ‘liberal justices’, leading to the judicial equivalent of post code justice. I also suggest that was should only be made by elected representatives, and for me, sentencing guidelines, minimum/maximum sentences would be included in that. I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of simplifying the system, by the way.
Thats it. I plan to post my response to your other reply soon.
The Electoral Database
John, I fully share concerns over centralised data and the risk of both authorised and unauthorised access/dissemination. I start from the premise that there is no such thing as a secure server/database. I’ve argued against so many of these over the years. As things stand now, as far as I am aware, there is no centralised voters’ roll, each one being the preserve of the local authority but I would bet there are several shared resources which cater for multiple authorities. There is of course, one centralised HMRC database, probably several. Given that this already exists, along with any real/imaginary threats to it, it seems sensible not to reinvent the wheel. Likewise, not to extend access to it, except perhaps by a strictly controlled API such that it could be validated against for electoral purposes.
I agree that NI number should be the key reference for such access and I would assume (don’t shoot me) that this is the case today, or at least an alternate key. In many countries, Scandinavia prominently, not only is the NI number the key to many things (eg Driver’s License) they employ the quirky but logical step of incorporating DOB into the number. As we know, that’s a breach of strict DB rules and may have other privacy concerns to consider which our Scandinavian cousins are less sensitive to. My reasons for wanting the database is, of course, to remove any need for voter registration which is a farcical process and we know is used and abused both here and abroad as a way of Gerrymandering the vote. We should allow any valid citizen to be able to cast their vote at the drop of a hat with no requirement to plan in advance. The issue itself speaks directly to your “I am happy to pay for that responsibility to be someone else’s”. Me too but I do object to those same resources being used by those who don’t share the whole ethos.
I take your points to counter my suggestion that a valid voter should be up to date with tax payments, many unintended consequences could arise. I’d drop it completely in return for merely being on the database as a tax resident. The finer point could be addressed down the line if it were considered that there was good cause for distinguishing between those who fulfil their obligation to society and those who have a more one-sided view.
On the question of Head of State, you say: “The royal family is the most dynamic institution in the UK”. I’m not going to quibble with that, we’re hardly miles apart. I have huge reservations about the concept but I have to say the alternative offers me no enlightenment or motivation, whatsoever. In the spirit of limiting the scope for change, as well as the lack of any better example to follow, I’d park it willingly as an issue for now.
I agree with all your comments. Repeating the fact that we pay, handsomely, for the privilege of appointing others to the task of managing the country, accepting that our job is to earn the revenue to fund it, there is a very real limit to how much any of us can afford to be intimately involved – and why should we. I’m happy to leave them to the job, essentially, but to be there to cast our review of performance vote at the appropriate time and to make our concerns public. I can’t help but feel there is a subversive benefit to certain groups to have us all worked up in a divisive lather whilst the slight-of-hand goes unseen in the background. I believe a substantial productivity gain could arise from them doing their job properly and us feeling we’re not needed for comment.
I’m glad the enhancing of local council functions caught your eye. It’s not that I have a high opinion of the way they currently operate, I don’t but I do see the potential to make them much more powerful and more democratic. Bringing the exercise of power closer to the people has to be the right thing to do in anything calling itself a democracy. Others describe it that authority is an upward passage from the people and should never be the other way around. I tend to agree that position within certain limits. There are certain ethical and moral standards that should not be subject to a post-code lottery.
You said “The virtual consistency spread across the country means an end to easy individual canvassing, particularly door stepping….1800 people fighting to be heard [in mainstream media].
Firstly let’s say that this is likely the most contentious of my proposals, largely for no better reason than the degree by which it breaks with tradition. I actually view it as one of the most critical parts of the proposal in an effort to address division, ethnic and political tribalism, regional favouritism and so on. I would, however, make it a Phase Two project so as to make sure we get it right. I would say this though. I’m not sure that much is genuinely achieved by door-stepping the public. It’s not an argument but in my entire lifetime I’ve never had anyone doorstep me other than religious evangelists and I could do without them. Like all these things, it needs wider review and consideration but I firmly believe that we could move to online TV channels which could run permanently throughout a campaign given the simplicity and inexpensive nature of current technology. These could be staffed by campaign teams with real-time Q&A sessions with them and with your candidates. A simple login process, perhaps shared with the BBC iPlayer login (damn them!) would connect you to the correct channel. There could be BBC slots that replace Political Broadcasts and switch to your constituency players so that the output is specific to you. Combined with social media (closed groups possibly), physical mailshots, email, web sites and the like, I’m sure we could achieve fair exposure. The mainstream would pick those candidates/policies that were making waves and offered interesting ratings opportunities but would likely stimulate debate in the constituencies. That might also be a way for potential leaders to make their presence felt in advance of House Elections for Ministers. Just thoughts.
I’m through. I hope I’ve done your efforts justice but love this level of engagement – even though we both have a life to live, on the side. Talk soon.
The Electoral Database
We are fag paper close on this. so what follows are some thoughts I have in this area that I think are relevant, including a précis of some previous ideas.
NI numbers are an obvious choice for a unique key to identify all individual voters. Doesn’t make it so for existing gov DBs, as obvious choices are not necessarily considered. Whatever is used, my main concern is how it is used, by who, and for what. When Labour proposed an identity card, I saw a problem of massive overreach hidden in plain sight. To explain: –
1. I had no problem with the idea of an ID card I could show to prove who I was. I already carry a lot of id, and one extra bit of plastic that would be accepted as ‘gospel’ was not a problem for me.
2. I had no problem with a central database that could verify the information on the card. A good example of what I mean is the American driving licence. They include a barcode that allows police, even at the roadside, to scan it and get a centrally stored copy returned that includes the photo related to the bar code. This is an excellent way of quickly checking that the person offering the licence is A) offering a valid rather than forged licence, and B) is the person the licence relates to.
3. I had a problem with the high level of information required to obtain the card in the first place. It was far more than was needed just to verify who i was. What i saw was that they were asking for enough information to link together every government database that contained people information. The possible (probable) end result would have been that anyone with access to any government database could easily see everything about a person, without regard for that persons need to see. My own term for the resulting database is ‘supra database’, by the way.
4. I had an enormous problem with the fact that no controls would be publicly placed on access to the supra database. Any ministry, local council, even park keepers, could access more or less anything they felt like based on a unique reference related to a person. Even though the ID card scheme failed, a lot of government held databases were linked as far as possible anyway, we just were not told. I did read reports that park keepers were able to enter someones car reg, for instance, and get back the value of that persons house. The reports were anecdotal based, so I have no way of knowing of they were based on a conspiracy theory, or were based on fact. All i do know is that it would have been technically easy to achieve, and therefore probably had been.
5. I also had a problem with accuracy. There is no government database that is 100% accurate (would be nigh on impossible). The error rates are startling though. The DVLA database is reported to have errors in over 50% of its records. Even the relatively recent police DNA database is reported to have an error rate of around 5%. This is bad enough, but when databases are added together, the error rate multiplies. But the root of my problem is peoples perception of computer data. From a lot of personal experience, the goto position for anyone looking at the results of a database search is to accept blindly that it is accurate. This alarms me, a lot.
(I can expand on the above, and offer solutions, if you are interested, but see that as a separate discussion to this one).
Ok, rant over, back to the electoral roll. The fact that local authorities maintain an electoral roll is what I term as ‘quill pen mentality’, and change is well overdue. Your idea of simply extracting a new electoral role (each election?) from a central database is excellent. So good, in fact, I see no reason not to push for it now. It would solve many problems. For instance, the Electoral Commission is reportedly
looking at student double voting , a mammoth task under the current system. With your idea in place, it would have been (almost) a push of a button. The way I see this working is a bit more restricted than you though. Prior to a national vote, including local council votes, I would create an electoral role per voting area and distribute it for use on polling machines that are not connected to the internet (air gapping offers few opportunity for hackers). That does not stop your idea of virtual constituencies, in fact I think it facilitates it. Voters vote where they live, and their vote is easily counted in their allocated virtual constituency. Importantly, each voter would be offered the voting choices relevant to their constituency, and not have to find them in a long scroll of paper. Voter registration at the point of voting would (could) also be easy in four steps. 1. Voter identifies to polling officials using a recognised id, as now. 2. They are handed a piece of paper printed at the time with a VR code that identifies them to the polling machine. The VR code would also contain a time stamp, and would be valid for, say, three minutes. It would also contain an on the day key. This would prevent fraudulent VR codes being used. 3. The polling machine scans it and offers the appropriate choice of candidates. 4. When voting closes, all the votes cast would be uploaded to a central point for official counting. This system could easily extend to proxy voting, a system I prefer to postal voting. Postal votes would not work at all well with the electronic system, so a solution would be needed. Something new is needed, although a majority solution would be possible using proxy voting. What is implicit is that people would have to turn up to vote, or as I see it, make a tiny bit of an effort. Anything which remotes a vote from a secure system is easy to fiddle, and could quickly become the new postal vote scandal. I would make it easier to turn up though, by designating a weekend rather than a Thursday as polling day. I have no respect for anyone who claims they can not find ten minutes out of a weekend identified a month or two in advance to visit a local polling station. Just for discussion, based on my suggestion of annual votes, I would designate the third weekend in January, which would have the fewest number of people out of the country. Another option springs to mind to further facilitate voting ease. When the notification arrives at the voters designated address, give the voter time to nominate their actual location on voting day. Would still only allow them to vote at a specific polling station, which is fine by me. There would still be those wanting to ‘hijack’ the vote, but suspicious patterns could spotted. This would be largely eliminated by your virtual constituency/600 independents idea anyway, so would only remain a significant problem under the current party system.
As the monarch is now only the titular head of UK democracy, only participating at a ceremonial level, I don’t see them preventing a republican style system of parliament. Given a possible Guy Fawkes 2 being successful, for instance, they would also remain as a backstop of last resort just for the purposes of ‘keeping the trains running on time’ while a new set of MPs could be put in place. With this in mind, also happy to park this.
Think i have had my say on them in the (over?)long comments on the electoral database, but to sum up, I continue to warm to this idea. Hopefully obvious above. So for the rest of your comment about ‘getting the message out’, agreed. Some good ideas there. I would add that I would expect the 1800 to be intelligent creative people. They would find ways.
I would change ‘but would likely stimulate debate in the constituencies’ by changing to ‘virtual consistencies’, which brings me to another thought. Whenever ‘internet’ is mentioned, there are always people who say ‘but not everyone has access’. True enough, so I would like to include a double positive. Reverse closure of local facilities such as post offices and libraries, and equip them all with free (or cheap) to use internet cafes. And when the detractors pipe up with the usual ‘but not everyone can use them, reply ‘silver surfer’s’. And where people have real difficulties, they can be assisted. As they would only be looking at material to ask for their vote, not to actually cast one, external influence from the assist-or should not become a major issue. Technically literate or not, most people know their own mind.
Thats me done as well for now. I reread my previous reply, and was embarrassed by the number of editing errors, realising i should have proofread better. Hopefully not so bad in this one, in which I hope I have done a better job of proof reading.
I have enjoyed this debate so far, and would be happy to see it continue on the same relaxed timescale.
Well, fag paper differences are about right, I reckon. I don’t have any to hand these days but my doctors think that’s probably a good thing! We are entirely at one on the ID/database issues. I had all the same concerns at the time and deluged my MP with comments, I mail-bombed Commons and, when that failed, the Lords similarly. Thankfully the Lords saw it off and the government backed down. Yes, all the same concerns. I’ve witnessed abuses of privacy by civil servants, even contractors, for purely personal/vengeful reasons. We’ve all seen the huge rate of data errors and, you’re absolutely right, if that’s what the computer says, you need a lawyer to convince them otherwise. So, limiting the amount of data, limiting access to it and maintaining firewalls are all critical. I had a long series of correspondence on the similar NHS issue. I have letters from the Minister of the day, on the final time of asking giving me a written assurance that none of my data would be loaded into their database. Since then they’ve had two new initiatives, I’ve fought at each one and I am certain all of that has been ignored and they’ve gone ahead anyway. It does sometimes feel that one is fighting a lost cause and the younger generation is simply going to have to discover the horrors of such centralised data for themselves. My backstop argument to all the protestations of “But we have safeguards” and the like is, I hate to say it, one Adolf Hitler. Trying to explain to these muppets that, yes, Tony Blair may be a lovely man (clearly not) but he won’t be in power forever and what you’re proposing will be. If Herr Hitler had a database with every citizen’s ethnic origin, religious faith, address, DNA, etc, he could have accomplished his work in next to no time and not relied on informants. Deaf ears, naturally. Use *that name* and they switch off instantly. Maybe I’ll try Stalin or Trump next time?
In a sense, you and I are too close for comfort. We are of similar age and, to some extent, background and both IT savvy. We’re never going to know how this can fly or what it might look like without getting others involved. I copied you and Dr Teck on a thread I had with the Democratic Society yesterday where I was asking them for ideas as to how I could get a wider consultation going on this. They were very keen to help and gave me a series of possibilities which I’ve strung together below:
Democratic Society @demsoc Aug 15
Replying to @WhatNowDoc
Good question! There are a few organisations who provide space and opportunities for new democracy initiatives. You could try Newspeak House in London, People’s History Museum in Manchester, there are regular meet ups in London and elsewhere on democracy ideas. It’s an area that’s really busy at the moment. Orgs like Unlock Democracy, Electoral Reform Society interested in the institutional reform part. Democracy
club and MySociety in the digital side. Lots of academics working on things too. Plus obv journals/blogs etc.
You’re welcome and obviously keep in touch. We ❤️ democratic reformers.
So I’m thinking…
If I/we really want to achieve something here, I need to start talking to these people and get some guidance/feedback. Heaven knows we don’t want to create a car-crash like poor old James Chapman on Twitter with his nonsensical #thedemocrats. Still haven’t found out what happened to him yesterday. I would have to tidy up what I’ve written, incorporating your thoughts, into something more acceptable to the academic mind (it still won’t be formal enough but bite-sized chunks would help) and then I need to go fishing. Are you sufficiently interested to join me in talking to any of these face to face if I can get their attention? I have no idea where in the country you’re based. I’m in Surrey. London is easy for me. Manchester doable overnight.
Rather than dialogue remaining issues, as they’re hardly likely to remain static once we open this out, we can address them as they arise? What do you say? My work output is pretty crap these days, my brain has gone into early retirement mode and resists my attempts at discipline but with a little motivation I can kick it back into gear. Welcome relief from all the crap that’s flying around at the moment.
Incidentally, I had a look at the Isle of Man this morning, following that tweet. Agree that a Parliament for 80,000 people – even if it is reputed to be the oldest in the world, around 1000 years – is not necessarily a model for the UK but they do have some interesting concepts and they’ve actually made quite a lot of changes over the years which, one would hope, were based on experience gleaned.
Two houses, the second house (revising chamber) some elected by the Ministers (who are appointed by the lower house from outside their number, presumably based on expertise), three permanent appointees c/o UK. Laws essentially proposed by lower, revised/approved by higher. Prime Minister appointed by members. If I understand correctly, only sits one day/month – solves the bubble problem and enables real people to do the job as they maintain a career, should incentivise action too. I’m sure there’s a degree of nepotism but still some rather enlightened ideas, contrary to their maintenance of the death penalty and the cat-o-nine-tails way past their sell-by dates. I’m hankering for a trip there to talk to real people and find out how they view their governance and to see how their utilities (‘nationalised’) and services operate. Anyway, thought I’d mention that.
Other than limiting amount of data, you are right, fag paper difference. The key for me is limiting (human) access, not only to a database in general, but to individual records, or parts thereof. I have previously suggested a possible solution, btw, that would also be a massive cost saving. Briefly. I based it on the maxim ‘Those who hold the data do not use it. Those who use the data do not hold it.’ I suggested a new department (NGO?) run on judicial lines, so kept away from gov interference, that held all gov data. Gov depts would get access to the data they needed, through citrix style devices only. The new dept would also become the solution provider for those depts, with all access logged, and therefore audit-able. More recently, I suggested a possible pre-cursor for use by security services and police, with a massive database of personal data to hold everything UK gov already does, plus the daily 250 petabytes of internet traffic (from the internet hub in Cornwall that the security services already tap into), plus all the phone meta data etc etc. (I carefully ignored thinking about the cost, and still do, btw.). General access to this vast repository would be by algorithm only, not direct. When an algorithm result provided a ‘hit’, relevant data would be handed over, suitably redacted, and importantly, logged. Also btw, I am a fan of IBM Watson, which creates algorithms on the fly based on english language queries and can handle unstructured data effectively. I see a role for this product, or something similar/better. Another important feature would be time limited holding of the data in two stages, online for a period of weeks, close coupled archive for a period of months. At that point, throw away most of it, archive the rest offline. If this flew, then I see my bigger initial idea becoming acceptable.
Other than databases.
You are absolutely right that many more need to be involved before any ideas we may have are listened to. Love the name Newspeak house btw, a neat reversal of Orwell’s definitions of Newspeak and Newspeak2. I would have to think carefully about getting too involved beyond blogging and emails though, but do not rule it out. You already know I have one time consuming project. What you don’t know is that now I am retired, my idea of a summer break lasts between four and five months. (I am on a break from my summer break this year because I have things I must do from home, but its is the first time in five years and I am expecting to return to my retired normal next year. To save you asking, I go sailing.)
You are right when you say your 600 independents idea could be refined now. When done, a discussion with the Newspeak people et al is a logical next step that I would happily support. I would also want to present my idea at the same time. Our ideas are very different, so presenting them together would make it absolutely clear that we are presenting them for debate only and are open minded to any outcome which moves the UK democratic process forward. A big problem I see is that mainstream thought on changing the democratic process seems limited to arguing the benefits of FTPT, STV, PR etc against each other, which I see as simple slicing and dicing of votes to gain an advantage for a particular party, and nothing beyond.
As for meeting up some time to chat directly, not adverse to a pub/restuarant/coffee shop meet (I will be the scruffy bloke carrying an iPad). I live in Weybridge, so a Surrey location is easy for me. Would be interesting as it is becoming clear we both think constructively around the same subjects a lot. Also a good start to interacting with organisations recommended by the democratic society. A few DMs needed.
Your para headed by ‘two houses’ is all good. I would add that I would never expect a perfect system, just a better one. I tend to ignore counter arguments that find a negative, however tiny or unlikely, which is then used to ‘dis’ the whole idea. Unfortunately, this is common for naysayers.
I have another suggestion re your parliament of 600 independents. One way of keeping them independent (of each other), rather than the quid pro quo tribal groupings I mentioned previously, may be to have secret aye/nay votes cast electronically, rather than the current walk through lobby system.
My off topic stuff on databases. I was writing about method, and missed an important point on my security services/police precursor system. I would limit it to investigations for serious crimes. I.E. Crimes against people (murder/rape/kidnap etc), terrorism. I am aware that the terrorism act has been effective, and also aware it has apparently been used by councils to monitor the contents of residents bins. My limits would prevent similar abuse of the database in similar manner.
Thanks again, John.
The lobby concept is likely intimidating to anyone wanting to dissent, I agree. There is a transparency issue, however. Constituents have a right to know how their representative votes on a given issue and currently it’s recorded in Hansard which is used by various online services to report this publicly. Ultimately, therefore, it can’t be secret but I do agree that electronic voting would be less prone to groupthink/coercion as well as being infinitely more effective and in keeping with a progressive democracy.
So you DB access concept would be to restrict it to crimes against the person as opposed to crimes against property and the unholy plethora of “other”. There are complications such as mugging, which falls into both category and someone defrauded of their life’s savings might reasonably consider destitution a crime against their person. In other words, there would be a lot of edge cases but not beyond the wit of intelligent folk to figure out. I completely agree the principle that severe limitations and protections MUST be imposed, one way or another.
I’m seeing a great deal of talk from many different sources, largely stimulated by Brexit divisions, claiming that now is the time for a new party, politics is broken, and the like. I really do think the ground for ideas such as these has never been more fertile. I need to get to work, retirement or no. 😉