Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Thomas Jefferson

In a letter written in 1816, Thomas Jefferson extolled the virtues of a democracy that would be as direct as possible. The idea was that everyone could contribute through town hall meetings. He called it

"the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation."

"... every man is a sharer... and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day."
As quoted here.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Why People Contribute

Why would people contribute to Interactive Democracy?

In "We Think" Charles Leadbeater writes "In open-source software projects, a few are inspired by a hatred of proprietary software providers, especially Microsoft. A minority are driven by altruistic motives. Some see their involvement as a way to get a better job: by showing off their skills in the open-source community they can enhance their chances of being employed. For the majority the main motivation is recognition..."

Maybe this mirrors the reasons why people would contribute to Interactive Democracy: because they hate stuff and want to change it; because they are altruistic and see it as a responsibility of a good citizen; to gain rank in their political party or amongst their working colleagues; or for simple recognition. But the last points may be a double edged sword. Often people abstain from discussing politics or religion because they are contentious issues and invite hostility. So, would people want their names associated with ideas submitted through the ePetition system that their bosses, or potential bosses, may disagree with? To side-step this issue it may be sensible to allow ideas to be submitted and supported anonymously - securely registered and counted by the ID system to avoid any chance of fraud.

Monday, 28 December 2009

"Strong Democracy"

In "Strong Democracy", 1984, Benjamin Barber wrote that future technologies would

"strengthen civic education, guarantee equal access to information, tie individual and institutions into networks that will make real participatory discussion and debate possible across great distances"

Sunday, 27 December 2009

"The web can fracture"

"Even when people engage in political debate on the web they often talk to people they already agree with. Liberal blogs tend to link to other liberal blogs; environmentalists connect with other environmentalists. The web can fracture democratic debate into partisan spaces where people of like mind gather together; democracy depends on creating public spaces where people of different minds debate and resolve their differences."

The proposed Interactive Democracy system is a formal way of introducing ideas into a public forum. It provides a system of peer and parliamentary review but does not prescribe where or how public debates should be held. If ID is done correctly, these debates will emerge on TV, on the radio, in the papers, in political parties, on the web, at work, with union members, in professional journals, among friends and family in the pub and over the dinner table. All these natural channels will be given the impetus that comes from taking part.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Rise of the Amateur Professional

Amateur Professionals, or Pro-Ams, are those "people who undertake activities as amateurs but to professional standards." We are all amateur politicians, with differing degrees of professionalism, and many of us have our own profession which is often influenced by government policy. Interactive Democracy provides a framework for all of us to directly influence society and enhance the creativity of political life.

The following lecture by Charles Leadbeater explains how business organisations are challenged by, and can benefit from, Pro-Ams and customers, who help to create new product.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

The "Hazel Must Go" Campaign

In response to the MPs' Expenses scandal a group of voters decided to campaign for the resignation of Hazel Blears. She resigned from the cabinet but retains her position in the Labour party after persuading local Labour Party members in a closed meeting.
Interactive Democracy would allow campaigners against a politician to utilise the system to drum up support and force the issue. But I would expect the MP to defend themselves in the public space and not behind the closed doors of a party meeting. This may be a scary prospect for politicians but it's a very democratic one.

Problem Solving With Diversity

In "We Think", Charles Leadbetter considers combining people with different thinking tools/skills to help solve problems. He writes "The larger the group and the more diverse perspectives are involved, the greater the benefits from combining them. Take five people, each with a different skill. That gives ten possible pairings of skills. Add a sixth person with a different skill. That gives not 12 pairs but another five possible pairings... A group with 20 different tools at its disposal has 190 possible pairs of tools and more than 1000 combinations of three tools. A group with 13 tools has almost as many tools - 87% - as a group with 15 tools. Not much of a gap. But if a task requires combining four tools it is a different story. The group with 15 tools has 1365 possible combinations of four tools. The group with 13 tools has 715, or about 52%. Groups with larger sets of diverse tools and skills are at an advantage if they can combine effectively to take on complex tasks."
This concept of creativity through diversity could be a key advantage of Interactive Democracy, which seeks to integrate the thoughts, opinions and values of millions of people.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Violent Victims

The Conservative Party has pledged to review the rights of householders to use violence to protect their property. As it stands, the law allows householders to use reasonable force and it is at the court's discretion to judge what was reasonable or not. Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, suggested that only those using "grossly disproportionate" force should be punished.
A Today Programme showed that a law that allowed home owners to use "any means to defend their home from intruders" was the most popular proposal in their interactive poll, with 26000 votes. (More on this here.) Maybe this inspired the Tory initiative, or perhaps it was the recent news that Munir Hassain was jailed last week for attacking an armed burglar who had tied up and threatened his family. Andrew Marr quizzed Alan Johnson on this during his Sunday morning show but I was disappointed that they didn't get to the nub of the case: Munir and his brother had chased the attacker down the road and continued to beat him repeatedly with a cricket bat and hockey stick, resulting in brain damage; the court, based on witness testimony, thought it was a horrific attack and not a forceful arrest. The burglar is too badly injured to stand trial for his crimes.
So, what of referenda on such issues? Could there be a rational debate on this issue?
Most people can easily empathise with other householders but not with burglars, thank goodness. If flight or fight are the natural reactions then most people realise that when they are attacked in their homes, their "castles", they may have no natural place to run away to, so the fight response feels right. And many conscientious people would consider it their duty as citizens to chase and arrest a burglar by using the type of force the police would use to bring them to justice. The debate would probably be both deeply emotional and rational. It would surely involve the police, judiciary and former criminals and would likely review this recent case and many others.
It seems to me that our current law, with its vague "reasonable force", disempowers victims trying to defend themselves and their property. A debate that involves everyone may not only clarify what is reasonable but could enhance citizens sense of empowerment in more ways than one.
More from the Guardian here.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Happiness Prospers in Democracy

Professor Bruno Frey has studied happiness in Switzerland, comparing one region (or Canton) with another. He concludes that "The better the opportunities for direct influence on political decisions per referendum are, the more satisfied the people will be." More here.

In his article "Happiness Prospers in Democracy", based on a survey of 6000 people in Switzerland, he writes
  1. "the more developed the institutions of direct democracy, the happier the individuals are;
  2. people derive procedural utility from the possibility of participating in the direct democratic process over and above a more favourable political outcome"
Bruno Frey is Professor of Economics at Zurich University. Here's his web site, which includes many articles.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

The Difference

"The Difference (by Scott Page, University of Michigan) reveals that progress and innovation may depend less on lone thinkers with enormous IQs than on diverse people working together and capitalizing on their individuality. Page shows how groups that display a range of perspectives outperform groups of like-minded experts. Diversity yields superior outcomes, and Page proves it using his own cutting-edge research. Moving beyond the politics that cloud standard debates about diversity, he explains why difference beats out homogeneity, whether you're talking about citizens in a democracy or scientists in the laboratory. He examines practical ways to apply diversity's logic to a host of problems, and along the way offers fascinating and surprising examples, from the redesign of the Chicago "El" to the truth about where we store our ketchup."
Summary from Princeton Press

This book is brilliant. Page has a dazzling eclecticism.
- Max Bazerman, Harvard Business School

You can read a short interview with Scott Page about "The Difference" principle here.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Political Meritocracy

Representative Democracy may be considered a political meritocracy. Politicians are chosen by their party and, in theory, win elections based on their merit. The best of them gain the support of their peers to become leaders and senior figures. Long standing and experienced politicians may be appointed to the House of Lords.
All good stuff on the face of it. But being good at one thing, indeed many things, doesn't make you good at everything, and politics is a vastly diverse subject. No one person is likely able to master all of it. In reality meritocracy is more complicated and corruptible than the ideal:
  1. How does the old boy network effect who is chosen to become a candidate?
  2. Does the electorate vote for politicians or parties; do they judge the candidate effectively?
  3. Does the best funded or the most capable candidate/party, win?
  4. Can students of Machiavelli play the system and gain power?
  5. Are Honours given fairly or is there bias in appointments to the Lords?
  6. If meritocracy was perfect, wouldn't we be able to find the single best candidate to make decisions for us (someone the ancient Greeks called the aristoi, root of the word aristocrat)?
Though imperfect, I think the current political meritocracy needs to be a key element in the Interactive Democracy system because we need politicians to formulate laws, man committees, debate proposals, form governments and act in opposition. ID just allows public sentiment to flow into this process and check the results of it.
Interactive Democracy adds a meritocracy of ideas to the meritocracy of politicians, where the best proposals can jump through hurdles of debate and ballot to become policy.

Should the Lakes and Dales expansion go to a public vote?

Should the Lakes and Dales expansion go to a public vote? Apparently both the Lib Dem MP, Tim Farron, and his Conservative opponent, Gareth McKeever, agree that it should. More here from LFTO.

Triggering a Referendum in Switzerland

In the Swiss system a federal referendum must be initiated if 50,000 people or 8 Cantons have petitioned to do so within 100 days.
Referendums within Cantons don't need so many people and may be triggered by other rules. For example if expenditure exceeds certain levels.
Referendums on changes to the constitution, or joining international organisations for trade or defence, require 100,000 signatures within 18 months.
In the past, the government has often initiated counter proposals that have won out. Reports suggest that even the threat of a citizens initiative has prompted the Swiss Parliament to reform the law without the need for a referendum.

More from wikipedia here.
The proposed Interactive Democracy system could easily be modified to accommodate an ePetition with a certain trigger level, say 50,000 people. On the other hand, a system that allows the most popular petition to rise to the top of the list and be considered by Parliament, may have the effect of integrating those people interested in politics into the system. In particular, members of political parties would be likely to contribute their signatures and, therefore, have more say over Parliamentary business and the conduct of their Party.
Having a long list of ePetitions, some of which may be quite radical, may foster debate and initiate better, more creative proposals that rise to the top. All of which is much easier to do with an Internet based system. It will be interesting to see how Swiss Direct Democracy adapts to the web.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

"disgraceful day for democracy"

"While we have never wanted this dispute, it is a disgraceful day for democracy when a court can overrule such an overwhelming decision by employees taken in a secret ballot" said Unite's joint General Secretaries about their planned British Airways strike (according to this BBC report). I guess the customers, management and shareholders may disagree.
If there were an Interactive Democracy system in place would Unite utilise it to quickly re-run their ballot? Would the shareholders use it to demand management reforms? Would customers use it to call for government intervention? Would someone propose that customers always be compensated by the company in the event of a strike (regardless of the inevitable job losses that may result)?
What is clear is that Unite's claim to democracy doesn't involve the other stake holders that the law may be trying to protect.
On the other hand, the judge seems to have ruled on a technicality - that "Unite had improperly included BA employees already set to leave the company". Many will doubt that the judgment will effect the clear 92.5% majority in favour of the strike, but it may buy customers and negotiators more time.

Interactive Democracy IS Education

I have heard it said that education is not just about imparting facts. It encourages people to think for themselves, to analyse, to create and to learn empathy.
I've also heard it said that learning should be life-long and not just for the youth.
In these senses Interactive Democracy IS education: it encourages and empowers people to think about issues, to analyse problems, to create solutions, to debate with each other and to learn from other people's experiences, thereby empathising with them.
The quality of the learning that comes from ID depends on the quality of the debate. The stories about each issue, the pros and cons, and the implications, should all be voiced through parliament and the media: leaders should be teachers.
But daft, amateurish and naive ideas, expressed through ePetitions, aren't a bad thing. Half baked proposals may inspire others to offer a better solution - a creative process.

The Flynn Effect

The Flynn Effect is the term used to describe the rise in average IQs in the population. There is much debate as to the cause of this: it may be improved education, better nutrition, the modern stimulus of a diverse media or heterosis (genetic mixing). Unfortunately, recent studies have shown a levelling out of average IQ results, especially in developed countries, and even a small decline.
It has been suggested that an intelligent electorate with a good level of education is a prerequisite for Interactive Democracy. I'm all for an education system that concentrates on teaching diverse ways of how to think, rather than what to think, and I'd like to see wide use of the techniques promoted by De Bono and Tony Buzan. However, the difference between the most intelligent people in the country and the average intelligence is likely to remain pretty much the same, even with better education, in which case why not continue to pursue a political meritocracy such as representative democracy? If you accept that representative democracy has its faults and that it could be improved by more electorate power (as I argue on this blog), then waiting for a better educated, more intelligent population means we may be waiting forever.
Instead I'd prefer to see a slow and experimental progression towards ID. The first step could be an ePetition system that forces Parliamentary debate on popular issues, like a more powerful version of the one already employed in the Scottish Parliament.
It's also worth noting that the Swiss direct democracy system has evolved over the last 150 years, starting with a population that wasn't educated to today's standards and didn't benefit from any of the drivers of the Flynn effect. Neither did they have a diverse media or the web to inform their choices, facilitate research or stimulate debate.
Jim Flynn is the Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Simon Cowell does Democracy

According to several media reports, Simon Cowell is considering a politics show inspired, to some degree, by debates between politicians on American TV. Perhaps it will follow the X-Factor telephone voting format.

It's great to see that someone in the media business recognises the potential that interactive entertainment (I mean politics) has. There is perhaps nothing more entertaining to the human species as the interplay of personalities; their actions and reactions. Simon says "Politics is show business these days. More and more so." I'm much more interested in policies than politicians but it will be interesting to see how the show develops. If it enhances political debate, the understanding of the issues, and attracts a wide audience, then that's a good thing in my book. If it dumbs down serious subjects or falls flat on its face then that's not good for Interactive Democracy. The devil is in the detail; and design and development may overcome many difficulties. At the very least it will be an interesting experiment and may even lead to a better way of conducting democracy than the one I have outlined here.
Of course, there is a certain feeling amongst music buyers that Simon is part of an industry that "pushes" music on us and neglects original artists of all types. Simon's business is unapologetically commercial and we are persuaded to like what he likes. This doesn't sit well with the creative ideal of Interactive Democracy: that new ideas should be encouraged and that people should follow their own conscience on how they vote. Yet it could form a strand of ID if it were balanced by many other channels and voices.


The historian Herodotus (c.485-425BC) wrote about the Athenian state, "nothing could be found better than the one man, the best." Thucydides (c.460-c.400BC) commented "It was in theory, a democracy, but in fact it became the rule of the first Athenian." The word used for this singular and exceptional man was aristoi, the word from which we derive aristocracy. Interestingly the concept of the aristoi grew from Pericles' ideal of merit or meritocracy.
There are problems with this concept of rule by the best:
  • How do you define best; best at what? Are they good at everything?
  • A few people cannot know everything; they cannot experience it all.
  • The majority are seldom motivated to carry out the wishes of the few; the ethic of citizenship is involvement.
These are the same problems that Representative Democracy faces and the issues that Interactive Democracy addresses.
The Athenian Assembly around 450BC numbered about 21000 citizens and was by today's standards quite tiny. Plato's ideal was a state of no more than 5040 voters who should know each others qualities. However, with modern technology, it will be possible to integrate many millions of voters into the democratic ideal.
More on the Athenian Origins of Direct Democracy here.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Direct Democracy Q&A

This link takes you to the Direct Democracy Campaign Q&A. Worth a read.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Quick Wiki

Wiki is Hawaiian for quick and is an acronym for "what I know is". The prime example of a wiki is wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to or edit.
Joe Kraus, co-founder of JotSpot, the wiki software company, says most wikis are best suited for small, well defined groups of people collaborating on projects of limited duration. They may be excellent tools for pressure groups or even for Parliament.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Immediacy Trumps Media

The manipulation of voters by media conglomerates and tycoons is a concern for democracy, especially Interactive Democracy. This may be lessened by the multi-various voices on the web. In addition, Parliament should seize the opportunity of attaching their views to the ID user interface. This could be in the form of Plus, Minus and Interesting points, listed for each proposal. The immediacy of this information counterbalances the power of a free but, perhaps, biased 'press': Immediacy trumps media!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Tim Berners-Lee

"The danger is not that we ask too much of the internet, but too little, that we turn it into just another piece of kit when it could be so much more significant than that, a new platform for how we could organise ourselves, to find knowledge together, to work out what is true and to decide together what we should do about it." Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Free Party Membership

In the proposed Interactive Democracy system I imagine that political parties with the most members will garner the most financial support from those wealthy individuals and institutions who want to influence us. This is because Party Members will probably be emailed persuasive arguments about each issue advising them how to vote. It therefore makes sense to offer free party membership.
Some thoughts:
  1. If you have a broad interest in politics it makes sense that you join several parties to find out their various perspectives.
  2. How parties develop and capitalise on their membership lists will be a key competency for them in the future.
  3. Will this allow new parties to emerge? I suspect the strong brands, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat, are best positioned as strong political influencers.
  4. Does this undermine the egalitarian nature of Interactive Democracy? Ultimately you have the power to cast your vote any way you see fit, so, no, I don't think that this mix of capital, membership and persuasion is particularly odious, and a good deal less so than today's poisonous brew.

Friday, 4 December 2009

£40 000 Headlines

The front page headlines are really important for newspapers: they're what grab peoples' attention and persuade them to spend their cash to read the full story. A good headline may be worth £40 000 in sales!

The news that the government "spent" £850 billion to bail out the banks, and that that equates to £40 000 per household, certainly grabbed attention, especially in light of the demands from RBS to pay £1.5 billion in bonuses. Outrage!

But the headlines aren't the full story. According to this report from the BBC the £850 billion figure isn't actually all spent. The vast majority of it is loans and loan guarantees, which will only be required if the economy goes from bad to worse.

£37 billion was spent buying RBS shares, making us all owners of that bank. I hope we will be able to sell it for a profit in the future, but if we are to find a buyer it needs to be an attractive proposition, run by talented staff. By denying them their enormous (I assume, contracted) bonuses won't the best talent leave, undermining the very value of the bank that we own? Will we cut our nose to spite our face?

And, from another perspective, the £1.5 billion in bonuses means a tax take for the exchequer (at 40%) of £600 million - enough to buy a couple of new hospitals(?). What doesn't go to the exchequer may be saved, boosting liquidity, invested, boosting pension values, or spent, boosting retail sales and protecting jobs.

Whether you agree with my analysis or not (admittedly there's more to it than this), the point is that Interactive Democracy needs to be a slow and considered process, not one that reacts to every headline. I've previously written about the need for truth in the media, which I think is essential for Interactive Democracy, but my concern in writing this post is that what may be a true headline disguises a bigger, deeper truth and may give the wrong impression.
(According to my calculations the £37 billion invested in RBS equates to £1423 per household, assuming there are 26 million households in the UK.)

Science v Politics: The Moral Maze

Radio 4's Moral Maze debated the relationship between science and politics. It's worth a listen. Some of the points were:

  • funding of what scientific evidence is to be gathered, adds a political bias
  • scientists are human and therefore corruptible
  • science its self is a process for gathering hard evidence which has no morality
  • the media can sensationalise scientific reports
  • lay people aren't often equipped to understand science
  • there's more to politics than science (e.g. morality)
  • scientists may consider their evidence as more important than debate
  • debaters may reinforce their arguments with narrow scientific studies to try to quash debate
I think democracy should be informed by science. I would like to see a publicly funded scientific institution, honour bound to report hard, morally incorruptible, evidence. The meta studies they carry out should be instigated by Parliament (within the ID process) and not funded by pressure groups. This can then form one aspect of the debate about future policy.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Freedom of the Minority or Control by the Majority?

Would Interactive Democracy encourage the majority to lay down the law against minorities? Would there be a loss of liberal freedoms?

It may be that by encouraging political debate amongst the wider population, individuals begin to change their views and realise that what they value isn't necessarily what other people hold dear. This understanding of the variation of human ideals could have a liberalising effect. On the other hand, vociferous debate can be polarising. (Please see this post about Group Polarisation.)

If Parliament were able to list the pros and cons of each issue I suspect this would have the effect of helping to remove the emotion from the national debate, foster rationalism, reduce polarisation and encourage understanding. This list would presented at the point of voting. Others, with strong convictions, may offer different, more stringent, leadership.

In the UK we have a strong liberal (small 'L') tradition, perhaps encouraged by the Golden Rule and the necessities of 60 million people living on a small island. I suspect this cultural identity would emerge in ballots that could, if allowed, limit the freedoms of minorities.

DNA Debate

For some time now police forces around the country have been collecting DNA from suspects not convicted of any crime. It is my understanding that Police Authorities have had slightly varying policies on this and those in Scotland already destroy samples taken from those that aren't convicted. I have also heard that it is police policy and not Parliamentary law that demands these samples.

Whether you agree or disagree with the policy, it is curious that, on the one hand, implementation of DNA sampling varies depending on the judgement of the Police Authority, many of whom are unelected, and on the other, is effected by a remote European Court. How does democracy work on this? It could be the type of wide debate that would benefit from Interactive Democracy, resulting in a referendum.

"The Assault on Liberty"

In his book "The Assault on Liberty", Dominic Raab wrote "Having secured a landslide overall majority of 179 seats in the House of Commons [1997], the new administration was well placed to force through virtually any legislation without serious risk of defeat. The sheer volume of new criminal law and security measures, introduced by the new government over the course of a decade, would displace the common law presumption in favour of personal freedom that held sway in the country for centuries."

Interactive Democracy offers safeguards against loss of liberty by widening the debate amongst voters of every persuasion. It gives us a new liberty, it empowers us to get involved.

More from the Independent here.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Heroine Harman

Harriet Harman was reported as saying "men cannot be left to run things on their own... In a country where women regard themselves as equal, they are not prepared to see men just running the show themselves." As a heroine of emancipation, she advocates more women in positions of power. Today they are under represented in politics: only 20% of MPs are women; and in business only 18 hold board positions in FTSE100 companies. More from the Guardian here.

Amongst arguments about bias, meritocracies, child rearing and glass ceilings, Interactive Democracy offers another perspective: It empowers every female voter to contribute ideas and pass judgment on policy whether local, national or international.


Switzerland runs a form of Direct Democracy. You can read about it here.
It's interesting to note that their form of direct democracy has evolved over many centuries, suggesting that it can work amongst a populace with a medieval level of education.
One of the distinctions of the Swiss system is that votes are carried only by a combination of an overall majority and a majority of cantons (similar to counties). This may be especially important in Switzerland where areas are clearly and dramatically divided by mountains, and would have been especially important in the olden days when mobility was so much harder.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Political Lobbying

I've just been watching a recording of Channel 4's Dispatches programme about the influence of pro-Israel lobbyists on British Politicians and journalists. Frightening! It reports on the funding of various politicians and parties by pro-Israel groups and how pressure is put on the media. This would be bad enough coming from a British pressure group, but these people promote a foreign power.
Mao famously said "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." If we have overcome violence as a political force, when will we dispatch the insidious force of money?
"One person, one vote!" isn't that the ethos expected to undermine "money is power"?Interactive Democracy retains the voting power of individuals instead of delegating those rights to politicians who require finance to propel them into office. ID helps to break the hold that money has over our political system.

A trip to the Polling Station discourages thoughtless voters.

There is an argument that Internet based Interactive Democracy is too easy and that the very effort of making a trip to cast your vote discourages those that really don't care about politics and haven't thought about the issues. This may be true to an extent. But it may also discourage many others: those that are busy, those that are disabled or old and infirm. I wonder, if the weather takes a turn for the worse, do fewer people vote?

Certain areas of the country carry a well documented historical bias for one party or another: the Tory/Labour heartlands. Is this evidence of people making the effort to vote without giving fair consideration to all the options? And some people feel it is a moral duty to vote, despite having no strong conviction on the matter... My point is that even if a trip to a voting booth discourages thoughtless voters it may do nothing to encourage thoughtfulness.

On the other hand, I suspect that Internet voting on individual topics, with the pros and cons listed in bullet format (created by Parliament) and with fingertip access to the wealth of information and debate on the world wide web may encourage more voters and more deep consideration of the issues.

I'm sure that votes will be cast by those rolling in from the Pub during the early hours of the morning, in no fit state to articulate anything, but they may be changed the next day (votes can be reviewed and changed at any time prior to the cut off time). Besides, those votes cast randomly, and without due consideration, are likely to fall on both sides of the argument, balancing each other out.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Secret Loans and True Value

The Bank of England has only recently admitted that it provided £62 billion to HBOS and RBS in October 2008, with the full knowledge and consent of the Government. Mervyn King recognised that the secrecy of this loan was a crucial element in preventing a collapse in the banking sector and was thus in the public interest.

Previously I have called for systems to ensure that politicians tell the truth, but the apparent necessity of this deceit calls that idea into question. However, it may fall into a category of exceptional circumstances in the public interest, and I continue to believe that there should be legal sanctions against politicians who commit more common and self serving lies.

More on this story here.

Majority on Minarets

This link to the BBC describes how the Swiss have voted in a ban on the building of minarets through their Interactive Democracy type system. Whether you agree or not, this is a clear majority decision. However, Amnesty International has suggested that the Swiss Supreme court may overturn the ban.

If Interactive Democracy were implemented in Britain, with similar majority decisions against minority religions, it would be interesting to consider how the Law Lords would get involved in the application of the Human Rights Act. If they did overturn the majority decision I feel that they would be honour bound to make recommendations to Parliament about how to reconcile the disconnect between the existing law and the referendum result. It may then go to another round of votes.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Lenin and Democracy

In 1919 the Communist International adopted Lenin's "Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat". In it he wrote "It follows that proletarian dictatorship must inevitably entail not only a change in democratic forms and institutions, generally speaking, but precisely such a change as provides an unparalleled extension of the actual enjoyment of democracy by those oppressed by capitalism, the toiling classes."
Interactive Democracy is not communism and is not shaped by any class theory. It is much more egalitarian than that, dispersing democratic power more equally than today. Its purpose is not seizing power, it is to provide a system whereby good ideas for social change can emerge without being trapped in the mire of centre ground party politics. However, combined with the emergence of Web 2.0, ID could loosen the grip that "money" plays in pulling the levers of power. Something Lenin may well have been pleased about.
If Interactive Democracy were, in some way, to lead to the smallest fraction of the terrors of Stalinism, (as Marxism lead through Lenin to Stalin) it should be killed off right now. However, this is unlikely as ID spreads political power and makes it very hard for a dictator to emerge.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Wilde Bludgeoning

"Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people." So said Oscar Wilde. He is not alone in his condemnation of Democracy. But what system is better? Or can democracy be improved?
More on Oscar Wilde here.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle's comment that Democracy is "monstrous, loud, blatant, inarticulate as the voice of chaos" may strike a chord with some. (His description of economics as "the dismal science" may be applauded by many more.)
I hope that a clear system for representing ideas, debating them and measuring their support, even in the face of loud, diverse, inarticulate and chaotic points of view, would make democracy somewhat less dismal than the Yaa/Boo politics of the 1800s, or today.
The modern media, in all its guises, can help. But designing Interactive Democracy to utilise the Internet is a critical step forward. Done well it could present the pros and cons of an issue, as discussed in Parliament, engender debate and provide a secure ballot. However, we would still need systems to prevent lying by politicians and journalists, and a scientific service beyond the influence of the government.

Saturday, 21 November 2009


In 1812, Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusettes, signed a bill that re-districted his state to the benefit of the Democratic Republican Party. This fiddling with boundaries for political benefit has since been called gerrymandering as the new shape of the territory was said to look like a salamander. More on this here.
An interesting question is "Will Interactive Democracy foster more gerrymandering?"
Well, it's upto the local people to decide if demarcation lines should be redrawn. But, in the ID system, each person is empowered to vote issue by issue, so there may be less desire for manipulation for party benefit. And if one party were to try, the opposition can drum up support to oppose it.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Margins of Safety and Stalemate

I've previously suggested that majorities should have a margin of safety so that, for example, the vote can only be passed if the split is 52% to 48%, or greater and not if the vote is 51% to 49%. This allows for errors in the voting system.
However, the bigger the safety margin used, the more likely is the situation that the vote will be "hung" and the issue unresolved: a stalemate that could hamstring politics. It is therefore important to make sure that the voting system is accurate and without corruption, so that margins of safety don't need to be broad. If ballots are still indecisive it may be prudent to give parliament the carrying vote.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Like kids in a sweet shop

In a system of direct democracy, would the majority want everything, like kids in a sweet shop, spending every penny... and more?
It must be the role of the government to manage the budget, which puts them in the difficult position of saying "No!"
This paints a picture of voters with the maturity of children. I believe that this is far from the case. The typical adult often makes complex personal financial decisions and can easily understand that governments have finite resources and that wants are virtually infinite and must be prioritised.
That's not to say that the government (and opposition) shouldn't be offering leadership, explaining the limits of what can be afforded, the consequences of decisions and the rational for their own preferences.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


According to a YouGov poll published in the Daily Telegraph on 29/11/04:

  • 59% of voters thought that "most MPs make a lot of money by using public office improperly"

  • 78% agreed that "to win elections, most parliamentary candidates make promises they have no intention of keeping"

  • 85% believed that "most MPs will tell lies if they feel the truth would hurt them politically"

And all this before the MPs expenses scandal!

Friday, 13 November 2009

Glasgow Disillusionment?

Only 33.2% turned out for the recent by-election in Glasgow North East with Willie Bain, the local Labour candidate, winning with 12231 votes. The contest was triggered by the resignation of Michael Martin, the former Speaker of the House of Commons and now Lord Martin of Springburn.
Only 33.2%! Is this the public saying "what's the point, they're all as bad as each other"?

On Target, Missing the Point

"[Government] Targets have increasingly become a means of enforcing compliance, through applying both rewards and penalties. This introduces a degree of pressure to achieve arbitrary ends, which in turn forces professionals to stray dangerously from prioritising the interests of the citizens they should serve."

D Carswell et al

Within Interactive Democracy public service providers will inevitably become aware of the power wielded by local voters. I would expect this to be a positive motivation to care for customers.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Desire for Power

"The sad truth is that a desire for power is hard-wired into human DNA. Politicians, like other members of the species, like being in control. What holds them back is an elaborate political structure based on checks and balances and the dispersal of power. Without such a structure, all governments would be like Zimbabwe's. Such structures do not evolve on their own, and a tiny number of people, whether historically or geographically, have been lucky enough to live under them.
"The natural tendency of all governments, being flawed and human institutions, is toward the agglomeration of power."

J Norman et al
Interactive Democracy re-defines the power balance to help keep governments in check, but it's real purpose is to allow individuals to better express their democratic will and to enhance public debate.

Devolved Power

"The reason that people vest little importance in the electoral process is that the electoral process no longer determines the destiny of the nation. Human rights judges lay down school uniform policy; police chiefs decide whether the possession of cannabis should be treated as a criminal offence; customs officers decree how much tobacco we may buy; Eurocrats forbid us to buy and sell in pounds."
Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party
by J Norman et al

Interactive Democracy provides ample opportunity for people to reclaim democratic rights. The re-balancing of power that it affords creates an indirect pressure on officials to act in line with their communities wishes even without implementing the petition/parliament/referendum process.
You can download a copy of Direct Democracy here. It costs £1 and argues for changes in Conservative Party Policy.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Democracy in Decline

Even prior to the MPs expenses scandal the public were becoming disenchanted with politicians and, even, the electoral process itself. A YouGov poll in The Daily Telegraph on 28 April 2005 showed that 79% of people believed that most or all politicians habitually lied, and an earlier survey claimed that 85% of voters believed that politicians would say anything to get elected. (As reported by J Norman, et al, in the conservative publication Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party.)
The graph above shows the percentage of the electorate that voted.
Interactive Democracy provides an additional system for holding politicians to account and balances their power by making democracy more democratic.

Not Nuclear In My Back Yard - NNIMBY

In light of the evidence on global warming many environmental campaigners, who would previously have opposed nuclear power, now see at as an essential part of the power generation mix. But even those who have long supported nuclear power generation think not in back yard (NIMBY). If the building of new nuclear power plants were put to a national referendum, I suspect we would give them the go ahead. But if Interactive Democracy were in place we could see local votes against new sites.

Does this scenario highlight a fatal flaw with Interactive Democracy: the problem of balancing national and local demands?

Today the planning process is designed to give locals a voice, but the recent government announcements have made it clear that building must start without endless local deliberation: a new independent commission will have the final say. Within the Interactive Democratic process, guided by Parliament, the national will may still hold sway. An alternative to the commission, and a more democratic method, would be to list the proposed sites in a national nuclear regeneration referendum, thus making it clear from the outset who will be effected.

The conflict of interests and ID debate are in them selves important. For example, local pressure against nuclear sites can help drive up safety standards and ensure compensatory improvements in the local infrastructure and economy. This may help provide a fairer national distribution of risks and benefits.

More here, from the BBC.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Michael J Sandel, the Harvard lecturer who delivered this year's BBC Reith Lectures on morality and markets, writes in his new book "Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?"

"Life in democratic societies is rife with disagreement about right and wrong, justice and injustice... Given the passion and intensity with which we debate moral questions in public life, we might be tempted to think that our moral convictions are fixed once and for all, by upbringing or faith, beyond the reach of reason. But if this were true, moral persuasion would be inconceivable, and what we take to be public debate about justice and rights would be nothing more than a volley of dogmatic assertions, an ideological food fight. At its worst, our politics comes close to this condition. But it need not be this way. Sometimes, an argument can change our minds."

He wrote in the Guardian (31/10/09),

"I think our public life would go better if we engaged more directly with the moral ideals underlying our political debates. In many ways, political argument today is morally impoverished. My book tries to bring philosophy to bear on the dilemmas we confront in contemporary politics - not in the expectation of consensus and agreement, but rather in the hope of contributing to a richer, more morally robust democratic deliberation."

According to the Guardian "Sandel maintains that he is no majoritarian: a more engaged citizenry, he argues, would actually provide a far stronger check on abuses of power, or on over powerful religious organisations." He criticises politics as "morally neutral".

It seems to me that Interactive Democracy engages the citizenry, empowers leaders to state their moral argument and has every chance of enhancing democratic deliberation. I wonder if Sandel would concur?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Tyranny of the Majority

First used by Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 book "Democracy in America", the tyranny of the majority is the "criticism of the scenario in which decisions made by a majority under that system would place that majority's interests so far above a dissenting individual's interest that that individual would be actively oppressed." (From Wikipedia).

Within Interactive Democracy there are a number of safeguards against such abuse:

  1. The Human Rights Act
  2. Leadership by Parliament
  3. The presentation of all sides of an argument on the Interactive Democracy website
  4. The Golden Rule: the morality of most people in most societies
  5. The Liberal Media and the ability of stories to engender empathy towards individuals (the ultimate minority)
  6. The vociferousness of motivated and organised minority groups versus the apathy of the majority (An argument by Mancur Olsen in "The Logic of Collective Action".)

It is sometimes argued that Representative Democracy protects minority interests, especially in the American system where vote trading is the norm, but it is hard to see how such a system works in the UK. My feeling is that fair morality and the liberal tradition are the main lines of defence against the persecution of minorities in Britain.

The Underlying Premise

The underlying premise of Interactive Democracy is that together, voters are capable of making good majority decisions. This comes from enhancing the quality and scale of the debate. Some may question these assumptions.
The party political system, as it stands today, provides a limited number of candidates and, in their competition for voters support, the best team emerges and is allowed to form a government. What I think about an issue and what you think is irrelevant. So long as someone votes, one flavour or another of the political elite (and their financial backers) will gain power.

Positive and Negative Freedom

Isaiah Berlin, in his 1958 essay "Two Concepts of Liberty", identified negative freedoms (from interference by others) and positive freedoms (to achieve). Interactive Democracy gives us all the positive freedom to express our democratic wishes, issue by issue, and gives us the democratic power to maintain our freedoms from interference by the state.
"To manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you - the social reformer - see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore degrade them." Isaiah Berlin, 1959.