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.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Tyranny of the Majority

Yesterday, on Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 programme, Sir Iain Blair, talked about his role in the Metropolitan Police and how politicians influence policing. During the course of the interview he used the term "tyranny of the majority".

It is a fear that Interactive Democracy may lead to an immoral, brutish system, where the dumb majority lash out in anger and frustration, controlled by all sorts of base reactions and demagogy. Interactive Democracy need not be this. It could be a system that fosters creative ideas and honest debate. It would be ameliorated by Parliament and would allow moral, scientific and expert leadership (like Sir Iain) to argue their points and persuade those that were interested. It would give voice to those with direct, grass roots, experience. In short, it would enhance the debate and provide a system to conclude it.
With fair balances of power we can avoid the tyranny of rulers and the tyranny of mobs.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Policing and Democracy

The Conservative Party has made proposals for having an elected representative to work alongside Police Chiefs. Would Interactive Democracy have the same effect?

In the UK every area has a Police Authority made up of elected councilors and others, who's role is to hold the Chief Police Officer to account. The Home Secretary may also bring power to bear. Interactive Democracy provides additional channels between the public, politicians and police.

Using Interactive Democracy, members of the local community could petition the Police Authority who would then need to address the issue concerned. And the Police Authorities could use ID to ask the community about policing issues. For example, there may be referendums about local licensing laws, the policing of town centers, the proliferation of cctv, etc. etc.

The point is that Interactive Democracy could enhance the communities connection with the police force without radically altering the long standing triumvirate of Police Chief, Police Authority and Home Secretary.