Saturday, 31 October 2009

Science V Politics

Professor David Nutt, from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, has been sacked by Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, for complaining about the way that the cabinet ignored the scientific evidence in coming to their conclusion to re-classify cannabis as a Class B drug. What I find sad about this is that what could have been a useful debate, based on scientific facts, moral judgment and social imperatives has descended into the politicians wielding their power and slapping down the scientific officer who, it seems, feels honour bound to express the evidential truth. It seems to me that democracy has been broken when the powers that be try to hide the truth!
Of course, the scientific evidence isn't the be all and end all of debate. It may even be interpreted in different ways (though I don't think that is the case here). And there are many other factors that effect drugs law: for example the ability of the police to test for driving under the influence; income streams that boost organised crime; the slippery slope towards harder drugs; and the message that smoking cannabis is not good for your health.
Interactive Democracy - or any debate - is best served by the truth. The scientists have a very valuable contribution to make and anything that discourages their honourable efforts, stifles democracy its self.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Media Attitudes

Could it be that different professions attract people with certain attitudes? Does your typical journalist like a good story? Does a typical soldier like the idea of taking risks? Does a typical nurse put others before themselves?

If this is true (on average) maybe the attitudes presented in the media misunderstand other values held dear by large sections of society. I was reminded of this by horrified media reports of comments made by Prince Edward about the risks involved in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme (here's one from the Mirror). To paraphrase him, he suggested that kids are attracted to the scheme because it allows them the responsibility to manage what can amount to serious risks. (As an ex-mountain rescuer, and mountaineer, who has helped rescue DofE youths, I may have a different attitude to many reporters on this issue.)

It may be obvious that the media could be used to peddle blatant demagogy, or any other type of political bias, but I raise this issue here to point out that Interactive Democracy gives the media more power to subtly influence society by the transmission of their values, in an insidious way, that may be difficult to counter balance. Sure, our existing leaders (political, religious, etc) have obvious opportunities to transmit their values, and the web offers others the opportunity to do the same, but is this enough?... Or does it really matter?... Perhaps we should just accept it and trust that people can make their own decisions.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Paradigm Shift

The application of Information Technology to make democracy more egalitarian, as is described here, may be considered a Paradigm Shift.
Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", wrote about how scientific ideas have developed. He questioned the notion expressed by Isaac Newton: "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Kuhn argued that scientists operate within a common world view or paradigm. They operate within the established theory, struggling with its anomalies. Then, perhaps quite suddenly, someone looks at the evidence from a new perspective, outside of the current paradigm, and realises that this new view better explains the evidence. For example astronomers struggled for years with the Ptolemaic Earth Centred world view before adopting the Copernicus heliocentric system and Newtonian Mechanics was quite quickly superseded by Quantum Physics.
Could it be that Interactive Democracy would unstick our thinking that may, at present, be locked into party political struggles for power, and allow new ideas to grow, with the support and encouragement of others, into brilliant new paradigms?

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Planning Permission

Could Interactive Democracy be used to aid planning permission?
Perhaps a developer would enter a proposal on the ePetition system and then approach the neighbours to seek their support. Could they be bribed? Or would they launch their own campaign against the development, utilising the ePetition system?
The Council would need to assess the technicalities of the development: the impact on parking, the environment, drainage, lighting etc. They should consider the wider public requirements, not just local opinion. But it would seem strange if they ignored strong public sentiment expressed through ID
Similarly, it may be prudent for the Local Council to use the same system for developments of their own.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

"Who Runs Britain?"

Robert Peston, the acclaimed BBC Business Editor, writes in his book "Who Runs Britain?"

"... it would be to ignore all history to presume that the super-rich, or their trust-fund children, or their plutocratic children's children won't endeavour to convert a fraction of their fortunes into control of the media, sponsorship of lobby groups or seats in Parliament. Their big financial boots will become big political boots. It is irrelevant whether you think that they will do ill or good with their new political power. The accumulation of vast wealth by a growing class of super-rich - who owe no allegiance to any state - is a regressive trend for the distribution of power. It will taint governance and distort democracy."

Interactive Democracy helps counter balance the problem of economic power becoming political power: 1 issue/1 person/1 vote dissipates political power amongst the electorate, making it much more difficult for money to surreptitiously influence policy; and, at the point of casting their vote, the electorate will be presented with a list of the pros and cons of each argument, generated by MPs and citizens, undermining the influence of the media. I think it would be sensible to have laws against lying, too. (For more please see this post.)

Please click here for Robert Peston's blog.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Trojan Horse Strategy

Nick Griffin of the BNP (British National Party) is often accused of hiding his parties real views behind a cloak of more respectable language, to garner votes that will lead them into power. Once there, they will be in a position to implement other, more radical, policies.

Is this type of Trojan Horse Strategy carried out by other political parties?

Interactive Democracy provides a safeguard against any party using such maneuvering.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Interactive Democracy for Organisations

The ePetition aspect of Interactive Democracy could be usefully employed for generating suggestions and measuring support for them in areas other than politics. For example, the military could use this system to get feedback and ideas from personnel at every level. Political parties, unions, or any other organisation may also like to take advantage of this aspect of the system.

There could be a small charge for organisations to use the Interactive Democracy infrastructure, but the content generated would remain confidential, open to its members or perhaps only to senior management (the military would need to be especially careful about security).

How would it work?

An organisation would supply a database of approved members who could then use standard security settings to access private areas of the ID site. The organisation may decide in advance if the system is to allow anonymity, or not.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Truth and Balance in the Media

It is a concern that the media can skew the political debate with dishonest or unbalanced output: Truth and balance are essential ingredients for democracy and are especially important for Interactive Democracy (ID).

The Libel Laws are sometimes employed by individuals against the media, but Truth, in the type of Interactive political debate I am advocating, may have no champion to defend her. I suggest that the law should be tightened in this matter by appointing a Truth Commission, with legal powers, to investigate complaints against the media and politicians.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to ensure entirely balanced reporting as media pundits have their own opinions to express and it is impossible to present every shade of opinion in any one output. The wide diversity of media types (Print, TV, Radio, Internet) will help. But it is important to ensure that media power does not lie with a small oligarchy: the Monopolies Commission should always be keeping an eye on the large media companies.

Another way of ensuring balance is for the ID system to list arguments for and against each proposal. These should be generated by MPs and, separately, by the public adding their comments to the site. It would not be difficult to do using tools developed for the Internet. The advantage of this system would be its accessibility on the user interface that is used to cast your vote. It thus supercedes media generated opinion by its immediacy, authority and egalitarianism.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

"Who Runs Britain?"

In " Who Runs Britain?" Robert Peston's writes:

"We've witnessed in the past decade the way that all the main political parties have been prepared to grant access and influence to those with the wherewithal to fund their operations. Even with reform of the system of funding political parties, the wealthy will always find a way to buy political power - whether through the direct sponsorship of politicians and parties, or through the acquisition of media businesses, or through the financing of think tanks. To put it another way, the voices of the superwealthy are heard by politicians well above the babble of the crowd."

In the ID system I would expect the superwealthy to continue to use money to exert their influence, perhaps by "buying" politicians, perhaps through manipulating the media and also through advertising spend. Ultimately, however, Interactive Democracy allows us individual voters to express our power on each issue, as it arises, and the superwealthy influencers must persuade you and me.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Contageous Distrust

Consider the situation: the party in government breaks their election manifesto pledge, or they are caught lying, or they display profound incompetence, or immorality. You want to punish them; to change the government. Yet the opposition parties supported some of those decisions and they appear, in many obvious ways, both superficial and profound, to be cut from the same cloth.
The general election comes around and previous misdemeanours are obscured by argument, rhetoric and time. The incumbent is re-elected.
So, every Political Party sees that they may judge what they can get away with, depending on the balance of their own political capital, good deeds versus bad, the imminence of the next election and on the weakness of an all too similar opposition. In short they see that they can get away with it.
Thus the public consider every party, and all politicians, with a degree of scepticism.
Interactive Democracy allows the public to act in opposition to the government, powerfully and immediately. They act as political outsiders, unsullied by cosy relationships; foreigners in the Westminster Village. This, in its self, introduces a strong discipline that is lacking in today's politics.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Morality, Democracy, Leadership

The question is "Are the majority more or less moral than the ruling elite?"
In 1887 Lord Acton, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, wrote "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." But why should this be so? Is it that leaders have to make tough choices that can always be perceived by some to be immoral? Tough choices lead to hardened hearts! Or is it that our leaders are sustained by large egos that blind them of empathy for the "little man"?
We could assume that the majority of common folk are averagely moral. Interactive Democracy gives them power. Could it be the case that they could countermand the immoral tendencies of despots yet be enriched by the teachings of greater folk, thus improving the moral sentiment of the nation? History suggests otherwise (Hitler's Germany, Israel's democracy).
I think the best we can say is that the majority are neither more nor less moral than rulers.
For more on how situations lead to brutal behaviour, please see "The Lucifer Effect".

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Self Interest

Would self interest be the dominant ethic when voting on issues within Interactive Democracy?
Though I don't doubt that this may be the core morality of some, I suspect the vast majority have some degree of empathy for others and aspire to live by the Golden Rule, which is at the core of most teachings about morality:
"What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others... As you yourself desire standing, then help others achieve it; as you yourself desire success, then help others attain it." Confucius, c500BCE.
"So in everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for this sums up the law and the prophets." Jesus, c30CE.
"Hurt no one, so that no one may hurt you." Muhammad, c630CE.
"The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by." Karl Popper, 1945CE.
And for many there is a voice of conscience, too. As Adam Smith wrote in his Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759), "the man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter..." provides "the desire of possessing those qualities, and performing those actions, which we love and admire in other people; and in the dread of possessing those qualities, and performing those actions, which we hate and despise in other people."
The danger faced by any national democracy is that people feel small and impersonal in comparison to the scale of it, and they risk losing their empathy for other faceless souls, lost in the crowd. This is where leadership must come in. Especially leadership by those who can tell of their direct experiences of the topic to hand and how those issues have effected them; leaders who give political issues a human face.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Common Ground

Interactive Democracy has much common ground with Parliamentary Democracy, it builds on what we've got:
  • The right to vote
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of the press
  • The need for debate
  • The importance of facts
  • Inclusiveness
  • Fairness
  • A balance of power
  • The need for Government
  • The need for a Prime Minister and a Cabinet
  • The need for a democratically elected Parliament
  • The Judiciary
  • Law and Order
  • Security
  • Human Rights

Monday, 12 October 2009


Darius, King of Persia, c500BC, was reported to have asked the Greeks at his court if they would eat the bodies of their ancestors, as the Callatiaens did. They were aghast. He then asked the Callatiaens if they would burn their ancestors, as was the custom in Greece. They were horrified.
Thus he showed there is no wrong or right answer. The poet Pindar wrote "Custom is king of all".
"One man's meat is another's poison" is the core of relativism. Like Darius, two and a half thousand years ago, our system of government must integrate the perspectives of millions of very different people in a widely multi-cultural society. Back then, the king held the power and his word became law. Today, the power rests with Parliament. It could just as well reside with the majority of constituents, using Interactive Democracy and widespread debate to integrate all their perspectives into a national view.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Super Capitalism - The battle for democracy in an age of big business.

In his book "Supercapitalism", Robert Reich writes

"Democracy means more than a process of free and fair elections. Democracy, in my view, is a system for accomplishing what can only be achieved by citizens - to determine the rules of the game whose outcomes express the common

"... supercapitalism has spilled over into politics. The money... companies are pouring into Washington and every other major capitol gets in the way.... The challenge for us citizens is to stop them from setting the rules."

Interactive Democracy pulls political power away from those who secretly and insidiously buy political power, and gives it back to voters. Instead, the supercapitalists have to persuade us by the merit of their arguments.

Professor Robert Reich, University of California, Berkeley, was America's 22nd Secretary of Labour. Please click here for his blog.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Freedom For Sale and Democracy Kills

In this Guardian Book Review, Martin Woollacot comments:

"It is a sign of these worrying times that Humphrey Hawkesley and John Kampfner, using the insights and experiences gained from much travel and reporting abroad, should have simultaneously set themselves the task of charting what has gone wrong. These two good journalists adopt similar methods and come to a similar conclusion, which is that an alliance between politicians and the better-off is, in almost every country, undermining democracy by limiting rights and excluding the poor."

(Emphasis, mine.)

Interactive Democracy is a step back towards one person/one vote and the importance of good quality debate, rather than politics fuelled by the overbearing power of money.

Democracy Kills

In his book "Democracy Kills - What's good about having the vote?", Humphrey Hawksley comments on what is required to get a functioning democracy:

"Firstly, leadership..."
"Second... The really tough part is building the institutions. There needs to be a free and responsible press; uncorrupt and efficient public services; an independent judiciary that closes cases and makes decisions; a disciplined police and military; a strong election commission; a banking authority; and education, health and transport organisations, all of which can be held to account."

Humphrey, a respected BBC foreign correspondent, writes of his experiences abroad and of the struggle to bring democracy to the less developed regions of the world. However, the above quote is a reminder of what we have and the foundations that Interactive Democracy can build upon.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Shareholders Bill of Rights

The financial crisis has inspired American investors to call for more rights for shareholders. In particular they want voting rights for nominations to the Board and their pay. This is something that an Interactive Democracy infrastructure could facilitate. Please click here for their other suggestions.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Conference 365

Political parties may consider using the Interactive Democracy infrastructure for internal debates and ballots which would be hidden from none members. It would be like running a conference 365 days a year, 24/7.
In the same way, businesses, unions, civil servants, pressure groups or any other organisation may also use the ID system, which should be considered part of the national infrastructure in the same way as the roads or rail system. There could be a small charge for access.