Friday, 30 April 2010

Unequal Votes

Not all votes are worth the same in the UK's current system of representative democracy. According to this ITN report some marginal seats have votes with 500 times the power of those in the safest seats. You can enter your postcode at this site, to find out how valuable your vote is. It may make a difference to your decision to vote tactically.

Under the proposed Interactive Democracy system, even if winning MPs are "first past the post", policies must be approved by the electorate in a referendum where each vote has the same power as every other. This is much more democratic.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The End of Tribalism

Loyalty has always been a binding emotion in party politics. It can be seen in the party "heartlands" and the "safe seats". Interactive Democracy is a move away from that. Although it doesn't seek to subvert the parties, it is designed to enhance the debate, both its breadth and depth, in order to reach sound decisions on specific subjects. To that extent it encourages the end of tribalism in politics and allows us to choose politicians and governments, AND decide on policy.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Rise of the Independents

Martin Bell has launched the Independent Network, a kind of "kite mark" of approval for independent candidates which may go some small way to enhancing their presence in the political market place in order to compete with the big brands: Labour, Conservative and Liberal. More here from the BBC.

Should all the candidates pass some sort of exam before they can run to become MPs?

This would potentially undermine representative democracy in which voters are the final arbiters of "good character", but wouldn't necessarily impede Interactive Democracy as voters would have more power.

What would such an exam include?

Statistics? Logic? Parliamentary procedures? IQ?

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Arriva Departed

Arriva, the British bus and train operator, has been bought by Deutche Bahn and, in the wake of the upset over Cadbury's, Labour and the Lib Dems want to "lock short-term investors out of voting", according to The Guardian online. The Liberals propose that takeovers should be subject to a public interest test.

Interactive Democracy could allow the wider public to initiate a debate on limiting specific takeovers. Such a debate may be led by the unions, customers or suppliers. On the other hand, shareholders and the investment markets may argue that the free flow of international capital is a crucial element of our burgeoning quality of life. The debate could be fierce, but automatically skewed towards British interests as foreigners wouldn't be allowed to vote.

The key difference between ID and Representative Democracy in this regard, is that those with a vested interest can contribute to the debate, and vote, and it's not just the corruptible politicians who would decide on the policy.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Quality of the Debate

Perhaps the quality of political decisions is directly proportional to the quality of the preceding debate. If so, how would we ensure the best quality debates? What would be the anatomy of a great debate?

  1. Every opinion should be expressed.

  2. Ineloquent opinions should be clarified.

  3. The premise of every opinion should be sought.

  4. Assumptions should be explored.

  5. The evidence should be gathered, analysed and ranked for its quality.

  6. Statistical analysis should be well founded (e.g. correlations don't always mean cause and effect).

  7. New evidence should be gathered and fed into the debate.

  8. There must be sufficient time.

  9. Verbal opinions should be collated and written down to allow people to review them.

  10. The impact and consequence of every suggestion should be analysed.

  11. The administration of every suggestion should be considered.

  12. The cost of every suggestion, estimated.

The question then becomes how do we conduct such an enormous undertaking on a regular basis? No one could possibly involve themselves in every aspect of every debate! No one could possibly calculate every consequence of every idea.

Interactive Democracy relies on formal debate in Parliament, contributions on the ID web site and many separate debates, each one imperfect, conducted among friends, colleagues, acquaintances and, very importantly, through the media. All opinions are then combined through a ballot.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Political Barriers to Entry

It's interesting to note that that the three biggest parties capitalise on their leading positions by garnering far more air time than any of the minor parties, thus reinforcing their position. This creates a strong barrier to entry for any other party or independent politician trying to get seats in Parliament.
Quite apart from the power of their brands, the leading parties also attract more funding than the lesser parties, which enables them to entrench their power base. They have money to spend on a much more powerful campaign.
Occasionally, independents do get seats in Parliament, but usually they already have some sort of brand presence in the media. For example Martin Bell, with his distinctive white suit, was a BBC correspondent.
These political barriers to entry are another way that democracy is skewed from the ideal. Interactive Democracy would give voters more power, allow new ideas to emerge and foster wider debate of individual policies. However, it still relies on party politics to form a credible government and does little to undermine the three main parties as political brands.

(Please see Porter's 5 Forces as another perspective on the power balance within politics.)

Monday, 19 April 2010

Voting Decisions?

How do you decide who to vote for? How do you make that decision?
Do you rule out parties that have let you down in the past?
Do you rule out politicians that have been dishonest?
Do you choose the manifesto you like? Do you still vote for that party if you like most of it but strongly disapprove of one or two policies?
Do you vote based on the leadership qualities of the prospective PM?
Do you support a party because they're the people you have most affinity for, regardless of anything else?
Do you condemn a party for what it did 20 years ago?
Do you vote based on how the policies are going to effect your wallet?
Do you vote tactically?
Do you merge all these concepts together and vote for who you feel will be best?
Or do you give up on the task and let others decide?

Within the Interactive Democracy system you would need to judge the quality of the candidate and the team that could form the government. But you could vote separately on individual policies as they arise in the course of the parliament. In short it would separate out a vote based on candidates and votes on individual policies (after a specific debate on those issues).

Friday, 16 April 2010

Conservative Petitions

In the 2010 Conservative Manifesto (p66) they propose a formal parliamentary debate on any petition with 100 000 signatures. A step in the right direction.

Electing Police

On last night's News Night, Shami Chakrabarti said police chiefs shouldn't be elected by referendum. She didn't elaborate why, except to paint a picture of an elected BNP police chief, which is perhaps a bit unlikely considering that BNP members are banned from the police. I imagine one worry is the "tyranny of the majority" argument. Perhaps another concern is that senior police should be focused on policing, not electioneering, but, given that the police's role isn't just to fight crime, but to reduce the fear of crime, aren't they already in the game of public perception?

Page 57 of the 2010 Conservative Manifesto says that they will enable a "directly elected individual" power over local police budgets and strategy.

Page 72 of the 2010 Liberal Democrat Manifesto proposes "direct election of police authorities", but concedes that they can involve other members to improve diversity.

Behind the idea of Interactive Democracy is that all of politics should be opened to public votes, with the exception of issues of national security that require secrecy. Worries about the tyranny of the majority are worries about democracy its self!

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Milton Friedman

"The problem of social organization is how to set up an arrangement under which greed will do the least harm, capitalism is that kind of a system."
Milton Friedman

Sales, marketing and public relations, disciplines that evolved in the capitalist system, are crucial to winning elections in our party political representative democratic system. They require capital and thus rich people and organisations have more political power than individuals. Their capital, greed and raw self interest skew the political system. Can democracy be developed so that greed does the least harm? Interactive Democracy switches a good deal of power away from cash and converts it into individual votes, spent frequently. Sure, cash will be spent to persuade us of an issue, but the deal will be far more transparent than is the case today.

"The only way that has ever been discovered to have a lot of people cooperate together voluntarily is through the free market. And that's why it's so
essential to preserving individual freedom."
Milton Friedman

Interactive Democracy, a free market of ideas, purchased with votes which are equitably distributed amongst the electorate, adds to our individual freedom of expression and self determination.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Group Design

Can large groups of individuals, who haven't even met each other, design stuff?
The Linux project suggests that they can!
Linus Torvalds created the first form of the open source Linux software with the assistance of developers around the world and it continues to be modified. Changes are tested by many users; the beneficial improvements survive the peer review and become widely adopted, so the software evolves. Most of this development is done free of charge by people with various motivations. Perhaps they want recognition, the satisfaction of solving a problem or to display their skills to prospective employers. These may also be motivations for people to get involved with Interactive Democracy to design new laws and policies.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Electioneering by Governments

Labour has been emailing cancer patients and GPs in order to garner their support and, yesterday, they launched their manifesto in a new hospital extension in Birmingham (it hasn't yet been handed over to the NHS, but that hasn't stopped the Conservatives from accusing the Brown government of breaking Cabinet Office rules on electioneering). These tactics, amount to an unfair advantage for governments over opposition parties, and I wonder how this would play out within the Interactive Democracy system.
For example, would it be acceptable to allow the government to email doctors about a bill they were sponsoring, say on the future of the NHS?
Should the opposition be allowed access to the same channel to make their case?
I think it impracticable to allow others access to these email addresses. Apart from anything else the Information Commission would probably have something to say about it. At the least it's likely to lead to a plethora of nuisance emails and at worst could lead to a breach of security.
If the government had sole access to these contacts, it provides an opportunity to promote one side of the story, and introduce bias, but on the one hand it would raise the subject for debate, which is probably a good thing.
So, perhaps the solution is to encourage governments to contact public servants in order to highlight relevant debates but prohibit them from presenting their arguments in the email. Instead they should include a link to the ID site where all sides of the debate can be aired.

Friday, 9 April 2010

The Upside of Down

In "The Upside of Down", Thomas Homer Dixon wrote of the Internet

"In one respect humanity is extraordinarily lucky: just when it faces some of the biggest challenges in its history, it has developed a technology that could be the foundation for extremely rapid problem solving on a planetary scale, for radically new forms of democratic decision-making."

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Approved Contributions

The Interactive Democracy web site should be designed to enhance debates. Any voter can contribute an opinion or question (without being abusive), structured as threads and categorised as Plus, Minus and Interesting Points. These posts may at times link to external sites (which may be removed by the webmaster if they are found to be abusive).

MPs contributions to the debate should be highlighted and the site should have the facility to filter out all other contributions, leaving the Parliamentary debate clear and easy to follow. This would not only allow us to focus on the core issues without wading through vast numbers of posts, but would allow us to judge the qualities of the MP, and the pressure exerted on them by this public spotlight will encourage them to contribute effectively.

The site should also encourage MPs to present their evidence, which may be in the form of academic or government reports. They will therefore act as editors, ensuring that credible reports are presented on the secure site, both as highlights and the full document. The flip side of this is that academics, who may want to present their work, would be well advised to present it to MPs and persuade them of its merit. Unlike links to external sites, these documents wouldn't be corruptible after the link was posted.

Finally, each contribution, from MPs or voters, may be judged by the public on its relevance to the debate, allowing users to filter the debates to find what others perceive as the most crucial points.

House of Lords Constitution Committee

The following was supplied by I&R GB. Please click here to go to the Parliament site.

Inquiry into Referendums in the UK's Constitutional Experience

Questions raised by the noble lords have included:
1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the referendum as a democratic and constitutional tool?
3. How does, and how should, the referendum relate to the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy?
9. How does the referendum relate to other tools such as citizens’ initiatives? Should citizens be able to trigger retrospective referendums?
10. How would you assess the experience of other countries in relation to the use of the referendum? What positive or negative aspects of international experience would you highlight? (Source:

Written Evidence

Hearings, transcriptions

with Peter Facey (Charter88/New Politics), Stuart Weir (Democratic Audit), Helena Kennedy (lawyer), Peter Kellner (YouGov)

with Steve Richards, Chief Political Commentator on the Referendums Inquiry (27 January 2010) PDF

with Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government, Brasenose College, University of Oxford and Professor Stephen Tierney, Professor of Constitutional Theory, University of Edinburgh and then Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, former Director, Think Twice (1997 Scottish devolution referendum “no” campaign) and Daran Hill, former National Co-ordinator, Yes for Wales (1997)

I&R ~ GB recommends: Enjoy reading and consider letting the noble lords know your opinion about democracy reform!

Heaven or Hell?

When walking down a street one day a Member of Parliament is hit by a truck and dies. His soul arrives in heaven and at the entrance he is met by a beaming St Peter, dressed in a smart suit, blond hair shining.
"Welcome to heaven" says St Peter. "Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see high officials here, and we weren't sure what to do with you."
"That's no problem" says the MP, pride reinforcing his sense of authority, "just let me in."
"Well I'd like to, but I have orders from above: what we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one day in heaven, then you can decide where you want to spend eternity."
"No, really, thanks for the offer, I'd usually jump at the chance to spend some time with the less fortunate, you understand, but I've made up my mind and I'd like to spend eternity in heaven" says the MP, smoothly.
"I'm sorry, but orders are orders."
And with that the MP feels himself falling down a tunnel towards a red, shimmering, light. He's immersed in the light, then, suddenly, as if he's come to his senses, he finds himself standing in the middle of a beautiful golf course. Nearby he sees a white painted club house. Standing in front of it are past friends and colleagues, beaming and beckoning, holding flutes of champagne. They greet and shake hands, with much back slapping and laughter, and spend the evening reminiscing about the good times they had while getting rich on tax payers' money and sponsorships.
The next morning, after a restful sleep, they play a friendly game of golf before lunching on lobster, caviar and champagne. Also present is the Devil himself, who entertains them with a jovial speech. He really is a nice guy. They are having such a good time that before he realises it, it is time to go. All these friendly people give him a hearty farewell as he feels himself accelerating upwards towards a bright white light and the gates of Heaven.
"Now it's time to sample the delights of Heaven" welcomes St Peter as the gates magically swing open. The MP fleetingly wonders if the Christian Heaven is the same as the Muslim one, as he strides inside.
24hrs drift by with the MP moving from cloud to cloud amongst a group of angels, singing along to the harp and feeling a warm glow of security and contentment.
St Peter returns. "Now that you've experienced them both, where would do you want to spend eternity?"
The MP puts on his 'reasonable' face, though he's already decided. "On balance... and I would never have believed I would have said this... I mean Heaven has been idyllic... but I think it would be prudent if I spent eternity in Hell."
"Final answer?"
"Final answer."
And immediately he feels himself plummeting back to the red shimmering light. Passing through it he lands with a thud in a bunker. Peering over the rim he's bewildered to see that it's a crater in a desolate world of volcanoes, ruins, waste and rubbish. He sees his friends gathering up the effluent, stooped under great black bin bags of the stuff, all split and dribbling, as more trash falls from the sky.
The Devil comes and puts an arm around him.
"But I don't understand" stammers the MP, wondering what emotion to play. "Yesterday I was here and everything was beautiful. What's going on?"
"Yesterday we were campaigning... But now that you've voted......"