Thursday, 27 May 2010

Two Wolves and a Lamb

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding on what to have for dinner."

This quote, sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin but more likely from James Bovard, succinctly captures the "tyranny of the majority" argument. But people aren't wolves. Nevertheless, to stretch the analogy, thousands of years ago human hunters began to domesticate animals for their food supply. They realised that short term satisfaction doesn't always lead to long term gain. And today, many vegetarians would avoid slaughtering animals on moral grounds. Foresight, morality and empathy apply just as much to democratic decision making.

"Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote" is the second oft quoted follow on sentence. It highlights the ethic of fighting for freedom and justice that underlies our society. But it doesn't encompass all the elements of law and order in modern democracy; it ignores the firmly established laws and independent institutions, including the police and the courts, that help to avoid tyranny and underpin our way of life.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Queen's Speech

The government sets out its agenda for the next parliament in the Queens Speech, which is really nothing more than a grandiose rubber stamp, all pomp and ceremony. This wouldn't be necessary in the Interactive Democracy system because each new Bill would be driven by voter demand: voters would set the agenda, not the politicians. ID is different to the Swiss system of Direct Democracy which allows the government to play its own tune unless a petition greater than 50000 voters demands change.

You may assume that ID subverts the role of the Queen, but that's not the whole picture. The royals can continue to have a role under ID, much as they do today. They may even expand their remit and initiate their own petitions for change, being well positioned to garner public support.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Kluge - Gary Marcus

Gary Marcus writes in his book "Kluge",

"Humans can be brilliant, but they can be stupid too.... Every one of us is susceptible.... as books like Jerome Groopman's "How Doctors Think" and Barbara Tuchman's "The March of Folly" well attest."

One of the great strengths of the parliamentary process is its ability to reduce the risks of mistakes that a small autocracy of similar people are likely to make. Direct or Interactive Democracy can further reduce those risks by the pressure it puts on MPs and by opening the debate to an enormously varied population.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Dan Ariely - Dodgy Decisions

Behavioural economics shows that man isn't quite as rational as perhaps Adam Smith thought. In the following video Dan Ariely shows that how our options are laid out effects our decisions. It hints at the corruptibility of referendum.

In Interactive Democracy I would expect Parliament to argue over the options and layout of referendum, ensuring a debate on what goes before the public.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

New Zealand Electoral Reform

New Zealand has shown how to choose a new electoral system in a more democratic manner. In 1992 the people of New Zealand were asked (a) if they want a change then (b) which of four electoral systems they would prefer! The systems considered were: Mixed Member Proportional, Supplementary Member, Single Transferable Vote, or Preferential Voting. This resulted in 70.3% voting for Mixed Member Proportional according to this report.
In one way the ConDem (and Labour manifesto) proposal to hold a referendum on the electoral system is a step forward because the right of a people to decide on matters of constitution is implicitly acknowledged. But the sophistication of the ConDem referendum plans (AV or bust) is far removed from the New Zealand process.
Thanks to INIREF for their contribution to this post.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Safe Seats and Thrones

Nick Clegg claimed that safe seats beget a tendency to dodgy expense claims. Channel 4 Fact Checked it, clarifying that there were twice as many expense villains in the seats with the strongest majorities than in those with the weakest. That's not to say that one causes the other, but it is an interesting result. I hope it is an indication of the power that voters wield.
Safe Seats are allocated by parties to those politicians with the potential to sit on the front bench, indicating the power that parties wield in the careers of candidates and the tension between loyalty to the party and loyalty to the constituency.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Declarations of Bias

In the lead up to election day, Britain's national newspapers declared their support for one party or another. This could be understood as declaring their bias and you may assume from this that their reporting is less than balanced. On the other hand, some papers seem to have switched their allegiance from one party to another, indicating that they are in no party's pocket, and the very fact that they declare where they stand gives readers the chance to factor that into their decisions. More here from Yahoo News.

I'd expect papers to be just as biased about single issues raised through Interactive Democracy and their contribution to the debate is both welcome and worrying, as they may have an all too powerful impact on referendum results. This power can be balanced in two ways:
  1. legal punishments for printing falsehoods;
  2. presenting all sides of the arguments on the interactive web site used for voting.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Alternative Vote Plus

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, chair of the Independent Commission on the Voting System, proposed this system be put to the electorate. It is not used anywhere else in the world. AV+ is a mixed system, using AV to elect local MPs with an additional selection from a list to rebalance the outcome to become proportionally representative. More here.

Referendum on Electoral Reform

Negotiations over who forms the next coalition government have seen both Labour and the Conservatives offer a referendum on the Alternative Vote, not the Lib Dems preferred Single Transferable Vote. Why, because AV is most likely to benefit the larger parties and STV is most likely to benefit the minor parties.

They could offer a referendum on two or three plans for electoral reform from the three main parties and, to my mind, offering a referendum only on AV is a cynical attempt to disenfranchise voters. It says that they really don't trust voters to make a fair and considered decision about the merits of each system, after hearing a broad debate.

Democracy? What democracy?

Driving Fringe Issues to the Centre Ground

Single Transferable Vote may result in the election of more fringe parties and independent MPs. This may encourage the centre ground parties to adopt policies palatable to the extremes. We have already seen environmentalism and immigration become central issues, but with PR the main parties may be encouraged to change that bit quicker.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Left to Right

Did the UK population vote in support of the centre left, only to allow a centre right party to form a government? (Labour and the Lib Dems are centre left parties and the Conservatives represent the centre right). Looking at the results from that perspective, is the country getting the sort of government it asked for? Or is our system of democracy not representing the sentiment of the majority?
It seems clear from the above graph that PR (with several MPs from each Constituency) would likely have resulted in a Labour/LibDem coalition. (The inner ring of the graph indicates votes and the outer shows seats. More here.)
Of course, Interactive Democracy would largely avoid all of these types of issues, because the voters would have to be persuaded on each policy.

Proportionality of Power

One of the arguments against PR is that it gives more power to the MPs from fringe parties: for example, the independents and those from single issue parties. This is because the government may need to win over their support to carry a motion or form a government. The fringe thus has a disproportionate amount of power.
But lets be clear, each seat in the House of Commons has the power of one vote, no more, no less. Rather, the influence of the marginals comes about because main party MPs can't act independently, purely in the interests of their Constituencies, because they are governed by the power of the party whips. So, from this perspective, it's not that the fringe parties have more power than they deserve, it is that average MPs have less.
Furthermore, with fair electoral boundaries and PR that allows more than one MP per Constituency, each MP is likely to have the support of similar numbers of voters, underlining the fairness of each MPs appointment.
Whether you agree with this analysis or not may depend on your perspective: if you cast your vote for a party to form a government or you cast it to get a local MP representing local interests. It may be impossible to have both!

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Deciding on Electoral Reform

The ConservaTories and LibDems are negotiating about forming a government. One of the central issues is electoral reform. Each party agrees that something must be done to make for a fairer voting system and each have suggested reducing the number of MPs, but they have very different proposals. On the one hand the LibDems prefer a Single Transferrable Vote type of Proportional Representation in which you rank your preferred choices (leaving blank the boxes next to the MPs you don't want). Each constituency can have several MPs. The Conservatives prefer First Past the Post but suggest that each constituency should have an equal number of voters (something that may be deemed fair for a PR constituency, too).

Wouldn't it be properly democratic, and avoid the self interests of each party, to put these choices to the electorate? Should we consider other referendum options too - the Labour Manifesto suggested a referendum on the Alternative Vote, which also allows you to rank Candidates but just one is chosen for each Constituency.

Interestingly, if the electorate were presented with more than two options, then should the ballot be counted on a FPTP basis or a type of PR?

The objective of the referendum should be to reach a clear decision, building a consensus from the degree of support for each proposal, yet be simple to operate. It should accommodate views on preferred, acceptable and unacceptable choices. To my mind it would therefore be sensible to allow voters to rank their preferences, if they wanted to, counting 1st place as worth three times the power of the 3rd place and the 2nd place as double the value of the 3rd place (1st is worth 3 points, 2nd worth 2 points, 3rd worth 1 point). No ranking is effectively a vote against that proposal. While the calculation may not be fully understood by everyone, the ballot paper would be clear and simple.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Morphing Boundaries

The objective of Proportional Representation is to give seats in proportion to votes. An alternative system would be to change the electoral boundaries so that each seat represented the same number of voters. The problem is that unscrupulous people may manipulate the boundaries to benefit their own party. But there is a solution: the boundary configuration could be morphed automatically.

With an electronic database of voters containing their postcode software could be developed to add or subtract postcodes until the seats had equal numbers of voters. The logic may be something like this:

  1. Sum votes for each seat

  2. Calculate average votes across all seats

  3. If Seat1 has less than average votes, calculate the deficit. If it has more than the average, repeat for the next Seat.

  4. If it has less than the average seat, look to the first adjoining seat. Does it have a surplus? If not repeat for second adjoining seat.

  5. Take surplus to eliminate the deficit by adding the nearest postcode.

  6. Repeat for each seat in turn until all seats equal the average.

This type of system would probably favour the main parties at the expense of the independents and single issue parties, as it is still a First Past the Post system. It would therefore reduce the risk of a hung parliament and increase the chance of a strong government.

The sort of database that this system requires is just what is needed for Interactive Democracy.

Refused a Vote

Hundreds of people who queued outside polling stations lost their right to vote when they weren't issued with ballot papers before the 10pm deadline, laid down by law. Understandably, many were angry.

While some would suggest that voters should have reached the polling stations earlier, others blame the resources available to support a good voter turn out and commentators on the BBC suggested that those in the queue at 10pm should have been let in.

My question here is Could a web based system suffer the same problems of overload if millions of voters were to make a last minute decision?

Clearly this is partly a matter of resource (servers, broadband and terminals) but also a matter of timing. Allowing a later deadline, perhaps midnight, would encourage people to access the system earlier, before they go to bed, and not wait until the middle of the night. The downside being, what could be an instant result may come too late to feature in the next morning's newspapers.

Whatever the details, a web vote could be easier, quicker, more efficient and more democratic than today's tainted Victorian system.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Interactive Democracy Reinforces the Main Political Parties

It seems to be a contradiction in terms to say that Interactive Democracy reinforces the main political parties, given that it gives voters more power, but it does so in a number of ways:

  1. It removes the need for single issue parties and independent MPs.
  2. It allows the government to blame the people for policies that don't work.
  3. It encourages people to get involved with politics and join the political parties - they can then be updated with emails about issues that are pending.
  4. It gives party members and activists greater power and involvement than they have today.
  5. The party gets real feedback on the reactions of voters to any proposal.
  6. The party leadership can concentrate on their core competencies of leadership, management, governance and diplomacy, without being condemned for one manifesto commitment or another.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Tactical Voting

In the lead up to the election there has been some discussion about tactical voting: is it appropriate to vote for those you really don't support, as a vote against some other party?
Tactical voting is caused by the First Past The Post system. Proportional Representation would discourage it in different ways, depending on the details of the PR system adopted.
Tactical votes are given for manifestos that aren't really supported, making the murkiness of politics even more opaque. Yet many would prefer this to "wasting" their vote or leaving the door open for a manifesto they clearly oppose.
Interactive Democracy may be operated with FPTP or PR, but voters could then vote for the individual policies they prefer, clarifying, to some degree, what they are voting for or against.

Horse Trading and Pork Barrels

Horse trading and pork barrels sound like rural terms. In Interactive Democracy they may have a rural dimension... let me explain.
Many people abhor the prospect of a hung parliament and they suggest that it will result in much behind the scenes horse trading and uncertainty. To garner the support of independent MPs, coalitions may offer them all sorts of sweeteners - pork barrel politics. This may be the case, or it could be that what some people call horse trading, others call debate and negotiation.
Interactive Democracy seeks to improve political debate by distributing votes on separate issues equitably across the electorate. It side steps the political wrangling and power broking of a hung parliament. However, there is still a danger of sweetening ID proposals if they can be structured to benefit the large urban centres where the majority of voters reside, to the detriment of rural areas. At least, that could be the case if city dwellers ignored the importance of rural areas to the national interest.... I don't believe they would.
(Please see this site for an explanation of the population map, above.)

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Hung Parliaments

The fear is that a hung parliament will result in ineffectual government with much uncertainty, to the detriment of the economy as investors get cold feet. However, there is evidence from the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and many governments across Europe (many of whom use proportional representation) that this isn't the case.
A Lombard Street Report said, after studying governments over the last century, "Coalitions have proven themselves to be surprisingly able to carry out major and painful fiscal reform. Perhaps more so than any political parties enjoying a majority and desperately wanting to retain it." While this can be good for deficit reduction, thought by many to be essential to a full recovery, it could result in much short term pain.

Votes Do Not Equal Seats

According to this report, in the last general election (May 2005) Labour had 35.3% of the votes yet gained 55.2% of the seats, 32.3% of the votes went to the Conservatives resulting in only 30.7% of the seats and the Liberal Democrats came off even worse, converting 22.1% of the votes into only 9.6% of the seats. Various designs of proportional representation (PR) are designed to redress this injustice. Proponents of the "first past the post" system (FPTP) say that it facilitates a strong government and avoids hung parliaments, yet history shows that FPTP can produce hung parliaments and PR can produce working majorities.

Interactive Democracy could be added to any of the existing or proposed systems, FPTP or PR, and would add greater fairness to any one of them by allowing voters to have their say on each issue. In effect it would allow us to choose the politicians we like AND the policies we prefer from each of the parties manifestos.... and give us the opportunity to suggest our own policies.