Democracy 2.0- Alternatives to the current governmental system

So now we reach our final article in this series. It’s an article for me which will probably be the easiest to write because it allows me to delve into my own passion for political society. But despite that huge appetite for all things political, I am unique in that my friends and peers do not share that appreciation. I have chosen to explore this passion through reading books, watching parliamentary proceedings and other things of this nature. Some of my friends (and they know who they are) have an active disdain for politics, so why the difference?

How does a passion begin? Like all aptitudes it begins at an early age and is shaped by the circumstances and education of the individual involved. Like a child playing a musical instrument, the key is getting them involved as early as possible and reinforcing this involvement with frequent reminders/lessons. Hobbies and occupational pursuits formed when young can shape an individual’s life. How can we apply this to the political process? Education.

I’m not talking about indoctrination of the youth, far from it, I’m talking about specifically defined stages/nudges towards the development of a general understanding of the political system from the get-go. It can start with a simple lesson in nursery/primary school before graduating to more in-depth discussions as children age. Simply put, it’s about installing the political process in our schools, so that tomorrows voters are aware and active in political discourse.

At present, the only political education that school children receive comes from their own pursuits and the limited explanations afforded during history classes. They receive no up-to-date knowledge about today’s politicians, the difference between political systems and how political decisions affect them. We give them the ability to vote at age 18, but no practical reason to do so, and you wonder why they don’t want to.

Knowledge is power

Giving them any sort of knowledge could tip the scales, it could give them the motivation. Practically, how would such a plan play out? A lesson or two every year during primary school, just asking simple questions like, who runs the country? What is a law? Even a trip to a council office, small things like that. Build them up as individuals get older and then when they move into senior school, make it a more regular and detailed occurrence. This subject should not be optional, it should have the same bearing in school as English, Maths and the Sciences. I’m not talking about dropping a subject or adding to our teenagers already large educational burden. We need to give them greater real world studies as many have called for with education on personal finances.

Drawing from my own experiences, towards the end of my schooling we had a regular lesson called general studies, which was widely regarded among my peers as a joke course. Even today, I can’t think of a single thing I learned in it, yet I came out with a C at GCSE level. Make room for politics in the lesson plan and while the rewards may not be immediate, they will come. We will breed generations of children who know what a politician is, what he or she does and how it affects them. This knowledge can change the face of society.

But beyond schooling and education, how can we keep that knowledge and enthusiasm going, in a way that is unobtrusive and does not endanger freedom of expression? The key to this process, as it should be in the whole political process, is transparency. We need to show the practical results of the political decisions taken.  When a politician agrees to do something, which affects the local community, the community should be made aware of the politician’s involvement and his/her reasons for doing so. It should be published in notices across the affected area, in the same way that the council publishes notices of community works.

Community engagement

These notices should also be replicated in the local paper, so that those who are not in the area affected can see how things are being done and discern motivations behind political decisions. Also, do we see politicians in our local areas? Quite often no, even during election season. Politicians should be made to tour their constituencies on an annual basis, all throughout their parliamentary career. This needs to change and with increased voting turnout this will. I can see the logic in the minds of the politicians, a few scripted events rather than a full tour, but with increased voter turnout comes the increased chance they might get ousted, so it’s definitely in their interests to do more.

And more could not only encompass more presence in the local community but more interviews in the local papers, perhaps even a regular opinion-led editorial in a local newspaper. However, great care must be taken to ensure these do not become a de facto party political broadcast. Community fairs, leisure events, market days, these are all events in which a politician can show their face. They might be busy, I hear you say? Well, politicians are very busy people. I acknowledge that but they are public servants who have very little connection with the public they serve and that to me is wrong.

Annualised events and community initiatives, while laudable, can be forgotten. They can become routine, so how do we reinforce positivity and awareness of politicians? Well, everyone loves a public holiday, so why not a public holiday on behalf of politicians? America has presidents day, how about parliamentary day? It wouldn’t need much organisation and could be in one of those void periods during the year when no public holidays occur.

Another way to keep politics in the minds of people is to advertise, not in the partisan way of the party political broadcast, but in an independent way using non-partisan language. Slogans such as: Politicians fighting your corner, if you don’t vote, you go unheard etc. Politics is our product and we can use the latest advertising techniques to ensure that this product is something which is prized and wanted by all.

This can extend to print, online and broadcast media but it must be done in as simple as possible a way to avoid being seen as the extension of some darker totalitarian agenda. Slogans must be uniform and non-partisan, together with being easy to understand. A no frills version of political engagement. In this age of the instant celebrity, the utilisation of celebrities, sporting heroes and others of note in such a campaign is a virtual prerequisite, as people will increasingly do whatever celebrities tell them. Entire trends are built on celebrity input, and the influence of this on the political process can bring a lot of weight to bear.

Shock and awe

In a lot of ways, merely increasing awareness of the political process can make up a lot of ground in winning voters back to the ballot boxes. However, while it may bring them back, if you want to truly change the nature of politics and democracy, it needs to be more than just awareness. We need dramatic and real change. This change cannot be merely initiated by the politicians themselves, the public must also play its part or the engagement will become a fad, something to be brushed off within a matter of months.

Active engagement at all levels is an absolute necessity if these reforms are to be successful. There also has to be an acknowledgment at every level that the current system is failing, that we can do better. To achieve this acknowledgment, we must know all the facts and the only way to do that is to create dialogue and get the views of the electorate. An incentivised survey is perhaps the most obvious way of addressing this issue via targeted questioning. Questions could include: Do you trust politicians? Have you voted previously? Do you vote? Why don’t you vote? All we are talking about are simple questions which get to the heart of the issue. Why is the voting count in this country so low?

After a predefined period, the results must be published in as wide and open a way as possible, and there must be an active commitment from the government and political parties to work to address identified issues. Importantly, to avoid a cloud of negativity, this must be presented in a positive way, as a period of national introspection and renewal. I say a positive way because you only need to look at Brexit to see how an issue has become so divisive and so damaging to this country. Brexit is a triumph for the British electorate, and while there will be consequences of our decision to leave, the reality is we chose it, despite these issues.

A political renewal and change process must also be a granular choice. We must choose to acknowledge our system is not working and then work on a new one. That is when Democracy 2.0 can truly begin.

Democracy 2.0- Current political parties and the way they could be changed

The political party is a very modern institution, born out of the twin needs of dealing with a population explosion which has occurred over the last 500 years and the need for a scaled down form of governance which moves beyond existing feudal lines. However, today’s political parties have more in common with businesses than their landed ancestors. They are juggernauts which create, respond to and aim to harness the general populous towards a particular ideology. Political parties of today use terms like left, centre ground, right wing that are equally at home on any football pitch and, in a sense, we as the public form the football.

But what does it all mean? The terms are rather superfluous when it comes to your average voter, who will base his or her political choice on factors which are largely independent of these parties. For example, a trade union individual is more likely to vote Labour while an entrepreneur is more likely to vote Conservative etc. In addition to this, you have the so-called cult of personality, i.e. the voter will vote for the party leader or political personality they like, independently of their own political bias and in some cases completely contravening their prior voting record.

To the casual observer, this melting pot of factors can make political parties seem like crazed groups of idiots screaming at the tops of their voices to anyone who will deign to hear. But if you look closer, you will see their perceived insanity is a very sane operating system reliant on two things, creating white noise around their own policies while creating enough negative sentiment around their opponents.

Manifesto destiny

We begin our journey to the reform and reenergising of democracy with perceptibly that most simple of documents, a party manifesto. Manifestos are as Wikipedia will attest the “published declaration of the intentions, motives or views of the issuer, be it an individual, group, political party or government”. But do any of these individual terms apply to the political manifestos of today? Maybe they do and maybe they do not.

Today’s political party manifesto’s share many similarities with your average restaurant menu in that they contain a number of delectable treats designed to entice, but also increasingly costings for those treats. The fully costed public policy is perhaps a product of the recent parliamentary policy of austerity but has been used in many countries successfully for many years.

However, these documents can be extremely complex and beyond the attentions of most traditional voters. In addition, they can often be buried within websites of political parties, making them inaccessible to all but the most ardent of politicos.

So how do we bridge this gap? Two ways: We require all political parties to develop simplified versions of their larger manifestos, reducing them down to a maximum of 10 bullet points. These bullet points must all be on the same uniform subjects i.e. healthcare, benefits, taxes etc. Secondly, all political parties should be required to publish these manifestos in a side-by-side publication, either a newspaper, online website or social media post. In this way the voter would have a checklist style comparison site for political parties, allowing voters to select what party they feel best meets their needs.

Spin cycle

But this already exists, I hear you cry! Permeated by media outlets such as the BBC, Sky News etc. And you might well be right, but look at the names, they are all media outlets controlled by individuals with stated interests, interests which can be manipulated to suit a specific bent. Another good example are newspapers, which can display political leanings towards one party at the expense of another. These organisations would not lose out, in fact they could build coverage around the development of manifestos, interviews with individuals involved and organise editorial in preparation for the run up of publication.

The issue is media spin, the use of specific techniques or language to present an issue in a favourable way: how do we avoid this being used by media outlets? Simple, you make it a criminal offence to alter or change the manifesto during the printing process, and you also invent a media code of conduct specifically for the manifestos’ printing that you require all media outlets to sign up for or they don’t get to print it. Simple. Why would anyone sign up to such a code? The loss of news this big is not something the news outlets can afford to do.

Now we switch tack, from the manifestos to another big issue. How do we allow new parties to flourish? The most obvious example of a political party suffocated by the present political environment is the Change UK party, a party made up of exiles from the Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour parties. Regardless of the political stance of this group, they had a view on the Brexit process which made them unique and worth voter consideration. But instead they never got the chance to figure within the process. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, look at Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which for me is UKIP 2.0. It has been able to garner significant financial support and has used this in European election wins making it a real political challenger. Are their ideas any more or any less valid? No, but they’ve been able to utilise infrastructure and finance to get a message and candidates out there.

A crowded parliament

Do we need more political parties? Arguments can be made for both yes and no, but the decline in voting turnout for me proves all people’s views are not being represented by our current political parties. However, great care must be taken to ensure the legitimacy of these parties and that voters time is not wasted by silly ideas like the green bins for London party etc. How do we ensure this? We refine the process for setting up a new political party, make it like a Dragon’s Den style business environment where only those individuals or groups that are truly serious and good enough receive political party status.

A simple political style business plan would weed out the serious candidates from the non-serious ones. There should be a template of requirements to do so, as well as a specific interview process conducted by either a body made up of ex-MPs or an independent body such as the Electoral Commission, which should be repurposed and receive increased funding.

We also need to make it easier for existing MPs to join new parties but make it a less frequent occurrence. At present a member of parliament is tied to a specific party until they leave that party, be it via a defection to another party, standing down as an MP or an election loss. Limiting MPs to one political party change in every fixed term parliamentary cycle would give the option to do so without the farce of defection. It would also stop the present flip-flopping of certain MPs, which has brought the collective distrust of politicians.

Divided loyalties

At present, the defection of an MP from one party to another is seen and used as a slap in the face for the party that individual leaves. It’s a cheap trick that is used a lot but doesn’t engender a positive opinion of politicians. To combat this, MPs must be forced to declare their party choice for the next parliamentary cycle and must only be allowed to change party upon the presentation of valid reasons to the local party in which they serve or with the consent of constituents. If the individual changing their party prior to an election is a good public servant, then they will be selected regardless of their political allegiance.

This ability to change parties would allow new parties to attract new members from inside the parliamentary sphere, increasing their stature while also increasing their membership. Another issue concerns the treatment of MPs in the party of governance. While MPs are referred to by other MPs in parliamentary proceedings as my right honourable colleague, friend, etc conveying the semblance of respect, often these individuals are disrespected by other members publicly.

This most notably occurs in election season where individuals from all sides participate in mud slinging and disrespecting of opposing MPs. This disrespect and frankly fragrant mocking does not engender a spirit of trust and strength required to sustain voters. Abuse of politicians by other politicians should not be tolerated, as abuse of MPs by members of the public should also not be tolerated. But to end the abuse of politicians by members of the public, we must first create a new climate among MPs and the only way to do that is to strengthen rules governing MPs so that behaviour is consistent with the highest ethical and moral standards.

Politics is the biggest and most profound thing we will encounter in our lives, and people need to be as respectful of those who take up public service as they would of any other individual. But that takes trust, honesty and time.

Democracy 2.0: Alternative approaches to voting and the appointment of MP’s

As a political system, democracy cannot function without the consent of the people it serves, and the surest way of confirming that consent is to encapsulate that consent within a political choice: Voting. It’s a remarkably simple process which allows the determination of binary and non-binary choices within a nation state. However, in recent years the percentage of people choosing to participate in the voting process has fluctuated wildly, decreasing in some years while increasing in others. The problem is that in both cases, turnout is still not what it needs to be to make the democratic process the most efficient and reflective model of society.

What if we could make the system so appealing that voters would flock to polling booths in their droves? What if we could engineer a system which delivered 100% voter turnout, in election after election and referendum after referendum?

Consider if you will the implications of having a 100% voter turnout. Every citizen is engaged within the process, none is disadvantaged. Although a citizen can still retain the right to complain about instances where public services are not delivered, they are now engaged enough to vote in a process which will enable them to change that delivery. Cries of “my views are not represented” become a thing of the past. Greater engagement in the voting process would work, in concert with other reforms presented in other articles to close the disenfranchisement gap present in democracy today.

Fundamentally, why do people not want to vote? As an advocate of voting and engaging in the political process, I struggled to understand why someone would not want to vote. It’s like participating in Game of Thrones (or perhaps not that extreme) but you see my point. Then I thought about it a little more, trying to put myself in their shoes, considered the current political setup and it seemed a realistic viewpoint.

Given the conduct of politicians, given the lack of practical differences between political parties and given their overt lack of interest in obtaining your vote, why would anyone vote in such a process? To address this issue, we need to take it apart, piece by piece. First issue, which is probably the simplest to deal with is voting on weekdays. Individuals who do a full 9-5 or in some cases an even longer day have no time to vote. Who’d want to after a hard day at the intellectual coalface? It’s no coincidence that often the biggest turnout in voting is from the elderly and retired individuals. So, when’s best for this to take place? The weekend would be the logical choice, but it’s not as simple as that. The Electoral Commission would be required to appoint staff to cover a process occurring outside of office hours, resulting in extra expenditure to the public purse.

Politician Idol?

So, what’s the solution? Allocating more money to the process, something which would work in principle but there will always be that dissenting voice which says no. But would a guarantee of more voters turning out sway the decision? An argument can be made that it would. Political decisions could be seen as definitive with no room for the inevitable “it’s not truly reflective of public will” debate.

Introducing increased technology into the voting process may seem like a good way of increasing voting, after all technology exists to make our lives more convenient and processes more accessible. However, the roll-out of an electronic voting system, either through a phone app or online site, would be an immensely expensive and time-consuming thing to do, with the cost spiralling potentially into billions. Also, technology is not infallible, apps can crash, internet sites can be hacked or cloned by individuals with nefarious aims, or even rival states intent on sabotaging political structures. For all its faults, the current voting process is the path of least resistance.

In the absence of making voting a weekend experience, the most obvious methods of encouraging increased participation in the voting process are to incentivise voting or alternatively disincentivise non-voting. So, what do I mean by incentivising voting? Financial incentives would be the most likely approach, with voters being paid if they turn up at the ballot boxes. However, this sort of scenario would open the voting process up to potential malfeasance and corruption, with registrars taking bribes or potential robbery of funds used to pay voters. Another potential method of incentivised voting could be a reduction in council tax if individual participate. If it gets voters through the door, then it will prove its worth, especially in reducing the current burden on the Electoral Commission.

On the other side of the coin, disincentivising non-participation in the voting process could also be just as easy. Simply remove access to benefits or increase the financial burden on individuals. Individuals must be made to understand that non participation in voting is not something to aspire to.

Incentivising the voting process

We have to turn the perception of voting away from the current negative standpoint to a more positive standpoint. To coin a marketing phrase, we have to get “bums on seats” and keep them there. One often muted but never followed up on method is to widen the age restriction for voting to include individuals under the age of 18, with the incentive being to be considered an adult. The age of 18 is considered to be a watershed, in which individuals are given the right to drive, they finish their education and so on.

Having the opportunity to vote, while a potent symbol of adulthood does not necessary guarantee that the individual will vote, after all there are lots of over 18s who don’t vote even with the opportunity. So, the emphasis has to be on drawing those young people into the process, through targeted campaigns and inclusive politicising by all the main parties. However, in allowing individuals to vote who are under the age of 18, you effectively triple the burden on the Electoral Commission because of the need to add these people to the voting rolls. So, is the burden worth it?

Another method of increasing voter turnout could potentially be giving voters the opportunity to select their own party candidates. Under the current system, individuals can be placed on the ballot merely by making a £500 deposit and submitting a few forms. While this may seem simple, the problem comes when campaigning begins because no matter the person’s political standpoint, money talks and the most likely candidate to win is the one who can command the most campaign financing.

Levelling the playing field

But what if you take that advantage away and level the playing field? Take the campaign out of the hands of the prospective MPs and have an external entity run it. Have every candidate submit their intended policies to that entity, for publication in a unified document sent out to every voter, a sort of candidate go compare if you will. Shift the emphasis away from the bluster and back to the fundamental question of choice: What do you do differently to him/her?

Each candidate will, broadly speaking, campaign on the same sorts of issues. These can be laid side by side on a page as simply as possible. This would have the effect of providing greater information to the voter. Simplifying the choice involved and making it easier to do so. Existing MP’s could be forced to declare what they have done in their current tenure and what they plan to do alongside these other candidates.

Force the aspiring MP to really put some thought into their political stance beyond just party lines. Make it relevant to the community they serve, so the public service element of politics swings back into consciousness. We need to make being a politician an occupation worth aspiring to, like being a footballer or a celebrity.

So how do you increase the appeal of becoming a politician? How do you increase the appeal of any job? It’s a chicken and egg scenario. We have to improve the process before we can create the conditions for increased appeal. Positive depictions of politicians, away from the constant bickering and child like behaviour do not help. We need our politicians to sign up to a better standard of behaviour and as anyone watching the last few weeks in parliament will tell you we need it now.

If voters respect politicians, they vote for politicians, and respect is only gained via trust. Trust comes from openness and openness in the political process is something we can engender with these changes. The natural by-product of this respect is the increased appeal of becoming a politician so that it is an occupation which not only is something to be wanted, but something that actually works within the political structure to a positive end. Regardless of the need to change democracy, the rehabilitation of the public image of politicians is something which should be undertaken as soon as possible.

Once this is achieved, voting will become a necessity for all.