Monday, 28 January 2013

How could we fix our broken democracy?

I was listening to Start the Week this morning (BBC Radio 4 9am Start the Week) and someone said that our democracy worked in the 19th century because the electorate was relatively small and everyone spoke / understood the same political / cultural language, but that now the electorate is so heterogeneous it is no longer possible for politicians to say anything very sophisticated because most of the different demographics will simply not understand or relate to what the politician is saying. So we are reduced to soundbites and tweets, and constant repetition of simple messages (e.g. that the deficit is all Labour's fault, or that the Conservatives are cruel and heartless and want to privatise the NHS).

And the biggest problem is that the professionalised political class are only interested in the very small minority of the electorate that occupies the mysterious and mythical centre ground and will decide the result of a general election in a small number of marginal seats. So, unsurprisingly, the great majority of the electorate are simply bored and uninterested in what the politicians (and the political media) are saying.

So what's the answer?

Why not break up the electorate into culturally / politically homogeneous groups? And each voter then decides for him/herself to which group they wish to sign up. For example you could have an environmental group, a business group, an NHS group, a taxation & benefits group, a none-of-the above group, a youth group, an OAP group, a North East of England group, a Defence group, a Constitutional Reform group (probably too small to select a single MP), a Womens' group (for all those who believe that there should simply be more women in Parliament, of whatever political stripe).

Once you have joined a group, the total size of that group is calculated. So if I join the Environment group and it has 5 million members, we can now elect 60 odd members of Parliament (each member representing approximately 75,000 voters). Anyone, from any party or none can put themselves up as potential MPs for the Environment group, and appeal to the members of the group for their vote. The top 60 candidates in the group will then be returned to Parliament. They do not represent the group except in so far as they represent the most popular strands of opinion in the group. There may be MPs from the group who are simply opposed to wind farms, or MPs who want to increase public subsidy to alternative energy supplies, or MPs in favour of massive spending on public transport at the expense of private motorists and road haulage. MPs elected by the Environment group may be members of one of the main political parties, or the Greens, or none.

The point is that these MPs will have been campaigning to a self selected group of people who believe the environment is important, who care about the issues and who are therefore, presumably, better informed than others and more engaged with the issues, and care enough to cast a vote one way or another. With fora such as the internet, twitter and so on it should be possible to conduct the debate and campaign in a way in which everyone is able to be involved, to communicate with candidates and voters (without the inter-mediation / distortion / selectivity of the public broadcast and print media).

Candidates can be quite open about their party affiliation i.e. that if elected, they will be supporting this or that party in Parliament. They will have of course to resolve and explain / convince this specialised electorate that their party will actually be sympathetic to the candidate's policies. The main parties may choose to field candidates within one group or another specifically to try and sell their policies in that group's field of interest.

I think the only serious objection that might be made to this is the loss of the local link between the MP and h/er constituency. In fact that could readily be resolved. If more than 70,000 people think that it would be good, in fact the most important thing, to have an MP for say NE Essex, they could all join the NE Essex group (or for that matter the Colchester group) and choose which candidate or candidates they wanted to represent that particular part of the world. A Manchester or a Yorkshire group might be big enough to select several MPs. I suspect a lot of people care a lot less about their particular area being represented than about their particular interest.

The other advantage is that this would produce a much more representative House of Commons (as in a PR system) but without the necessity of having "Party Lists". In fact, if I could persuade 70,000 people to join the David Simpson group, in which I am the only candidate, I could be elected without any party support at all. I would of course need a lot of friends on Facebook, or twitter followers, to stand a chance.

What about those who don't bother to join any group? One option would simply be to disenfranchise them on the grounds that they aren't interested enough in anything to vote. Or, all voters unregistered with any particular group are swept up into a general category sub-divided regionally so that I am able to vote for a single MP for say Northumberland, or West Bristol.

There are clearly some practical issues to be resolved - voter registration, the preventing of voters registering with more than one group, the creation on the fly of new virtual regional constituencies once the membership of the special interest groups has been established, how late can one join a group, what happens to the members of those groups which are too small to qualify for an MP of their own - do they just get dumped into the great unwashed general category, or are they given the chance to join another special interest group. And what about groups which are say bigger than 70,000 (i.e. get to vote for one MP but less than 140,000 i.e. get to vote for 2 MPs which would in effect disenfranchise say 60,000 people - hardly worse than what in effect happens in the current system. In larger groups this would be proportionately less of an issue. Still, if I belong to a group which has only managed to attract 120,000 members, and we get one MP as a result, that is arguably a lot better than no MPs at all.

Finally what is to stop a particular party creating its own group? Does it matter? If the BNP created its own group and they got more than 70,000 members they would be guaranteed a seat; except of course that they could not prevent members of the Anti-Nazi league or anyone else a) opposed to the BNP and b) who feel that keeping the BNP out of Parliament is more important than any other issue, from joining the group, putting up anti-BNP candidates and outvoting the BNP party members / supporters in the BNP group. A more logical and sensible group would probably be an Immigration group for all those who feel immigration is an important issue, whether they are against it or in favour of it. The point is that a small vicious minority could only exploit the system if the rest of the electorate were so indifferent to them that no one who opposed them were prepared to join the group to defeat them. The same would apply to any special interest obsessives whether they were pro or anti blood sports, pro or anti nuclear power, since no-one can be prevented from joining any group.

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