201 - Democracy fail

As the country heads slowly for less instability, so the press is beginning to allow some of the wiser, if somewhat less instant, heads to be printed. That doesn’t stop the daily idiocies, of course. The Guardian Long Read struck me again1; this time I found the history of the Remain campaign, 20160705 and I thought it well written and informative, modern history. Just because the press is the enemy doesn’t mean that all of them are hateful (or hate-filled) all of the time. Like the Times journalist who killed off Andrea Leadsom2.

In no way am I to be mis-understood as thinking Brexit is a failure of democracy: I think the largely opposite, but a referendum is but one expression of democracy. The failure, as explained in the previous essay, was in communication with the people. If the political classes think the result is the ‘wrong’ one, they they are as much to blame as anyone else who pushes opinion upon us. I read lots of complaint (hey, this is Britain, moaning is the way of life) but the consensus is that we did vote that way, so we will exit. As predicted though, we have a host of people telling us what we were doing in making our votes. Consensus is slowly hardening on the opinion that the bulk of the population feels (felt on that day, certainly) un-included, largely ignored and was lashing out (at whatever, perhaps just lashing).

At some point we have confused democracy with elections. John Dunn3 wrote modern democracy … is principally the citizens very intermittently, choosing under highly constrained circumstances, the relatively small number of their fellows who will from then on choose for them. Now, given that the people voted in a way that disagreed with the political elite’s expectations and beliefs, we might well hope that much of the system is ripe for scrutiny and possible refurbishment. I doubt that this will happen as we will no doubt default to something called ‘stability’ meaning small-c conservatism (whatever it is, don’t change it). Whereas one could argue that ‘don’t fix what ain’t broke’ is proven to be inappropriate at this time, since broke is what we quite clearly have. Following on from Zombie Ideas, I explore this a little further.

Do read the Guardian on the doomed campaign (which opens in new window as is my default practice). I leave that to one side, since I cannot match that research and content.

If there is something wrong with the way we apply democracy, are there any suggestions how we might do it better?  One of the complaints over the referendum was that people voted while uninformed. The idea of making uninformed decisions strikes me as stupid. The idea of electronic plebiscites at frequent intervals also strikes me as impractical (and ignorant). But why could we not extend the idea of focus groups to being more like juries? I found this article, based on, I think, this book by David van Reybrouck.

I’ve suggested more than once that we could go back to the days of patricians and plebeians. What we have at the moment has alienated the people at least as much and possibly more than it has represented them. One has to wonder whether the government cares about the people. Oh, I’m quite sure many MPs do, especially the newer ones, but they are Parliament, not government. That body is also not only MPs but all the capital-e Establishment, vested interest and shrouded power pulling at strings. That body is not interested in the people, though it may be in some imaged version of the nation. I don’t doubt that every nation has such  problems. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use this opportunity to look at some ways of re-engaging the populace.

1.  One example was demonstrated in Ireland in preparation for the referendum in 2015 on, among other things, same-sex marriage. Eire is a very catholic country so this was not only a big political issue it was also a social one. Indeed, the process was wider still, reviewing the constitution for the whole island.  A process not unlike jury service appointed 99 people chosen largely at random [one third politicians, the rest citizens of the island], who were then charged with a public duty / service to study the problem and come up with answers. See here and here and wikipedia. Particularly, the sessions were streamed live, so one could observe.

  1. 2.   Flanders invited a lot of people to participate online and around 50%, or 700, participated. The large number were divided into moderated subgroups of 40-50. Resulting ideas were then discussed in person with 120 remaining participants (again 50% of those invited. I note serious drop-off at all stages, which must have been a problem when attempting to keep samples stratified). The link takes you to the article written by the relevant minister, Sven Gatz.
  2. 3.   Australia came up with the idea of a people’ senate and was discussing it in 2009. What they call a citizen’s jury is used to develop policy, especially where there is no ‘right’ answer. Try reading about this method for having a coherent nuclear fuel policy. There are several such stories on the new democracy site. What is clearly popular is that, in effect, some people who do not have a vested interest in the result (except that it be the best they can come up with) represent the larger population. They still need advisers but, in representing the wider ‘people’, they are given power to ask lots of questions and demand proper answers. Thus, it is hoped, the same wider population will support whatever their citizen’s jury come up with.
  3. 4.  Canada has [promised (2015) to use sortition to provide electoral reform and has a history of so doing. Try this in British Columbia in 2004.

So, new word, sortition. In governance, sortition (also known as allotment or demarchy) selects officers as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates [wikipedia]. In the context of more inclusive politics, these are citizen groups with political advisory power (citizens' juries or citizens' assemblies). It goes with the idea that was put about when we (the UK) were discussing better representation in the House of Lords, appointing citizens by lot for a period of up to five years. And why not? Imagine not only doing that, but having a frequent blog or weekly tv programme in which the appointee reflects on what they’ve discovered (or not discovered) each week, how difficult it has been to come to an opinion, who has been interfering – it could be absolutely brilliant at engaging the population more, generating some trust in political representation. Similarly, a tv series following any (every) sortition as much as allowed as they wade through the process would be very good. Real documentary.

So what I would argue for is that we stop confusing election with the exertion of democracy as if it is to be the only participation we have. That is a conflation that must stop if we are to prevent further action such as Brexit. Yet Brexit is not to be moaned about but to be acted upon; this too calls for sensible action so that participation in democracy is seen to occur, else we will have further damage to the role of our politicians and their allied bodies. Sortition strikes me as an excellent way top proceed. Of course the state pays for lost (work-)time, preferably at a standard rate of pay commensurate with the expectations of the work done. Obviously it needs moderation to be kept on track. Like jury service it can be ducked if appropriate, but the groups of people, like focus groups, need to be representative and that probably means stratified so that they represent a suitable mix of population sub-groups. Obviously some such folk will need significant support in being able to do the work (which must be unbiased and provably so). There must be suitable recording (and I think streaming is one solution, tv coverage another). Like jury service, there must be no contamination of the opinions reached and due respect for the opinions that are reached.

Yet I can see that the Establishment might well be against such progress. I think it must yield and actively support such a movement. We need to return to feeling that Britain is less corrupt than other places (‘comfortably corrupt’ is a phrase that I’d like to see elsewhere), that somehow we do things ‘properly’. In the atmosphere that Brexit must engender—we have to be positive in our approach—this seems to me to be a suitable positive, inclusive action.

I dream, don’t I?

DJS 20160711

Happy birthday C.

Today we know we’ll have Mrs May as PM.












http://blog.libertarian.org.au/2009/10/30/an-upper-house-by-sortition/  2009



What IS democracy? Is it what we think it is?

Though I notice far too much is in podcast form and not available in print. I found an advert encouraging me to support ‘independent journalism’. If only it were, I would.  Note that, by 201707, the podcasts are also available as text. Somebody else must have complained effectively; it can’t have been my offering that made a difference.

2  http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/furious-row-andrea-leadsom-suggests-8382783  Not linking to the Times itself but to the feeding frenzy that followed, as per previous essay. I hear her trying to rescue herself from what was not even a slip of the tongue but was far more letting her mouth loose in public. So she’s not PM material, but the press forced this issue. And I say improperly. Conversely we can argue the Swallows and Amazons principle (if not duffers, won’t drown) – if she was really PM material, she’d not have put her foot in her mouth. Mrs May has some pretty foul things on her record. perhaps everyone does? Perhaps the press ought to publish ‘dirty washing’ for all such candidates, exhibiting equal distaste? There was a nice response recently to a demand to publish tax details; “I will if you will; set a time and place”. Citation not needed, I think, because it should have been said months ago, by anyone and everyone who was asked such a question.

John Dunn, Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy,  reference found here. Book on Amazon.

I was amused that, having purchased and read David van Reybroiuck’s book, and then written this, the following weekend there was a review of the book in the Times. Following; so I got there first by a goodly margin.

© David Scoins 2017