“How can parliament embrace digital democracy?” – A response

Summary

Some thoughts on John Bercow’s speech covered in a Guardian article

The article is here, and The Speaker’s speech (interestingly hosted on the Gov.UK rather than Parliament.uk site) is here.

Definitions and concepts

In the article’s short introduction, it goes straight into the concept of voting online without having even looked at the concepts of democracy and of social & digital media. Thus the door of the box slams shut before people start to ask how to think outside of it. As I’m sure many people are aware, there is more than one model of ‘democracy’. Also, the concept of social media implies a conversation – it’s more than broadcasting. 

Putting a cross in a box is a very blunt way of finding out what ‘the country’ is thinking at any given point in time. Remember just after the 2010 general election when politicians were falling over themselves saying “The country has spoken, we’ve just got to work out what they said” – or words to that effect? As I discussed in one of my first blogposts (see here) nearly two years ago, a cross in a box can mean one of many things. Do you like a candidate? A party in principle? The person you think will make the best Prime Minister? A specific manifesto commitment (or document as a whole compared to all the others)? Or are you voting for the person who has the best chance of beating another candidate you don’t like? Or something else?

One of the things that having conversations – and in particular listening – is that politicians can start to unpick all of that information tied up in those crosses. Inevitably, it’s a complicated business. The great thing about the current (and flawed) voting system is its simplicity. In principle, everyone’s vote is equal. The wealthy person’s cross on the ballot paper is worth no more than the not wealthy person’s. Yet as was discussed during the AV referendum, such is the nature of ‘safe seats’ that political parties have focused both resources and policies on those that live in the vital swing seats that win or lose elections. In a nutshell, the party that wins is the one that can convince voters in safe seats that they won’t sell out their interests while at the same time convincing voters in ‘swing seats’ (whose interests may well be different) that they won’t be sold out either. 

Civic society

For me, politicians need to address the concept of civic society before talking about voting. How you do this will depend on the audience. For example with school children, it might start with who/what compels them to go to school. For young adults it might be looking at the tax deductions from their first paycheque (or for those in receipt of benefits, a look at how those benefits are funded and why). Once these things can be discussed, explained and understood then you can move onto one of the next steps – such as the existence of political parties and standing for election. We found out what happens when this is not done during the recent Police and Crime Commissioners’ elections – hardly anyone turned out to vote and hardly anyone campaigned. 

Thus the functioning – and malfunctioning of civic society is for me the big picture. The various tiers of state administration, eg local councils, assemblies and parliaments are all part of this. One of the problems at the moment I’m finding is that party politics is something that switches people off. When I’m out and about in my community I find people have ‘political’ opinions but discussing party politics or current affairs is something that switches them off. The brands are toxic and too many politicians are unwilling to acknowledge this.

Where does digital democracy come in?

One of the things being elected to representative public office involves is turning up to lots of meetings and community events. I’m fairly lucky in Cambridge in that politicians from the main parties use social media and the best of them will use it to inform, consult and engage. Julian Huppert MP is one of several MPs that now crowd-sources questions for ministers prior to departmental questions in the Commons. People can see him putting questions to ministers and hear the responses back. Furthermore, social and digital media allow for a more continuous/conversational relationship between elected representative and constituent. You meet your MP or councillors at community events and can then follow them on the social media platforms. You can find out what events or gatherings are coming up that they are going to as well. You can also see the online exchanges they have with political allies and opponents.  You can push for an explanation for why they voted in a given way at a council meeting or in the Commons – with them knowing that a traditional ‘line to take’ from party HQ won’t cut the mustard.

Digital democracy complementing, rather than replacing ‘offline’ actions

I’ve been reading Ferdinand Mount’s book A Very British Oligarchynoting with interest his observations about the huge decline in political party membership. This was discussed too on Newsnight recently – showing that for quite some time membership of the RSPB and the National Trust are both separately far greater than the memberships of all of the UK political parties put together.

Both the book and the programme mentioned above cited the lack of impact on policy-making being a reason why membership is declining.That along with the preference of politicians to engage primarily with the broadcast media & favoured journalists to get messages out rather than through networks of empowered activists has helped mainstream politics become more passive. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve seen people on Twitter complaining that journalists or news broadcasters were not asking tough enough questions. That said, some journalists – in particular those on Channel 4 News have started crowd-sourcing questions prior to live interviews, with interesting results.

Making local government matter

I’ve touched on this in a number of blogposts about Cambridge – see here. One of the big problems in Cambridge – as with elsewhere is that powerful financial interests know how to ‘game’ the system for their benefit at the expense of the communities that live there. Hence why some of the blandest examples of architecture can be found in the new buildings in South Cambridge – especially around the railway station. Is it the fault of the council? Well…I don’t think it is. For all the bad press they get, in my view the institution has its hands tied. Having worked in housing policy and planning in the civil service, I’ve seen for myself how the system is skewed in favour of those with the money. Only recently I saw a semi-detached house that backs onto my old state primary school (where I’m now a governor) on the market for £750,000. It’s just a normal Victorian/Edwardian semi – not a huge mansion block by any means. 

As various councillors from several parties have told me, developers put in poor applications that inevitably get turned down, they do the minimum required to improve them knowing that a further refusal will enable them to appeal to a planning inspector to get the whole thing overturned by the Secretary of State, leaving a cash-stretched local planning authority (normally the local council) out of pocket. The more planning applications that go down this route, the more it costs local councils in fees which means less money to spend on other services.

Local government politics is a messy business, but…

…if people see for themselves that local politics cannot influence things in their local area, and find that being a member of a political party cannot influence policy at a national level, is it any wonder that people are not bothering at all?

Digital and social media cannot compensate for the shortcomings of the political system. Thinking that using digital and social media is another means of broadcasting (in an already advertisement-saturated market) will lead to people viewing it as another channel to be ignored. Ditto if politicians don’t listen and feed the views of constituents and members into decision-making processes. 

Finally…

Parliament engaging with digital democracy has to mean working out how people inside Parliament want to be influenced by the users of digital and social media.

***To what extent do politicians want to be influenced by the citizens using digital and social media?***

Because if the answer is ‘not a lot’, then politicians may as well not bother and simply point us all to the Parliament Channel, of which it sometimes feels that only myself and a few other people actually watch it. Politicians and parliamentarians need to give some decent answers to that question before asking how Parliament can engage with digital democracy.

 

 

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