Redesigning democracy for the 21st Century

So, another election set in the dark ages. Three parties to pick from, all of them unattractive. I am 49 and this is the first election where I don’t want to vote for any of the parties. I am very dissatisfied with the current state of democracy, especially in the UK, where we have all the means to make it better but choose not to because of vested interests.

Now that we have a good internet, we can and should redesign the democratic system to make it, well, more democratic.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the nappy. There are a few things right with the current system so let’s make sure we keep those.

The most important thing about the UK system is that it is a representational democracy. This is a good idea, whereas letting everyone vote directly on every issue isn’t. Remember all the stupid decisions that get made in student unions, where any idiotic proposal can be put forward and because only a few people will bother to vote on it, most of whom are its instigators, it gets passed. Our representatives also save us lots of effort by making most of the decisions for us, acting supposedly in our best interests (I’ll address this bit later).

Secondly, having a party-based system saves a lot of effort and confusion. In general, one party is likely to represent your allegiances on a wide range of issues much more closely than any of the others. It would be nice to have some say in the areas where you differ and which matter to you, and again, more later.

But already, we have a conflict. Today, you can vote for a party or for a specific candidate, but only some of the time will those goals coincide. You may hate the local candidate put forward by your favourite party. You may hate the party that your favourite candidate belongs to, but still want that individual to represent your local interests.

Another big problem is that party allegiances are spread very differently around the country. With a system that allows only one winner per constituency, we end up with a very distorted representation of the electorate. Parties with concentrations of loyal voters will get far more seats than those whose voters are spread more evenly. Although those who benefit from this will naturally support such a system, it could hardly be considered fair that some voters end up with far more representation than others.

So we could really do with a system that allows you to do blend both support for a particular candidate and support for a party. It would then be very nice if, even after the election, you could also make sure that your preferences on specific issues are also taken into account.

Simple. At an election, why not allow people to vote for the party of their choice and also for the local candidate of their choice. So you tick two boxes, not much extra effort. In parallel to the four-yearly vote, we could also have a database where voters can maintain a tick list on every policy preference. To save effort, their chosen party or candidate would fill in all the boxes according to their default, so people would only want to tweak a few decisions here and there. They could then modify this any time they like. At any point in time, politicians could consult the voter preference database to see what the electorate wants right now on every issue, and would be able to take this into account in their debates.

The advantage of the party and candidate voting system would come into its own in levelling the parliamentary playing field to eradicate the unfairness of unequal voter distribution. Voters would have a local representative who looks after their local interests. But when votes are taken on nationwide issues, each MP would have a vote scaled according to the national support of that party. So, if a party with a large national support ends up with too few seats, they would be given a bigger vote. Those with too many seats would get less than one vote each. With modern computing, it would not be difficult managing such a system. This system would be very beneficial to parties such as the liberal democrats, who always end up with far fewer seats than their proportion of the national vote would indicate fair.

In this way, each constituency gets the MP it wants, and each party gets the same representation in parliament that it got in the national vote. Such a system avoids the worst consequences of traditional proportional representation, which often results in the MPs being the least hated rather than the most loved, and also removes a great deal of the value of local representation.

This system could be dynamically applied in other ways too. Scottish MPs may be permitted a smaller (or zero) vote on English matters, and vice versa. Women MPs would get a higher vote on gender-related issues if they have too few MPs to be otherwise representative. The same could be applied to any racial, religious, geographic or demographic issues. The say that each MP gets would be proportional to the voter population that they represent in that domain. And of course, this could take full account of the voter preference database.

So, with a little application of basic IT in the democartic system, we could have much more dynamic say in the running of our country. It would be more representative of what we all actually want. Our local needs would be protected by our locally elected MP, and the say they have in each parliamentary vote on national issues would be scaled according to the national subscription to their party. And the voter preference database would act as a third voting component, ensuring that our MPs are seen to take account of our wishes on every issue.

All we need now is a bunch of MPs who care more about the principles of democracy than in protecting their own short term interests. Don’t hold your breath.

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2 responses to “Redesigning democracy for the 21st Century

  1. Ian, as a futurist, don’t you also want some means whereby those elected in the system can address the big issues and have a way of making the big picture decisions that are aimed at the most positive future outcomes? Most democratic systems find it difficult to do this.

    What you are suggesting actually increases the capability of politicians to manipulate the power balances in the system, which is what they love to do.

    I think we have to rethink democratic systems from the ground up.

    Good topic though!

    • Thanks Jennifer, we certainly do need to redesign them, but we have to start where we are. I tried to suggest a system that builds on stuff already familiar to voters. Check out my other suggestions on http://bit.ly/duD0ar, an open letter to our next PM. We don’t have any Obamas here in the UK, just a very weak choice of almost identical offerings.

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