More or Better Responsive Democracy?

By John Hanson

To ask how democracy can be made more responsive is to imply that increased responsiveness is an improvement or that a lack of responsiveness is a problem. I think that it is a strength in the UK democracy that the Government is constrained by what the electorate want but not controlled by it. An example would be the return of the death penalty which I believe the electorate would have brought in if it had been given the choice but which Parliament repeatedly rejected. Of course whether this is a good thing or not depends on whether you think MPs should be doing what ‘the People’ want regardless of their own opinions.

To ask this as a question about Europe is to create a fuzziness over what the question is asking. Is this about improving the democratic processes in nation states or in the European Union? Nevertheless I do have some positive suggestions towards the end of this piece. First I have some comments in relation to democracy in nation states based on the UK system, which is the one I know something about.

I think there are three different types of issue that a citizen might want to raise with their elected representative:
• a problem they have themselves which they want help with, e.g. a benefit claim
• a general issue which impacts on themselves, e.g. a problem with benefit law affecting them
• a general issue which they particularly care about, with no impact on themselves, e.g. a problem with benefit law affecting other people not themselves
The first two clearly require that people (whether citizens or not, whether electorate or not) have access to their representative and that there is a beneficial responsiveness in a well-functioning democracy. I say “beneficial response” because it cannot be right that elected representatives simply do whatever they are asked. There has to be an assessment of the rightness of the request, how significant it is, whether effective action is available etc.

Someone with a problem themselves should have access to appropriate help and support, that is help and support where it is appropriate and to the extent that it is appropriate: there has to be an assessment, with a possibility of not being responsive. For example if someone has a problem with Polish people moving into their street the elected representative may well say they are not going to do anything about that.
Where someone is raising a general issue which is impacting on themselves then this is an opportunity to feed real life experiences of a policy or law into the process of revising them. It would improve democratic decisions if real life impacts and consequences are fed into the process. This still cannot be a kind of responsiveness that means the politician must do what one person asks. The politician in a well-functioning democracy should take on board what one person asks for, combine this with the experiences of others in an organised way and with expert opinion based on good research evidence, to form a judgement that balances these and all other considerations.

Where someone raises a general issue they care about, such as action on climate change or the re-introduction of the death penalty, then there are already processes whereby this feeds into policy and Government action. Politicians take note of an issue that keeps being raised to identify what people care about and what positions they are taking. This is combined with opinion surveys and regular scanning of media, including Twitter and social media. This is used to change or develop party policy, election manifestos and strategies for presentation of policies and manifestos.
This is all part of how democracy works in the UK presently, i.e. how Government is responsive to the wishes of the electorate. The key mechanism here is not the outcome of the last election but planning for the next election. The fear of displeasing the electorate and the hope of pleasing them is what keeps the politicians mindful of the wishes and needs of the electorate.

However this is also part of what is dysfunctional in our democracy. Knowledge of public attitudes is also used to work out how to misrepresent the party position in order to maximise votes by being ambiguous or vague. Marketing strategies can capture support by promoting a strong emotional idea without detail, such as ‘change you can believe in’, ‘make America great again’, ‘take back control’. Politicians also work the system by appealing or appeasing the voters who count at the expense of voters who will have not electoral impact on them. In this way the David Cameron government made savage cuts to benefits knowing that the voters who would be harmed by this or disagree with it would not lose the Conservative Party any seats, while it would help boost votes for them where it would count.

Another of the weaknesses of politics since the Blair government would be a tendency to react quickly to a news story or wave of opinion – in other words being overly responsive to public opinion. This promotes one issue to prominence without consideration of other priorities and potentially without solid analysis of what the situation is, what outcome is wanted from action to change it, what action will be effective in doing that and what other consequences of that action there might be. In other words the knee-jerk reaction to a media frenzy can lead to decisions that are not based on careful evidence-based analysis and consideration of the cost-benefit or in the context of other priorities.

I placed ‘the People’ in quotation marks above because it is simplistic to think that ‘the People’ are somehow one entity with one mind. In an election ‘the People’ do not decide what government they want, each voter decides individually what they want and these separate wants are counted together to find what the largest number wants. An example is Brexit where nearly half the voters wanted remain and slightly more than half wanted to leave. Now there will be a proportion who want a second referendum as well. ‘The People’ do not have a view on Brexit. Each individual has their own view.
Given this, how is increased responsiveness of government intended to provide an improvement? Responsive to who?

When a small group of people get passionate about something and demonstrate on the street, I believe this typically makes no difference. Sometimes a demonstration brings an issue to prominence or prompts political action because there is widespread support for the cause, such as the protests against the poll tax and the right of Gurkha veterans to settle in the UK. When violence is involved then the news coverage the demonstrators get tends to be about the violence and not the issue they want to raise.
When the same sort of protest or lobbying is done on line then there are three differences:
a) the cost of participation in the protest is low – a click, a share, a like – requiring little thought or understanding of the issue to participate
b) the protest communications can come directly to target people, whereas physical protests typically happen elsewhere and are experienced through media reporting, at a distance
c) the targets can be swamped with the protest communications which can outnumber any alternative opinions, whereas conventional protests remain small voices in the generality of different opinions
In this way an online campaign can, in my opinion, create too much responsiveness, i.e. the views of the passionate override the views of the many and close down careful thought, including the consideration of alternatives.

This leads on to the proposal that we have electronic voting by the whole electorate on every issue, instead of electing a parliament that does this for us. It seems obvious to me that voters would very quickly lose interest in voting several times every week, or every day, mostly on uninteresting parliamentary business. Although smart phone usage may mean that many people are happy to scroll through the day’s votes frequently, I think the tendency would be for most people to vote only for issues that get media coverage or an online campaign. Votes in parliament would depend on media frenzies, fashions and panics. Few people would want to engage with all the issues all the time or even most of the issues most of the time.
As well as the problem I mention above – possible quick and thoughtless participation – decisions could be made without context, without consideration of other priorities and consequences. Crucially voting would be without accountability. MPs can be held to account for how they vote. Parties can be held to account. E-citizens can click thoughtlessly without consequence. Nearly all votes would be decided by a tiny minority. There would be an oligarchy of the passionate and the could-be-bothered – which would not even be a consistent oligarchy but one that shifts possibly radically issue by issue, week by week.
Government as we know it would not be possible. No one would know what laws would be enacted next. It might be possible to re-think Government as the body that enacts the citizen votes rather than have policies of its own. But the citizen votes could switch radically according to who was engaged, who was not paying attention and which pressure group was able to mobilise voters, banning nuclear weapons one week, declaring war on Iran next. Requiring all citizens to vote on every issue would break down on the first day.

Perhaps a way of making this work could be to give the Government control over the legislative agenda, as now, but to have to submit its bills to public vote, in place of a vote in Parliament. There could be a requirement that a certain percentage of the electorate would need to vote for a vote to count. I think this would break down immediately due to lack of votes. Similarly an attempt to require all voters to vote would break down on the first day – with the vast majority not voting.

I think it is important to remember that most people most of the time do not care and do not want to think about politics as they have lives that are more interesting, more important to them and for some more demanding. The best way to engage them is to introduce an issue of high controversy where the outcome is important: the potential election of Marine Le Pen to the French presidency, Scottish independence, Brexit. Asking people to vote more or spend more of their time on politics is doomed to fail. As I said before you end up with an oligarchy of the passionate and the could-be-bothered, with a large sprinkling of the retired and nothing-much-to do (which the unkind might accuse me of being).
Democracy in the UK in my opinion needs to be improved not by increased responsiveness but by better informed voting, evidence based political decisions and robust independent assessment of proposals, implementation of policies and the outcomes achieved. There should be greater clarity on what are issues of value or choice and what are issues of fact or technical assessment.
A candidate or a party presenting a clear and complete manifesto to the electorate should be setting out their position on these four areas:
• Values / priorities– what they care about, what value positions they take

• Objectives – what they think the Government needs to focus on achieving

• Proposals to deliver objectives and values – policies and strategies and how they would work

• Administrative competence – their actual or expected competence in government

For the election of Donald Trump as president examples of these would be:

• Values / priorities – America first, reduction of taxes and regulations, foreign threats

• Objectives – stop immigration across the Mexican border; stop jihadi terrorism

• Proposals to deliver objectives and values – build a wall, ban Moslems from the US

• Administrative competence – self-made billionaire, the great deal-maker

Clearly whether you approve or disapprove of Donald Trump depends on whether you agree with these.

My proposal is that party manifestos should be required to set out the party position explicitly under these four headings. This would clearly separate questions of value and personal choice from questions of fact and operational proposals.

Voters are competent to choose what they think is right and what they think is wrong. They are competent to choose what they want for the country and what they want for themselves. It is their right to make these choices. They are not necessarily competent to decide what policy will bring about the desired result or how effectively a policy has delivered its objective once implemented. This applies to everyone who is not an expert. An architect or engineer is required to advise on how deep foundations of a house should be and what type of structure is safe. The person buying the house can say whether they like it or not and whether it provides the features they want.

So together with requiring parties and candidates to be explicit about their manifestos, I propose an independent assessment of manifestos and previous performance:

• Are the objectives proposed addressing actual issues?
• Is it plausible that the actions proposed will deliver the objectives?
• What are the costs and other consequences of the actions proposed?
• Is the manifesto set out clearly with definite and meaningful statements of value and policy proposals, rather than general vague statements intended to capture broad support while obscuring commitment to any particular action?
• Are they being delivered effectively?
• Are they achieving the intended results?
The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has proposed increasing sentences for serious crime as these have been too lenient. I suspect this is not based on any detailed studies of sentencing. I suspect it is based on prejudice and a calculation of how many votes it would win. I also suspect there has been a lack of consideration of the costs and other consequences of the policy.

Requiring independent assessments may be unworkable, as these could easily stray into what looked or actually was political. We already have something like this, as with the Bank of England giving an assessment of the economic impact of Brexit, which was derided by some and set aside by many. There are also reviews commissioned by the Government that inform policy such as the report on immigration and its impact, which can be acted on or not, or sink without trace. Journalists also fulfil something of this role but they can be partisan and their training, ethos, and the purpose of what they are doing, do not provide what careful academic assessment can provide. I think dedicated organisational structures are required to formally provide evidenced assessments clearly covering each of my bullet points above and this needs to be at the forefront of the democratic process in some way.

An alternative to e-voting by the electorate on all issues could be an indicative vote on priorities and policy direction. For example voters could be asked to place in priority order defence spending, NHS spending, Police, the environment etc. This would be used to decide where funding might be cut if necessary or additional funding provided as available, or which areas would be prioritised for government action or legislation. Perhaps this would need to be more nuanced, e.g. choose between increasing the number of doctors, increasing the number of nurses, re-structuring the NHS services, developing more capacity for health promotion etc. Deciding what options to be offered is itself political and there would need to be some appropriate process for proposing, challenging and deciding on what options would be put to the electorate.

I think this could be undermined by the tendency for popular attitudes to be shaped without looking at issues deeply or in the round. In the UK the main issues that voters want when voting for a Police and Crime Commissioner, it seems to me, is visible policing (i.e. Bobbies on the beat), less crime and cheaper policing. These are not compatible or very sensible: having policemen strolling along High Streets is very inefficient and ineffective in detecting or deterring crime; Police Forces do not have the capacity or skills to do a great deal of crime prevention as this is not what they were designed for; spending less on policing is incompatible with the first two. In a general vote on government priorities one can expect the voters to want more spending on the NHS, less spending on prisons, the Civil Service or MPs expenses.

A way of correcting for this popularism could be to reflect back the voter’s choices before they are finalised. In other words to set out what their priorities would mean in practice and ask the voter to review and make changes.

This could also create problems for the sovereignty of Parliament, analogous to the Brexit result. MPs could be required to enact things they did not believe in if the voters’ choices were sovereign. They could however be indicative or advisory rather than binding.

To address the issue of poorly informed voters and politicians, there could be a certification or rating system for news outlets. This could be based on independent and informed assessment, looking for such criteria as
• Qualified journalists and editorial staff
• Adequate staff establishment
• Governance processes
• Upheld complaints
• Awards
• Some independent assessment of quality of journalism
This would then give a rating score to a newspaper or news provider, analogous to the hygiene rating system for restaurants. It would require hardware, an organisation and therefore funding. Websites or news feeds set up to deliberately spread false news or those simply peddling uninformed opinion or prejudice, would get a zero or negative score, and the score would always be displayed in a corner of the screen or in print editions.
The best solution would be to provide better education. Education should adequately cover ethics, civics and politics, as well as providing an understanding of science, evidence, how to make sense of research findings and to distinguish between well-evidenced independent research and anecdotal and prejudice-driven alternative facts. It should also adequately cover news media and sources of information in the internet age – how they operate, how stories are constructed, how clickbait works and how money is made out of it. Similarly mandatory induction and on-going training for MPs would be a good idea.

I have very little idea how the democratic structures of the EU could be improved. Part of the problem, in the UK at least, is that most people hear nothing about what is going on in the European Parliament or what the EU Commission is doing. We generally only hear half-baked scandal stories or such things as the Brexit Party turning its back on Beethoven’s 9th, which no doubt is a good part of why a majority voted for Brexit, i.e. because most of what we hear are scandal stories about supposedly insane regulations for straight bananas and so forth. But it may be that what the EU does is mostly technical and uninteresting.

I think a Government of Europe formed by the largest party in the EU Parliament is probably politically impossible as well as creating issues of sovereignty in relation to national governments. Currently the appointed Commissioners have a political role, in line with French practice, rather than being civil servants delivering the policies of elected politicians, in line with UK practice. Replacing these with elected Commissioners, possibly MEPs, could be one improvement. If the electorate of Europe was asked to choose priorities and policy direction preferences as in my suggestion for national elections, this could be an important way of engaging the electorate with the EU, providing a voice for the electorate and bringing the EU under a more direct democratic control (in addition to the control of the elected national governments). When a constitution for the EU was voted on in France and the Netherlands, my understanding is that it was rejected in France because French voters wanted a more interventionist EU and rejected in the Netherlands because there the voters disliked the inclusion of Eastern European countries in the EU. These are issues they had no other way of voting about.

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