Comment: Can allowing policy suggestions online change the way we think about democracy?

by Liam Byrne | 12.12.17

In the battle for votes, cyberspace is now almost as important as the doorstep as the place where elections are won. And that’s why it’s become a hunting ground for the trolls and election-winning cyber-specialists like Cambridge Analytica.

So it’s time for the digital democrats to get their act together and step up the work harnessing the online world to open up democracy. To help, I’m launching the People’s Plan for Digital. It’s a simple innovation, a new platform to harness some of the techniques pioneered by Geoff Mulgan at Nesta, new parties and city governments around the world, to help Parliament get digital policy right.

Across the world today, new players are showing us a different way of doing business. What some call “open source local government” is transforming the way citizens shape the work of the people who serve them.  Look at the way Wikipolitica, which emerged out of Mexico’s version of Occupy Wall Street. In June 2015 , it won its first Member of Parliament.  Look at the way Podemos has emerged from the anti-austerity Indignados movement to now govern the cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Zaragoza. Often inspired by an ambition to develop new ways to cooperate or to build an economy for the common good, citizens across Europe and Latin America are building new parties and now new governments to change the way we work together.

Despite all the challenges – and all the risks – these new methods are critical to our democratic renewal, because quite frankly there is a crisis of democracy now sweeping the world.

 In his extraordinary book, Ruling the Void, the late Peter Mair opens with a bold declaration: “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain they have become so disconnected from the wider society… that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.” That is a bleak assessment. And unless we take the bull by the horns and reinvent the way we do politics, I fear the late Professor Mair will prove a prophet.

There are two big threats to getting reform right. On the one hand, there is the Tories. They have consistently sought to muck about with electoral registration in a way that now means nearly a million people have fallen off the electoral register. That’s terrible for the integrity of our democracy.

But just as dangerous as the Tories are the technocrats. And let’s be honest, at times New Labour in office was a bit too technocratic. Sometimes it felt like focus groups had more power than party members. Like many, we tried to take the big decisions out of politics. We passed interest rate setting to the Bank of England. We took steps to ensure the NHS was much more independent. Like the Conservatives before us, we passed more and more power to the European Union. All of these changes made sense in their own way but after our ambitious devolution of power to Scotland, to Wales, to London and to Northern Ireland we simply stopped renewing, reinventing and revitalising the way our democracy worked or the way our party democracy worked. Under the pressures of office sometimes we drained the politics from public life. And ultimately that too was not good for democracy.

So I don’t think we can leave cyberspace to the cyber warriors, the Tories or the technocrats. We should instead think radically about how we reinvent the way democracy works in our towns, and cities and our Parliament. Look at the way the government of Madrid now uses digital technology to get citizens’ ideas for how to spend their taxes. Look at the way Barcelona uses new technology to debate new ways to use public space. Look at the way the government in Reykjavik is using new technology to keep citizens informed of debates they like.

If new parties can use new technology to reboot democracy across the old continent of Europe then I think the Parliament can do the same thing here. Back in 2015, the Speaker’s visionary Commission on Digital Democracy concluded that, by 2020, Parliament should be “fully interactive and digital.” Since then, however, very little has happened – although our emails are now much harder to get into after the recent cyber-attack on Parliament. I think we need to accelerate progress. So the People’s Plan for Digital is but one idea. It may fail. But let’s hope it’s quickly followed by many others.

This article was originally published by the New Statesman and is available here.

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