Power Inquiry

1. Political parties have been absolutely central to British politics for many decades. But in recent years the number of people joining parties or saying they identify with one or other of the main parties has declined sharply. So how can political party membership and allegiance be made more attractive? And are there more effective ways of involving people in politics than through parties?

The larger the parties the more disenfranchised I feel. I have a wide variety of views on many issues, some of which are not held by any of the major parties, and the views that are are spread around, certainly not residing exclusively in one party. For me to have to choose two or maybe three views at national level is a travesty. Parties are perhaps good for organisational issues and perhaps for encouraging consensus, but they are bad for democracy. We need parties to be less influential in the selection of our candidates and to have less power to force candidates to conform to their overall view.

2. Some people argue that the government at Westminster is too powerful. They have called for more responsibility to be given to local councils and devolved institutions. Other people claim that the influence of unelected bodies such as major companies, international organisations and appointed authorities is too great and needs to be balanced by greater powers for our elected representatives. But would these changes really encourage more people to get involved in politics? Would they help people feel more confident about the possibility of influencing political decisions?

I am very concerned about the power wielded by big business, but this is probably an issue appropriate for debate. Moving more power locally would cause more people to become involved I think. Reducing the power and influence of unelected bodies is a great idea and would help people to feel like the government was working for them, but would probably not have as large an effect. Greater powers for our elected representatives is probably not the way to do this, since many of them have conflicts of interest or are in other ways influenced by the unelected bodies.

3. Some people claim the media breeds cynicism about politics and politicians which discourages political interest and involvement. Is this true? If so, how can the media play a positive role in encouraging political involvement?

I think the media have been on aggregate neutral in terms of the image of politics. I hope however that one day we will be in a place where people vote based on the policies rather than their general feeling, or family loyalties. If this is ever to happen, we need the media to play a positive role; we need a single source that we can go to to find out the real differences between policies stated simply and non partisanly, and some expert, non partisan analysis of the likely effects of these policies, together with summaries of the arguments for and against. Until we really know what we are choosing, how can anyone vote feeling that they are making an informed decision. Beyond that, we need independant, non partisan analysis of the performance of the current government. With conflicting figures being bandied by all sides, it’s become impossible to know which figures to trust, or to find out what assumptions underlie them. An internet accessible archive for the easy researching of political policies and performance, that archives public commentary and contains both indepth analysis and simply stated research could fit this bill. That way, every citizen could easily inform themselves about the salient facts and arguments to the depth that they are interested in. The BBC are more trusted than politicians, and could play a large role in making some of this happen.

4. The number of people voting in General Elections has declined considerably in the last ten years. Turnout is also very low in elections for local councils, devolved institutions and the European Parliament. What changes would encourage a larger number of people to feel it is worth voting?

People have to feel that their views are represented, so changing the party system would be a good start. Another practice that makes a mockery of democracy is tactical voting. Tactical voting needs to be discouraged. The idea that people could get something better by voting for something different to what they want is abhorrent. A good way of discouraging tactical voting while increasing general fairness would be to change the system from first past the post to a condorcet criteron method. My favourite for this would be a form of Ranked Pairs method, which also diminishes the problem of vote splitting. Making it easy to vote for topics that really will affect peoples lives at a local level would almost certainly help, although such things would require technological solutions and things like that must be treated with care. Encouraging younger people to become politicians would interest the young more. Encouraging politicians to become more accessible – to respond to emails, perhaps keep blogs as some are doing would help. I think a clarification about the extent to which a representative should vote with his opinion, the opinion of his constituency or the opinion of his party would be helpful. It would also be sensible to have an option on the ballot paper for “I do not feel that I am adequately represented by any of these options”, that way at least people who believed the system was failing them could express that in a way that would have a chance of being listened to. Along with a “not sufficiently represented” option, a “I don’t feel that I’m sufficiently informed to make a decision” option could also be available. If such items were added, I would also have no problem with compulsory voting. Voting is a duty as well as a right.


5. Some people argue that voting in elections is not enough. They believe today�s citizens need an opportunity to discuss and have a direct say over individual policies through other means such as referenda, internet forums and public meetings designed to have significant power to influence political decisions. Would more opportunities to do this attract participants and would they encourage greater trust in the policies pursued by politicians?


I am very excited about the direct democracy possibilites of technology, however there are many difficult problems. It is an absolute must that any system that is put in place must have source code that can be checked by anyone to ensure fairness. Systems for people who are scared of technology must be put into place, perhaps a community internet cafe with very simple voting machines. Any citizen must have the right to check the machines are operating correctly. These problems could all be overcome, and I believe that if people are well informed and have the ability to make a difference to things they care about, then they will participate. Fora and meetings are beneficial, but mainly for discussion. To participate, people must feel informed and empowered. The BBCs iCan is a wonderful example of the way that technology can help get people who normally just complain to their friends to start to involve others and actually make advances. Once the major problems with the current system are sorted out, an advertising campaign that highlights the fact that individuals can change things with examples of ordinary people who managed political change in their communities, and a snappy slogan to indicate that people with strong opinions have a duty to try to change society rather than just moaning would be really helpful.

6. Some groups in society are very unlikely to be involved in politics. Young people are far less likely to vote or join parties than older people. The poorest sections of our society and black and minority ethnic communities are less likely to vote, join parties or take part in any sort of political activity. What action would encourage greater political involvement by the groups that are least involved with politics?

Everyone will be more likely to take part if they actually believe there is any meaning to what they do politically. Less representated groups in society (including young people, and normal non politician people) will be more interested in politics if they see some of their own representing them. For the young, schools can have a big part to play. Many schools have some sort of student political body, but they have no power. This educates the students that the political body is always subservient to vested interests. To actually interest students in politics requires that student bodies should have money to spend as they see fit, and are in positions to make genuine decisions that affect the students lives. They also should have power to appeal school decisions. This would teach students that campaigning can make a difference, and would make them more interested for the future. Also simply understanding political systems can make a great difference. Model Parliaments and Model UNs etc. with schools competing could increase interest.


7. Is there anything further about participation and engagement in democracy you would like to add?

I think there is a general perception of politicians as being essentially unlike ordinary people. In universities, the parties are peopled with strange activists or Borris Johnson-a-likes, on TV and the Radio, the politicians look strange and talk funny. Many think that politicians are weirdly liberal and PC and feel like the ordinary anglosaxon isn’t being represented because we have to be so careful to represent the minorities. This is an enormous concern of many people. I think education and articles specifically targetted to address this could help. A formal process for people who feel they’re being discriminated against by their council for being white/anglo-saxon/straight/not disabled/other non minority, would be useful so that these things are considered in the open, and the people can see that justice is being done instead of spreading disinformation. There is also fear of getting involved, because the current trend is the removal of civil liberties, and this makes people more reticent about revealing their opinions and trying to change things. Also there is a feeling that even when an issue is large enough to cause many people to campaign and march on it, the government takes no notice. This is probably due to the arrogance of the government, which is understandable when the only other electable party is unelectable. As long as we have a first past the post, two party system, we will always get arrogant governments that will continue to estrange those they are responsible to. Any true government should have a few vocal dissenting voices within it or we have no chance that both sides are being heard. Transparency is important, as is the fact that when representations are made, they should be listened to. The recent ignoring of large quantities of feedback from people using the internet in the national ID scheme consultation is an example of things that reduce peoples trust in the political system.


Resources:

  • The IDEA website is useful for voter turnout statistics in various countries, and for lots of other information.
  • The Power inquiry is collecting responses to the questions above.
  • The Electoral Commission is an independant body set up to recommend things to parliament.
  • The Ranked Pairs electoral method.
  • iCan from the BBC tries to get people involved.

Genocide Round Trip

In April, I went to see Hotel Rwanda, one of the few true stories of good triumphing that came out of the Rwandan genocide where Hutu militias supported by the Rwandan army, and quietly encouraged by the French army massacred nearly a million Tutsis, including women and children over the course of 100 days.

It showed how disturbingly helpless the UN force were in the face of murder and genocide, but it was good that it followed the story of a man who managed to save others rather than the many who tried and were killed. Reading into the events and background afterwards, it became more and more obvious that the rest of the world hadn’t just turned a blind eye to the problem, but at least France and the US had set back attempts to stop the killings. The UN general on the ground knew exactly what was going on in advance and had asked for reinforcements and a greater mandate but it was refused by the UN, who reduced his man power and insisted that his men used their weapons only for self defence despite the atrocities they were witnessing. I think it’s appropriate to feel angry about what happened in Rwanda, and Hotel Rwanda is an excellent way to learn about it and form a response. How many times are we going to watch massacres that make us say “never again”, before we start to do something about it? The word genocide was coined specifically to ensure that the world would act if it happened again. There’s a lot of good information about what happened in Rwanda on PBS’s site The triumph of evil.

One of the things that came out of it for me was the positive role Helsinki Watch had played there in publicising what was going on, when other agencies were quiet. When I went to their website the day after seeing Hotel Rwanda, I discovered that the UK was one of the countries believed to be circumventing anti torture rules by sending prisoners to countries where they could be tortured.

Fired up by the memory of Hotel Rwanda, I decided to take my own small stand and immediately went to FaxYourMP.com (which since then has become WriteToThem.com) to let my MP know what I thought. It was at that stage that I realised that I didn’t know who my MP was. I’ve moved a couple of times in England in the last year that I was there, and for a year since then I’ve lived in Switzerland. I decided to phone the electoral commission to find out where I was registered. Strangely, they couldn’t tell me where or even if I was registered, apparently the electoral roll isn’t computerised or something, so the best they could do was give me the phone numbers of electoral departments in every council area that I’d lived in over the last few years. Armed with a bundle of phone numbers I started ringing. At each one, I had to give a specific address, and they would tell me if I was registered to vote at that address. In the end, after phoning them all, I still had no idea. This was getting irritating, since the elections were coming up, and I actually wanted to vote.

Strange as it might seem, 192.com know substantially more about the electoral roll than the electoral commission. I discovered though that if you don’t do the free sign up, you can get some historical electoral roll information for free that otherwise you have to pay for. It’s scary what they know about you and the people you live/lived with. Various searches (and cookie deletions) later, I discovered that I had been on the electoral roll, but had been removed. AboutMyVote.co.uk gave me all the forms I needed to register to vote, but informed me that I was too late. In order to vote in the UK 2005 elections on the 5th May, I would have had to register before the 5th March, a whole month before Tony Blair even asked the Queen for permission to have the election.

Eventually resigned to my voicelessness I turned to The Power Inquiry in the hope of at least making my voice heard somewhere. You can read the ramblings about the problem with politics that I sent to them here.

One of the issues I wanted to talk about as I filled in the Power Inquiry form was the goverments obsession with ID cards. In theory, I like the idea of ID cards if done correctly, but in practice, I do not trust a government to issue them. One of the things that annoyed me about the governments handling of them was that their report had ignored a massive amount of feedback received over the internet. No2ID has a lot of information on the debate as it unfolds (including a nice idea, called ‘The Public Whip’, and a link to pledgebank, from the same people who are doing writeToThem.com and TheyWorkForYou.com).

Trawling google for more information about the UK ID card, brought me across this article from preventgenocide.org on ID cards as factors in genocide. It seems that there have been very few genocides that didn’t start with issuing standard ids with information on the holders ethnicity. If you didn’t find the fact that the UK governments website on id cards is listed as under the “Community & Race” section a little chilling (or at least in poor taste) when you visited the site, perhaps you do now. On the preventgenocide.org page, I found a link to the images. This one is the id card of a Rwandan Tutsi, a document that would have been the death sentence at any of the militia road blocks.

Interested in genocide happening at the moment? Read about what is happening in Dafur. You could fax your mp, or support charities working there.