Ill-equipped for the 21st Century, Westminster Needs a Reboot

No issue has sparked as much public interest in politics in recent times as the Scottish Independence Referendum or Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader. The first, in 2014, produced lively debate locally and across the UK, achieved an 85% turnout, and contributed to an overwhelming SNP victory in last May’s general election. While the Labour leadership election piqued public interest in left-wing politics as 300,000 Labour members and 100,000 registered supporters voted overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn's platform.

This passion doesn't extend to Westminster. Unlike Scotland or ideological debate, the bellicosity, spin and over-rehearsed talking points of modern politics are not only unappealing but reinforce a political dynamic where many feel incapable of making a difference. Governments can't address deep social and economic problems without public input, which begs the question whether Westminster is currently ill-equipped to meet 21st century needs and could use a reboot.

This crisis is parliamentary and civic. Decades of high election turnout and mass-participation in unions, organised religion, and political parties have ended due to changing employment and economic conditions, evolving social outlooks and numerous revelations of corruption and ineptitude. These traditional interests have less money and members to mobilise and influence public and political opinion, as well as counter economic interests and their ideological allies within government. In this vacuum, wealthy individual donors and lobbyists provide much-needed donations to the smaller, more professionalised Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats in exchange for access. Conservative Leaders Group members, who donate £50,000 per year, can dine with David Cameron and key cabinet members at Downing Street while the best the public can expect is that Cameron will pretend to be a fan of their football team whichever one that is. This concentration of political power pursues mutual ideological agendas - currently welfare paternalism and austerity come ahead of housing prices, poverty and discrimination that define peoples' real daily experience of politics.

A  Digital approach could undermine the Westminster monopoly on democracy and enable a more perpetual idea of democracYDespite disillusionment and greater social isolation, we have no less desire for collective action. Political outlooks have become more fluid and less suited to traditional top-down civic approaches, with many preferring to donate to and join NGOs and single-issue campaigns. Technology has become the new means of political engagement, whether through posting articles in Facebook social circles or debating them more widely on Reddit or Twitter. Rather than physically attending select committee meetings or Guardian Live events, we can livestream or follow Twitter updates to keep informed. Accepting the notion of a technologically-driven, atomised society denies the potential of technology driven by social needs as the infrastructure of 21st century political pluralism.

Despite the role of access, the ultimate power of Westminster lies in the electoral mandate as expression of the public will for an idea more suited to the 19th century age of empire and industrialisation from which modern Westminster arose. A majority government in the House of Commons can use this to justify unpopular election pledges such as junior doctors' hours or break them like proposed cuts to family tax credits. The 'winner takes all' approach is an FA cup final mentality, where winning parties are undisputed champions until the next political championship. A  digital approach could undermine the Westminster monopoly on democracy and enable a more perpetual idea of democracy.

Applying digital democracy to Westminster would essentially crowdsource policy, legislation, and constitutional proposals to ensure a public voice in decision-making. The House of Commons already holds binding debates on e-petitions that reach 100,000, having recently debated banning Donald Trump from the UK. This could easily extend to binding debates on legislative and policies proposed by the public. House Speaker John Bercow's Digital Democracy Commission has recommended forums and channels for online public submissions for drafting bills and questions for PMQs something already adopted by Corbyn.

Online policy development mechanisms could exist on a national scale independent of Westminster, a potential blueprint of this being the design process for a new Icelandic constitution in 2012-13. One group of citizens randomly selected by Government ballot respectively decided core principles to be included and another appointed group elected a 25-member panel to write it. The draft was opened to online public feedback that was incorporated into a final version approved by public referendum in 2012. Although rejected by the newly-elected parliament in 2013, a national approach to crowdsourced policy proved feasible. 

incorporating digital mechanisms into electoral democracy would update Westminster democracy for the 21st century

Political parties provide another forum for digital experimentation. Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has advocated online technology to connect leadership and members and touted digital party branches. Newly-created parties go further using open-source software. Podemos used feedback via Loomio to design their manifesto for the Spanish general elections in December, while the German Pirate Party discusses ideas on Liquid Feedback. The Net Party, founded by activist organisation Democracia En Red, ran in the Buenos Aires legislative elections in 2013 advocating representatives be bound to vote by online member decisions on DemocracyOS. Although the Net Party only achieved 1% of the vote, their campaign convinced the Buenos Aires legislature to adopt DemocracyOS to debate publicly-crowdsourced bills, through which it passed a bill for better conditions for nurses.

In a world increasingly reliant on online technology for public engagement, incorporating digital mechanisms into electoral democracy would update Westminster democracy for the 21st century. This would both embrace how people think, and engage and enable a new political pluralism where public passion for Scotland and Jeremy Corbyn would hardly be the exceptions.

Oliver Chan

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