Is there such a thing as a "Goldilocks" form of democracy? One that strikes the right balance between ignoring the public on the important matters of the day and the alternative of changing policy with every tremor of public opinion? Either option can have severe negative consequences.
Without public engagement, democracy is a sham that's ultimately doomed to collapse in the long term. With too much, it might hypothetically lurch from extreme position to another. Ignoring distant historical examples and with the exception of the sometimes dysfunctional state of California, though, it's hard to think of cases where mature democracies have given their citizens too much power. Switzerland has quite a direct form of democracy, but on the whole it seems to be doing reasonably well rather than being a populist basket case.
Whilst the UK system sits comfortably somewhere along the spectrum between apathy and ochlocracy (that's mob rule to you and me) we would argue that the current anti-political mood is fuelled by the perception that the public lack the power to change things for the better.
Our democracy is, to use the return to the Goldilocks metaphor, too much like cold porridge without any way of warming it up.
There are masses of theories about why the public are disaffected with politics at the moment, often convincing. A few of them include: weak or corrupt politicians; lack of real choice at elections; political tribalism; special interests; the absence of vision; overly-inflated public expectations of what's possible; the disadvantages of first past the post. All have some validity.
What most of those arguments can be boiled down to, though, is power. At a time when we're less trusting of institutions than in the past and want more transparency and accountability from our representatives, the basic structures of our democracy remain rooted in the 19th century. In a progressive move, the government set up the epetition website for the public... and then promptly forgot about it.
Perhaps if the people were given a bit more involvement with the making of the laws and government policy, they would be more understanding when things go wrong.
Critics could rightly respond that we already have a feast of democratic options on the table and that most of them are being left to rot. Witness local or EU voter turnout, never mind attitudes towards Police and Crime Commissioners.
Many of the public, they suggest, simultaneously want to pay low taxes yet have a well-funded NHS, or believe that we need to build more houses but not where they live, please. They don't look at the big picture and more of them watch the X-Factor or the Champions League than pay attention to foreign policy. 15% of those eligible to vote in the Scottish referendum - where the options were simple and the result critical - didn't use their voice. Is it really a good idea to place more decisions into the hands of the ill informed?
All of those things may well be true- but doesn't that highlight the need for wide-ranging reforms even stronger? Ignoring the discontent of a significant proportion of citizens doesn't seem like a clever idea.
Making it "just right"
We have worthy proposals in abundance. Regional devolution of power. Using a different voting system. City mayors. Updating the House of Lords. All of these are laudable initiatives in their own way and need to be discussed as part of a proper national conversation rather than as piecemeal politicking.
What they all have in common, though, is seeing democracy as a sequence of periodic votes rather than a continuous process, as if it were a submarine that occasionally has to surface for air.
The nature of the interaction between the people and their representatives needs to be pitched in a way that's accessible without over-simplifying complicated issues, and that gives citizens power without paralysing the ability of elected politicians to lead the country through difficult times. It should be more than one vote every five years.
For us, using the internet seems like the clear way to achieve that. Not to create some kind of happy-clicking, thoughtless mob, but as a forum for dialogue between public and politicians between elections, improving understanding, accountability and hopefully raising the quality of the decisions made.Back to news