Personal observations #4: Democracies should use technology innovation to improve their political processes
Mature, open democracies like the US and UK are unsurprisingly obsessed with technology innovation. The principal attraction – beyond humanity’s incurable impulse to invent and improve (read Matt Ridley’s brilliant The Evolution of Everything) – appears to be creating more wealth and more jobs. So David Cameron dreams of creating a British Google or Apple. And Silicon Valley’s ability to attract the world’s greatest talent as it converts digital and scientific breakthroughs into billion dollar unicorns has helped keep alive the idea of American exceptionalism.
Politicians and governments should worry more about improving the democratic process. We underestimate the value of functioning democracy at our peril. Democracies are the most richest, most resilient and happiest societies on earth, but they are all gently deteriorating. Despite the Labour Party’s spike in new members attracted by Jeremy Corbyn’s tug to the left, membership of political parties in Britain is in steady decline. Voter turnout at UK General Elections averaged 76.5% between 1945 and 1997, and 63% between 2001 and 2015. This year just 37% of the electorate voted for David Cameron*. Most British MPs are talented public servants who work tremendously hard and are paid a low salary relative to their social value – but they get no thanks from the British electorate.
Perhaps this doesn’t matter. Maybe the sign of a really mature democracy is a disinterested electorate, so trusting in the system that it is happy to leave government to a narrow elite. Maybe politics is so difficult that it helps if you have spent all your career working the system, or grown up inside it (eg: Kennedy, Kinnock, Hurd, Bush, Clinton, Benn …). But one of democracy’s strengths is its ability to adapt, that it forces our leaders to gain a fresh mandate every few years. The flip side is that democratic politicians have little incentive to do more than, like Rey, tinker with the Millenium Falcon, especially if the system just put you into government.
Ideally a British reform programme would come from the grass roots, folding in ideas about the future of the United Kingdom, the trend towards devolving powers to British cities, debates about immigration and public spending priorities and what precisely is it that voters want from their governments. Is this a realistic prospect? Technology change makes it more possible, creating new ways in which individuals might engage with politicians, monitor their government’s performance and articulate their views. Politicians like Tony Blair argue that voters want leaders to get on with things, and leave the tedious and complex business of government to the elected professionals. He has a point, but the unhappy trajectory of Blair’s premiership is also a good example of how a highly centralised system of government and a large working majority can over-empower British Prime Ministers, cut them off from public opinion and leave them feeling dangerously entitled. We should always believe systems are improvable because they are, especially since Moore’s Law began to apply to so many areas of our lives. to This book by UKIP’s Douglas Carswell is worth a read. We need more Douglas Craswells in our politics – independent and restless minded optimists obsessed with political process as well as political outcomes.
Alex blogs at www.stuff-happens.org