Aug 182013

Most of my readers probably consider me an excessively rhetorical soul, given to dancing verbally around subjects instead of providing hard evidence.  Today, I’ll provide hard evidence for the following assertion: our democracy has been gamed from within – and needs to be ungamed about as sharpish as we can.

The evidence first.  A couple of years ago I already reported on ministerial bed-hopping:

It was bad enough in New Labour times.  Something I picked up via False Economy in August (background here) made that pretty patent and clear enough for all of us to see.  Amongst the many unhappy truths, conflicted interests and abuses of power in such times, this one is perhaps one of the most vigorously anti-democratic:

“The number of former ministers ‘revolving out’ raised particular concern in Parliament and the press in 2008, when the list for the previous two years revealed that no fewer than 28 former ministers had taken jobs in the private sector. Of these, thirteen were still MPs. Paul Flynn, a member of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), commented that ‘he could not remember ministers hopping into the private sector like this……It is a way of buying access.’ This number of 28 compares with a total of 31 in the list published in March 2011, which covered the previous twelve months. A smooth transition to the private sector could now be said to be the normal expectation for a government minister.”

Now – it would appear, however – that as in everything in this world, Cameron & Co are looking to outdo even more of the less salubrious “achievements” of our previous governors.  As the Telegraph reports today:

The bosses of some of the biggest companies in Britain, including BP, Shell and Jaguar Land Rover, are to be given hotlines to ministers to boost the economy.

To be honest, here I’d be inclined to want to argue the toss – and make one very small but important amendment to that sentence:

The bosses of some of the biggest companies in Britain, including BP, Shell and Jaguar Land Rover, are to be given hotlines to ministers to boost their economy.

Yesterday, meanwhile, the Guardian provided us with some important data in relation to who is really represented at party political conferences:

Lobbyists and executives from companies and charities make up a third of the people at the Conservative autumn conference, it has emerged.

The Tory party’s commercial brochure shows just 38% of delegates at the party’s annual meeting are members, while 36% are from companies, charities and other “exhibitors”. Around 20% of attendees were from the media.

If you asked me to compare that figure of 36 percent with how general elections are won and lost, how decisions are taken after election day and who, essentially, our representative democracies truly represent these days, I’d find it difficult to take issue with that figure.  If anything, I’d be inclined to argue it underestimates the influence of moneyed constructors of public opinion and discourse.

Clearly, then, our democracy has been gamed from within.  Political parties which can no longer depend on individual members to sustain their narratives resort to big donors whose interests lie quite elsewhere.  The big push that a general election campaign used to presuppose – where once interpreted as a massively positive referendum on past actions as well as on the potential integrity of future promises – has been positioned as a perfect objective for the Dark Arts of political marketing and spin to focus their actions and massage our opinions.

And so most of us understand a democracy gamed just as clearly needs ungaming.  Which brings me to this fascinating suggestion by Tim, worth reading in full for its measured portrayal of a beautiful alternative to the mess we currently find ourselves in – democracy without general elections:

In short, general elections seem like a good idea and we’re used to choosing governments that way, but they allow a lot of room for undemocratic manipulation.

But surely, to have democracy you need general elections?

He goes on to explain how a rolling process of weekly elections – not without its possible downsides but nevertheless worth considering in the light of its democracy-infusing and grassroots-empowering advantages – might help wrest power from the centralisers and return it to the people without requiring any profound reorganisation of Parliament itself:

[…] Its main features are:

  • No general elections.
  • Instead, elect five MPs per fortnight. With 650 MPs, this takes five years to get through them all. So each MP is elected for a five-year term, and you vote every five years, when it’s your constituency’s turn to vote.
  • On arrival in parliament, each MP casts their vote for who should be Prime Minister, using a numbered preference system. That vote remains in force throughout that MP’s time in parliament or until they decide to change it (maybe subject to limits about how frequently or under what circumstances this can happen).
  • The Prime Minister remains Prime Minister for as long as the recorded votes of current MPs indicate that they are still acceptable to the majority. (That is: if the recorded votes were cast in an AV-style ballot, the Prime Minister would still win.)
  • To avoid a situation where a Prime Minister goes in and out of office every fortnight as new MPs replace old ones, there’s either a threshold number of votes above 50% that someone has to pass in order to gain office, or they have to be the winner for a specified length of time.

The biggest upsides I can see are twofold: firstly, since it would appear the traditional party political structure is now about as corrupted by Big Money as could possibly be the case (remember that 36 percent of lobbyist representation mentioned in the Guardian article), taking away the right of parties to structure their political persuasion and marketing around big events held every five years would, in fact, take it away from the lobbyists too.  Secondly, no party, however well-funded, could possibly run weekly elections without the true enthusiasm and collaboration of grassroots volunteers everywhere.  Suggestions made to democratise internal democracy in relation to policy generation and planning in particular would rapidly gain traction as a result.

And not just for Labour.

This idea deserves further and wider consideration than simply by my humble blogsite.  If you do stumble across this post, please consider retweeting on Twitter, liking on Facebook or linking to and writing about its thesis.

I do think we need it more than many professionals in the field are prepared to acknowledge for the moment.  But as simple voters who know what it’s like to be on the crappy end of a process, it may be up to us to make them understand their tardiness – before we all lose faith entirely in the glories of what we once called a liberal democracy.


Feb 242013

My sister just sent me a link to a TED talk.  TED talks are fascinating.  This one describes itself thus:

Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius. It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

I think it’s a beautiful idea, one I am inclined to value highly.  I have been a teacher most of my working life – and soon learned to value highly the contribution of students.  Not only in terms of what I asked them to do but – also, and more importantly – in terms of what they learned to ask me to do.

Genius is not the preserve of a man or woman our society determines as being so.  And even if it is, it is only because our society is incapable of perceiving the genius that all of us contain.  Even as we like to focus from a distance on the visibly astonishing, we miss out on the beauty that we exhibit every single day of our lives.  We are clever souls, we human beings.  The virtual democratisation of content we are witnessing this last decade is not primarily a cause of information ills but, rather, a massive release of pent-up generations of humanity unable for so long to visibly express their genius.

And now I have a confession to make.  I haven’t watched the TED talk my sister has sent me as yet.  And I probably won’t.  I really do hope, however, that she doesn’t stop sending them to me.  Today’s post would not have got written if it hadn’t been for her thoughtful including of me in a footnote to a Facebook post.  Although I very rarely watch videos at all, their synopses rapidly read do often spark unfinished and engaging business.

To be honest, I think there’s a reason.  I think I’m a natural reader, not a watcher.  What’s more, I think those who watch are – more often than not (though clearly an exception in the case of my book-loving sister) – natural watchers, not readers.  Which leads me to draw the following conclusion: the old-age battle (or, at least, the sixty-year-old battle) waged between literature and television has subtly restarted since the arrival of the web.  Following on from the middle of the 20th century, our early 21st century online humanity has reasserted a division which should please us enormously.  For between the geniuses of industrialised art and the geniuses of individualised art, we stumble across everything we should admire.  That some of us should continue to find pleasure and intellectual involvement in this century’s equivalent of tablets and scrolls of yore and that others of us should continue to find pleasure and intellectual involvement in this century’s equivalent of more oral and theatrical tradition simply underlines the power and strength of them both.

All those centuries ago, we got it right first time.

The instincts to register through writing and speech the thoughts, occurrences and imaginations of a wonderful species were just as accurate and apposite then as they still are these days – continuing as they do to strive and fight their way above the flood waters of passing and irrelevant technologies and discourses.

A reader then, are you?  Or a watcher?  Or a marvellous – highly literate – combination of the two?

Lucky you!

Sep 092011

Andy Williamson is raising some interesting issues around the subject of think tanks over at Political Innovation at the moment.  Coincidentally, I’ve just started reading the Kindle version of the book “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr.  In the Prologue, there is this beautiful piece of synthesis quoted from Marshal McLuhan:

[…] Every new medium, McLuhan understood, changes us.  “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot,” he wrote.  The content of a medium is just “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”

And this idea, I would argue, can just as easily be applied to real world existences as it can to the virtual – or, that is to say, the more purely technological.  For example, and since we’re on the subject, think tanks and their manifest deficiencies.  As Williamson points out in his introduction, and goes on further to articulate in successive essays, there are currently problems with quality, independence and transparency – all of which can be attributed in some way or another to the ballast that expensive premises, inefficient communications infrastructures and conflicts of interest various tend to generate.

For as McLuhan points out, every new medium changes us.  But by the same token, every old structure also has its own effect.  The new may yet do unhealthy things to us in the future – that is true.  But whatever we choose to use and whatever we decide to resist, the old will also continue to have an effect and impact on the way we think.  And that impact doesn’t have to be benign simply because it’s familiar.

In the very same way as the Internet may impact us unpredictably and define how we approach this 21st century more than we care – at the moment – to admit, so we have already been conditioned by skyscraper mentalities and centralised office hubs to pay homage to pyramid-style command and (thought) control ways of expressing ourselves.

As Williamson points out in his piece on independence, the client doesn’t have to say it for coercive behaviours to show themselves:

How much does the need to maintain a funding stream impact on one’s ability to be totally honest in research? I can certainly say from my own experience that I have felt pressured to dilute findings that might be seen to be overly critical of a funder. I can also say that I never felt that pressure from the funder, rather it was a naïve assumption internally that being bland was a safer path to success than standing up for what your research actually said.

So all that ballast I mention above does bring with it its own problems.  It’s not just a question of the new changing the way we think.  It’s also a question of the old limiting where our thought can go.  Couching it then, I would suggest, in fairly pragmatic and utilitarian terms, the question now is: what can we do about this set of circumstances in order that we might remedy the noxious results of such baggage?

How, in fact, do we rid ourselves of such baggage?

How do we manage to think differently?

Mar 312010

These days, we have access to so much information.  In the past, it was all filtered.  Like through ground coffee beans, dripping little by little, the water of our understanding was coloured by the opinions, angles and prejudices of columnists, reporters and newspaper publishers.  Now, however, that we have 24-hour access to the original stuff, it would appear that we still prefer the filtered.

How many people will have actually seen the would-be chancellors of the next government battle it out in their televised debate? 

How many more will simply read up on another’s trusted opinion?

Twitter, blogging before it, the massive growth that Facebook is experiencing, niche networks like … all these tendencies point not to a rejection of the filtering tendency that mainstream media always represented but, rather, an embracing of that desire to be told, informed and narrated to by someone or some organisation we identify with and want to follow.

We are – by nature it would seem – sheeplike.  We prefer to be, is what I mean.  When they say traditional publishing is going away, they don’t mean the hierarchical model – narrator and the narrated to – is collapsing.  What they mean is that the traditional owners’ hold on publishing is collapsing.

The hierarchy – however – still remains.

And therein lies the fundamental danger of representative democracy.  A majority vote doesn’t always mean a good vote.  Sometimes, the people are right.  Sometimes, in hindsight, the people are very very wrong.

How can we guarantee wisdom in the masses when it is so difficult to divine in the individual?  No system seems to have cared to address this issue – except perhaps the US system of checks and balances, which, confrontationally, leads to chronic inertia.

The only system of government which is worth having is that which displays the least progress, perhaps.  But even here, the seeds of rank and outright dissatisfaction from a wider populace can be sown.  And that, in itself, is a danger we should be careful of – a danger we should not wish to foment.

The hierarchy of narrator and narrated to is wrong.  We should want not to be filtered to but rather to see the original data.  We should be trained to analyse and synthesise – and want to read – rawnesses, not consume ready-made pap from the land of blithe happinesses.

The challenge is this: how do we create nations of original thinkers? 

Maybe we all need our guardian angels.  Maybe this is truly what we need.