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Dave Snowden

Democracy, a complexity perspective

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ballot-box.jpg I think this is the first year in which I have not been in the UK for a General Election. The result was that I first picked up news of the exit poll reversal of prior expectations on the ferry back from a rain soaked walk on Waiheke. I had taken the Nikon 600 all four lens and the monopod/treking pole with the intention of having a orgy of sea, sun and greenery. As things worked out the equipment stayed in water proof containers for the whole journey. The rain was so bad we gave up early and got the 1400 ferry which had internet. So overall I was not in the best of moods when I opened up the Guardian news app.   

Just to emphasise the standard declaimer, the following post is my own opinion, not that of Cognitive Edge. Feel free to jump directly to the section ‘Thinking differently’ if you are only interested in the subject of the title and don’t want to go through my polemic on the election itself.

A reflection on negativity

Now I make no secret of my politics, I have been and remain a democratic socialist. That said, in previous elections where I was more active on the ground I had lots of friends amongst the Conservatives who were similarly active. I remember fondly one drink before the count with the Conservative Agent for the Ward in which I was Labour Agent. Both of us were pissed off to the back teeth with having to drag out our respective supporters to vote. We were also unhappy with growing opportunism and the lack of conviction. It was the tail end of the Thatcher period when selfishness had been established as a legitimate ethical position. It was something that he was as distressed by as much as I was distressed by the homogenisation of the Labour Party in the early days of the so called Third Way. Whatever our differences both of us had a common view of service, responsibility and engagement. Also a need to see some degree of critical thought in the voters and some sense of dignity in the campaign. That was a couple of decades ago and in that time I both left the Labour Party in protest and rejoined it; a gap that roughly covers the Blair years.

Now dignity was conspicuously lacking in this campaign. It was one of the most distasteful campaigns I have witnessed. The whole campaign, with the notable exception of the nationalist parties was negative, it was not about achieving something but rather about preventing the other side doing bad things designated as the ultimate evil by respective media. There was nothing to believe in, nothing to be passionate about, no spirit of the Chartists, the Suffragettes or any of the other great campaigns. Instead we saw the demonisation of the Scots, Immigrants and Europe. None of that demonisation resulted from an ideological position (which would have been bad enough but at least understandable) but rather from the short term tactical determinations of a small elite of too highly paid political advisors. The election did not fall to a positive endorsement of what looks to be a Government determined to return to the elitist differences of the 1920s, but instead to a media whipped up frenzy of fear of a properly elected group of Scottish Nationalists having a similar influence on the Labour Party to that exercised by the Liberals on the last Government. In reality those Nationalist voters were all former Labour Party supporters who had faced decades of living under Governments, both Labour and Conservative alike, whose views were other than their own and were seeking change.

In practice I think most people wanted a hung parliament with some restraint on the dominant partner, but the whipped up fear of the SNP turned the balance of power to a workable single party majority. If you look at the electoral map then we have a divided country at so many levels. London and the great Industrial cities along with Scotland and most of Wales voted against the Government we now have. And of course those areas will suffer most from the forthcoming reversal of the welfare state. The Labour Party allowed that tactic by denying that any such alliance would take place. Instead of confronting the nonsense head on they in effect endorsed the prejudice. So they have only themselves to blame.

Thinking differently, a complex perspective on democracy

Now I know that good friends of the opposite persuasion will disagree with me on the above views and I can live with that. In a democracy you will loose from time to time. But the one thing that is now indisputable is that a first past the post system is broken and that the divisions with the United Kingdom have never been more extreme. So placing my own political beliefs aside lets look at what democracy means from a complexity perspective. It’s something I have been thinking about for some years now and it really deserves an essay but I have summarised it in seven points below. In effect they work off the three principles of a CAS namely (i) change the granularity of the objects (ii):distribute cognition & (iii) disintermediate the decision makers. I think its pretty obvious how those apply in each of the points below but happy to spell it out if not.

  1. In effect an underlying principle of democracy is that everyone makes a choice. The problem is that in the modern world that is not a choice for a representative made independently by each vote, its a more complex interaction of voters with the media. In effect each individual is trying to achieve a result by manipulating millions of other choices, In those conditions the media have all the advantages. So major reform number one would be to ban opinion polls. You should make up your mind based on the policies of those you are voting for, not on what you think other people will do. One of the core principles of Wisdom of the Crowds is that each agent makes decisions independently of every other agent so that would satisfy that need.
  2. Should we vote for an individual or a party? I’ve changed my mind on this over the last few years in favour or voting for someone you trust to make decisions for you. That means two things. Firstly smaller constituencies so that you can have some knowledge of the person you are voting for, Secondly, and in consequence you should vote for a local representative who then in turn votes for delegates to the next level. Given the low turn out for third level elections (like the European ones) something like this would produce a more representative system. This by the way was the idea behind the electoral college in the US constitution; you send people to seriously consider and choose a President who don’t succumb to populism. Compulsory voting might be an option, but a more local system might mean that is not necessary.
  3. There has to be quality of information. In this election the Murdoch press engaged in an attack on the leader of Labour Party which was without precedent in recent years. Much of that was distorted, sensational and in many cases plain lies. But of course the said Murdoch Press had a stake in the outcome. Industry leaders made statements about their companies without even consulting their stake holders and so on. For democracy to be a choice information should be balanced, Television is subject to a legal requirement for balance, we should do the same to the Tabloids.
  4. We need to get back to politicians drawn from the community, not professional politicians who make that career choice before they even go to university. That also means we need to realise that good leaders may have sinned in their past. No one in their right mind would subject themselves to the examination of their past and present behaviour, or that of their families unless they were squeaky clean. But none of the great Prime Ministers of the past would survive that scrutiny. We are destroying gravitas in politics, dragging leadership down the level of the prejudices of the Daily Mail. We get the politicians that a new form of hypocritical prudery can tolerate, and that is to the detriment of the body politic,
  5. People standing for office should not be allowed to avoid interaction with the people. When I was young (and yes I am allowed to say that) politicians had to hold live audiences which meant they had to know their subject. Now we have staged interactions and the management of sound bites avoiding true interaction. The only points where the campaign came to life was when the general public were allowed to ask questions and that was all too infrequent. If you want to stand, go and talk on street corners and Church Halls, don’t hide behind stage management.
  6. Money should not buy votes. We need to radically reduce the money that can be spent (and God help us if we get to US levels)) and make sure that everyone is on equal footing in terms of funding. Buying votes was all to prevalent before the Reform Acts of 1812 and onwards and we have now returning to it, albeit in a more abstract form. A Rotten Borough such as Old Sarum was in the gift of a small number of voters who could be bought. Now we are not bought directly, but the sheer use of money to control the flow of information has much the same effect. In the US it is worse with the money required to gain office making it impossible for a grass roots movement to sustain any presence. But we are going the same way.
  7. Finally and most importantly we need to teach critical thinking, debating and the ability to call out a non-argument from an early age. We don’t teach children to think critically, we train them to past tests. That is detrimental to their cognitive development and to the good of society as a whole. Experiments have show that even in primary school Children enjoy debate. I lived most of my school life having to support arguments I did not agree with in formal debates. That meant I had to think before I judged. It also taught be to dissect an argument, to seek evidence. We betray the next generation if we do not teach them the same.

Some people offer proportional representation as an alternative, but while that might more accurately reflect the popular vote it does not really address the issue. With a delegate approach advocated above you could add a party list system either in conjunction or better for an upper house. My overall point is that voting for someone who you can judge as a person is important at all levels. That might also mean more rebellion against party lines, more crossing the floor. Part of the strength of British Democracy in the past was a periodic realignment of parties, something that hasn’t happened for some time. Net result the homogenisation of presentation and a refusal to challenge the orthodoxy of prudence.

So if you want a big idea for the next election, then how about electoral reform? Not just a change in the voting system but something more fundamental, more granular that goes beyond a asymmetric federalism to something that recognises differences and commonalities within a loosely coupled system?

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