This article forms part of a series, Radically rethinking our democracy, in which we asked contributors to propose bold answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?
In the wake of Brexit, something amazing happens. There is a rebirth, a renewal. It’s just one that no one predicts.
Today, Britain is battered and divided – practically the only thing everyone agrees on is that the political process is broken. The facts about what Brexit is and what it means have been jumbled and misunderstood. Amid screams of ‘U-turn’! and ‘traitor!’, politicians have become locked into positions they can’t diverge from, and meaningful debate across the divide has barely happened.
Months and years have been wasted mired in rancorous political grandstanding, while ‘compromise’ and ‘consensus’ have become dirty words instead of moral imperatives. And worse than division is the fact that our democracy has failed to produce clear decisions, over and over again. The majority of the electorate – including Remain and Leave voters – have been left feeling that their voices are not valued; that democracy isn’t working.
It’s time to rip up our no-longer-fit-for-purpose analogue system. It’s time for democracy to go digital, taking political debate and decision-making beyond the halls of Westminster, directly into the homes of citizens.
Time to scrap these toxic parties
Fast-forward to a post-Brexit Britain. A new generation of MPs has been elected who have captured the public’s rage with a call for radical change. They want to transform not only what Government does, but what Government actually is.
The new politicians are spread across parties, and some sit as independents. Each of them sees that democratic renewal will be necessarily woven around the technologies that have already changed so many parts of people’s lives. Collectively, these politicians become known as the Digital Democrats.
Once in Parliament, they start to change how politics works. The first target for reform is facts. The truth had become too cherry-picked, too politicised by different sides. So our Digital Democrats turn to Wikipedia. For each of the big new questions populating the post-Brexit landscape, they create Wikipedia timelines.
On each issue, relevant articles and facts are posted. Naturally a debate rages about what people think is true or not. But now that debate occurs within a common space with common rules around sourcing and validation: some facts are flagged as being agreed on by all sides, others as contested – but all are visible to any citizen.
To save democracy, we must disrupt it
Next, the Digital Democrats turn to how political debate actually happens. Politics, they argue, has always been about finding compromise and consensus as well as recognising political difference and competing interests. Some reformers had argued that citizens’ assemblies were the answer, but the Digital Democrats saw those as part of the old analogue system. Rather than picking citizen representatives in specific locations, they want to engage the citizenry as a whole. To do so they build a new online space, one that looks nothing like Facebook or Twitter, and they call it The Forum.
The Forum is universal – activists, lawyers, lobbyists, civic society, public affairs consultants, charities and interested members of the public, anyone at all with a stake in the big political questions, can participate. On a huge screen in Parliament, the politicians and the public watch as thousands of people appear on a massive map, logging in and contributing their thoughts on the questions posed.
Some people think the idea crazy, but the Digital Democrats persevere. Could they harness the internet for productive engagement, rather than facilitating abuse towards politicians, offensive memes or retweet-chasing calls to the already converted? Could they use it to find, even create, consensus?
Let's junk our electoral system
Within The Forum, each political question has a different strand. One is on the principles underpinning a new British foreign policy. Another on how new tech should be regulated. Still another on trade.
Participation works like this: you join The Forum, click through to each strand, and answer draft statements with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And as more people engage, artificial intelligence works to understand the contours of the debate. Who has similar positions? What are the dividing lines? The Forum maps the debate, drawing people who generally agree into the same group. It shows how many islands of opinion there are, how big each one is, and how far apart the groups are from each other.
The beauty of The Forum is that it’s built around a value or vision completely different from those online platforms that had erupted with divisive activity for or against Brexit. The Forum gamifies consensus. The algorithms underpinning it have no time for retweets and reposts and engagement. Their function is to make most visible only those statements with which substantial numbers of people in different groups agree, not simply those supported by one echo chamber or another. On this platform, grandstanding and polarisation are invisible.
Over time, the Digital Democrats find that The Forum forces people to listen to the considered views of others in different groups and, beyond that, encourages people to think about views they hold that people in different groups might also agree with. Within debates, ‘consensus’ statements begin to bubble up that everyone, to their surprise, feels they can get behind.
How technology sidelines the citizen
By far the most radical – and controversial – part of the Digital Democrats’ agenda, however, is how they link all this to political decisions. This digital mobilisation is meaningless, they realise, if it doesn’t make a difference; they need to link it to political outcomes.
So they form cross-party groups, and begin to weave the consensus statements produced by The Forum into law or policy. The politicians begin to see The Forum as having agenda-setting power in its own right; something with the capacity not only to vote on issues put to it, but to help decide what the issues themselves are. A bottom-up model which puts the citizenry in the driving seat.
Digital democracy isn’t a magic bullet. After Brexit, society is still unequal, with wealth concentrated increasingly into the big cities. Vastly different attitudes to technology also open up – younger, richer, urban early-adopters are more likely to see upsides, others the downsides. The poorest, most vulnerable, most voiceless groups are also those least likely to join The Forum or be active on it. And the Digital Democrats recognise that their initiative is struggling to reach the people who feel furthest away from politics in the first place.
But maybe despite these challenges, the Digital Democrats are making people more optimistic about politics. People may hold different views, but The Forum begins to show what they also have in common, rather than magnifying what divides them.
The Forum doesn’t mark the end of Britain’s political troubles. But it does, where it exists, find consensus faster, enabling laws to be rolled out more quickly. And it evolves continuously as the tech becomes ever more sophisticated. It shows that democracy is a living idea, not a set of static institutions, but a political system to be renewed and refreshed. And, perhaps most importantly, it puts decision-making in the hands of the people.
Click here to read our series of answers to the question: how can we fix our democracy?