Direct democracy: innovations in democracy

by George Hatjoullis

To describe direct democracy as an innovation is a little disingenuous. One of the earliest forms of democracy, Athenian democracy, was direct. There were no political parties and people did not elect representatives to vote on issues. The enfranchised citizenship (which was eligible male freemen) turned up and voted on issues directly. Officials of government were part elected and part chosen by lottery. Today, the enfranchised citizenship is more or less every one of a certain age but one should not let the narrower base of Athenian democracy distract from the interesting feature; it was direct.

Direct democracy may sound a little impractical in a country of 60 million people but it may not be. The jury system selects a representative 12 people from the general population (note it excludes lawyers) to judge the evidence presented by counsel. The jury is guided on points of law by the judge but the assessment is up to the 12 jurors. None has any specific training in making such judgements. Yet their assessment will determine the liberty of a fellow citizen. Direct representation within the legal process already exists and it works rather well. The principle could be extended further.

Representative democracy involves electing representatives to vote on legislation on our behalf. They need not have any specific skills other than inspiring our confidence. In practice, the eligible candidates are selected by party organisations. These parties offer a core philosophy which is then translated into a specific bundle of policies. In representative democracy the electoral choice is limited to a few bundles of policies. Moreover, the elected representatives and the parties make a career out of being representatives and become preoccupied with keeping their jobs rather than actually representing the will of the people. The process does not seem to be working very well as there is widespread disillusionment and disengagement with the political process. This allows a small, self-serving, elite to dominate the process of government. Unchecked power is prone to corruption. The habit of power is prone to corruption. Some changes are necessary to revitalise the process and encourage the population to remain engaged in the political process.

A first step was suggested in the previous blog; introduce compulsory voting but offer the option of none-of-the-above on the ballot paper. In addition one might place a quorum on the number of votes that must be cast for all candidates in order for the election be valid. Failure to reach the quorum invalidates the election and the government stays in power but is unable to enact any new legislation. This would force the elite to engage the people and ask why so many have opted for none-of-the-above. If all is well few would opt for none-of-the-above. This simple innovation would effectively re-engage the increasingly alienated electorate. However, this is essentially a ‘time-out’ function and does not answer the question of how to fully re-energize the political process. Perhaps a little more directness in the process might do so?

One might do away with constituency representatives and select a house of representatives from the wider population as is done under the jury system. The group could serve for a fixed period (say one year) and service would be compulsory subject to appropriate exceptions. Lawyers could be excluded. Direct elections could elect an executive to serve as the government. This could be done on a party basis as occurs now. A representative chamber could also be elected (the Lords) to scrutinise proposed legislation as occurs now. The essential differences is that the government is elected directly (like the Presidential system in the USA) and the house of representatives (House of Commons) is not elected but selected randomly and for a fixed, relatively short, term. This body would vote on new legislation presented by government.

The possibility that one could end up in parliament voting on legislation would re-engage everyone with the political process. The fact that those voting are ordinary people and not career politicians might also give us more faith in the process. What of competence? First, one must again note that representatives need have no special skills under the present system. They just have to persuade you to elect them. Second, what special skills does a jury have when it sends someone to prison? Finally, what competence is required? A random selection of 600 or so people (it could be more or less) would contain a wide and representative set of skills (except lawyers). There would also be house officials to advise on technical details. The ability to read the language of legislation is all that is required. It might also encourage those that draft legislation to do so in a more accessible way thus enhancing the objective; direct democracy.

Such innovations are major constitutional developments and cannot be taken lightly. The devil is in the detail. However, the representative system is not working, as is evident from the widespread disillusionment with the political process across a wide range of countries. An injection of directness might help. Failure to address this disillusionment may lead to much worse outcomes.