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While our democracy is stuck in the past, so too will be our society

With the party conference season drawing to a close – the Scottish Greens and Plaid Cymru just wrapping up theirs – we should be seriously questioning whether these summits are taking full advantage of the technology around us.

We trust the Internet with virtually every aspect of our lives, and for good reason – it lets us be more productive, get more done. Few people would argue with the fact our society has benefited from being able to simply send messages via text or email, rather than a carrier on horseback.

However, a paradoxical taboo now haunts our democratic process.

For some reason, supposedly democratic political parties with hundreds of thousands of members feel that the best way to decide on policy is to pack ten thousand or so in a community centre, engage in tedious votes on a handful of pre-selected proposals, then pack up and go home for another year.

Elections have the exact same problem. We insist on trekking out to the polling station every few years, slipping our ballot into a box, crossing our fingers nothing will happen on its way to the counting station, then wait for hours for us to be informed what we ourselves have just decided.

We have the technology and ability for a quick and efficient system of democracy, able to give the overwhelming majority of the population a direct way to participate in every level of decision-making, so why don’t we have one?

Let’s just consider this for a second. On a party level, members would no longer have to entrust their policy to bickering, behind the scenes bureaucrats. Instead, they would be able to collectively agree on and assemble each and every line of their manifesto through electronic voting, with plentiful space for healthy debate via forums and comments.

On a local level, through a more or less identical system, residents could have a direct, democratic vote on what company gets planning permission, what roads need refurbishing, where the money goes.

In terms of national policy, obviously a consistent, compatible government approach is necessary. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a mechanism where the public can force a vote and send bad legislation back to the drawing board.

Ballot boxes were first employed in the UK in 1872. Can we really, seriously argue that a 19th century democratic system is best fit to decide our direction as a society in 2016?

Of course, there will always be those that argue that electronic procedures exclude those who choose not to join the Internet.

First of all, the idea that packing the few members (with both the time and money to attend) into one hall for a couple of days somehow excludes less people than a network that 93% of the population are connected to is ludicrous.

Secondly, there’s no reason these two systems couldn’t work together. If you prefer to tick a box on a ballot paper than an online form, then by all means do so. It’s not a one-or-the-other situation.

Hacking and interference is also a legitimate concern, but harbours less credibility under closer analysis than at first sight.

On a local or party-based level, it’s highly unlikely that anyone with the time and skill to manipulate a voting system is going to invest that in diverting the local cycle route to a different location.

But more fundamentally, our government has the technological capacity to monitor each and every action taken online by tens of millions of its citizens. Are we seriously saying it’s somehow incapable of investing in an electronic system that can at least give it the ability to tell when there has been outside interference?

Put it this way. Let’s say for the last 50 years we had been using this efficient and inclusive system of electronic, direct democracy – giving the population wide-reaching, tangible control over how their country is run. Would we really then be asking ourselves whether we wanted to switch to the tedious, bureaucratic, centralised system we have today? It wouldn’t even be in the back of our minds.

(As a side-note: Coming from a Corbynista, I believe Labour is particularly guilty on this. If leftists really want to transform to the party into a vehicle for radical socialism, they need to completely overhaul and streamline the system into one which incorporates the huge asset that is their mass membership.)

Direct democracy is essential to keep parliament and government in check, and we’re more than capable of moving to it, any time we want. While our decision-making process is stuck in the 1870s, our society will inevitably be dragged back with it.

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