DEFINITIVE PRESENTATION OF THE THINKING BEHIND FUZZY DEMOCRACY
I. [Setting the scene]
The saving virtue of democracy as a form of government is that, in principle, it is self-correcting. But much the same is said in praise of the market. It is evident that both, as presently constituted, have been failing us. Time and again, when they come, their efforts at self-correction arrive late and fall well short of the mark. Some hard thinking needs to be done on the nature and dynamics of markets. All the more on the nature of democracy and the mechanics of citizen involvement.
Inevitably democratic governance is always indirect, taking the form of some citizens representing others and making decisions on their behalf. Outside the smallest groups, there is no such thing as direct – i.e. unfiltered, unmediated – democracy. There is too great a multitude of issues for a even a small proportion to be settled by referenda, besides which there is always contention about how the question on the ballot is framed. Referenda involve binary choices, which are socially divisive, or involve complications with secondary choices that lead to confusion and manipulation. Therefore, the question addressed here is how it is possible to achieve a high level of precision of representation.
Now, at the end of the second decade of the third millennium, every part of society has moved on, gone through a digital revolution or two, opened up choice and become fine-tuned, all bar the sphere of politics. In many ways the political parties have changed little since the nineteenth century, steam locomotives for our hi-tech future.
There is also the issue of power, of its overreach and the damage this causes. Of how it becomes concentrated and how it might be checked. Power not only in the form of organised economic interests seeking to overrule the choice of direction taken by the demos. Also the way power operates in politics where, ideally, it is the force of reason that should have the last say.
One way political power emerges is by combining unconnected issues into a package – or bundle – in Latin "fasces" – such that, in order to purchase one or two desired items, one must swallow much that is undesired. Secondly, at the aggregate level we have the distortion caused by the issues on which people vote being wildly different. If there are seven themes to be passionate about these will not be the same for one and all. A politician can garner votes for issue A, some more for issue B, win support elsewhere by advocating C and so on until they claim to have won a majority. This enables the politician – or their party – to claim legitimacy in going against majority opinion on almost everything.
There is moreover in the public sphere a systematic abuse of language. Not least with our core concept, democracy. Thus there is praise of democracy when what is meant is an open society, or liberty, or freedom of speech and the rule of law, or the separation of powers and checks & balances, or a liberal culture. These things are related, but distinct. They are preconditions for democracy understood as a form of government, but they are not enough.
Now to the familiar complaints of many voters. Although there are substantial differences in the mechanisms across the countries of, say, Europe, there are recurrent criticisms. In order to make one’s vote count, one may have to adjust one’s choice to accommodate predictions of how others will vote. The choice on the ballot may be configured so as to constrain people to vote for the least bad option, whether this is an individual or a party. One may not be able to vote for the party one supports without supporting a candidate one rejects. Very many votes will fail to count towards the composition of the assembly or parliament, i.e. they are lost. Hence voters are discouraged from voting for small parties or for candidates without party affiliation.
Whenever there is correction in the constitution for one of these weaknesses, another failing emerges. Hence proportional representation assumes that all politicians must be party members and that voters can find a party to their liking. Alternative votes or second rounds may enable one to express one’s preference or convictions in the first round, but this is only a consolation prize since much of the time that first vote will go unheeded. With run-off votes the electorate has in recent times repeatedly been faced with invidious choices, leading sometimes to massive abstention.
First-past-the-post systems mean that candidates can get elected with relatively little support, with the losing contenders, in the aggregate, winning a large majority. The winner scrapes in by the good fortune of having many opponents. Hence campaigners must avoid splits in their core vote with the result that FPTP favours deal-making and shadowy pre-selection prior to the actual ballot. The choice subsequently given the electorate is contrived. Tactical voting runs riot.
Aware of the imperfections of each system, some countries have devised abstruse methods combining the different mechanisms. To crown it all, there is the notion that there must be a parliamentary majority to elect a stable executive of like-minded politicians to take collective responsibility for all decisions across the board, i.e. the principle of unitary government. To this end, the winning party may be granted bonus seats. Hence all votes are equal, but some more equal than others.
Now though, with everyone being familiar with 21st century technologies and these being inexpensive, there is another way.
II. [Principles of ideal voting design]
What conditions would have to be fulfilled by a truly – or at least reasonably – representative parliament, if such a thing is conceivable?
There would need to be a way of counting votes such that only few, relatively speaking, go entirely lost. Citizens should be able to cast their vote with a high degree of precision. This would mean having a large pool of candidates to choose from. Yet selecting a candidate should not be too onerous, nor should citizens be called on to vote overly frequently. It would also mean being able to vote separately on the different grand areas of politics much as one expects to be able to vote separately on local and national issues.
Account also needs to be taken of the situation of candidates or politicians. They should not be beholden to party activists, or lobbies, or other special interests. They should not feel they have to be all things to all men. Not go begging for votes by ingratiating themselves. Irrespective of party loyalty they should be able to speak out on the basis of their conscience and convictions. Depending on the stage in their career, they should not feel a need to adopt an opinion on every topic under the sun. They must be in a position to be swayed by the force of argument rather than peer pressure. Ideally, a successful politician would have a virtual constituency, i.e. a largely unknown but loyal group of backers, voters who trust his or her political judgement and character.
There may need to be safeguards against concentration of power where this cannot be justified, which is most of the time.
III. [Presentation of core concept]
I have christened the proposed solution “Fuzzy Democracy,” using the word “fuzzy” in the sense of being a close but not always perfect match, as in search algorithms. Fuzzy Democracy as a mechanism is “Transferable power of political attorney,” which is a legalistic mouthful but sums it up. Alternatively, it might be referred to as election through proxies. This is how it works.
For election a candidate must obtain a definite number of votes. This number will be determined by the size of the electorate in the country (polity) concerned and the intended size of the assembly or parliament. It might therefore be a fixed number (such as 220,000, 120,000, 70,000, 30,000) depending on the size of the parliament and population represented, bearing in mind historic turnout. Or it might be set as a proportion of the number of votes actually cast, for example, 0.2 percent of those cast nationwide.
Most candidates will fall far short of this threshold. They will then proceed to re-distribute their votes among themselves. Candidates close to the threshold will canvass for and obtain the batches (contingents) of votes of lower scoring candidates until they reach the threshold. That is, they will have obtained election on the basis of direct personal votes plus proxy votes. Note that at this stage the ordinary voters no longer have a say. They will have awarded a power of political attorney to their chosen candidate: this is unconditional and cannot be retracted. Such is the nature of representation.
Some high-profile candidates will obtain many more than the threshold number of votes. They in turn will proceed to distribute their surplus to candidates who have fallen short. That is, they will have a certain power of patronage.
It might be feared that this will lead to an undue concentration of power in the hands of a few charismatic personalities. The fear may or may not be warranted. To counter it, it would, in principle, be possible to place an upper limit on the number of votes any candidate may receive. One advantage to note here is that such a limit would likely work in favour of a more nuanced politics and against crudely “populist” policies since well-established politicians would derive no advantage from maximising their share of the vote.
There is the objection that curtailing the number of votes any single candidate may receive runs counter to the principle (advocated here) that citizens should be able to vote for any contender they choose. It is also a restriction that might, especially at the early stage of implementation, be awkward to put into practice since it would require real-time feedback on votes during casting at the thousands of locations nationwide. However, with a suitably sophisticated electorate it should be unnecessary. The procedure in the polling booth can be designed to nudge voters to choose a local or a regional candidate rather than a national celebrity. Note that, even if people do swarm to vote for two or three charismatic characters with the result that these have what critics might regard as an excessive power of patronage, any ill effects would probably be short-lived. The candidates benefiting from proxy votes are not bound to follow orders, as with a party whip, and would have good prospects, at a subsequent election and on the strength of their parliamentary record, of amassing direct votes and so creating their own power-base.
In what follows the focus is mainly on the somewhat special political dispensation in the United Kingdom, but the principles involved can easily be applied to other jurisdictions in the liberal democracies. The situation in countries where voting is on ethnic, tribal or religious lines is not addressed.
IV. [How FD might be enacted in the polling booth]
The description of Fuzzy Democracy is straightforward enough and many will be quickly persuaded of its merits. The obstacle is seeing how this can possibly be put into practice. Indeed, in the twentieth century it was unimaginable because of the practical obstacles.
Somewhat obviously, it involves electronic voting, now the norm in several countries. If people are suspicious of voting by machine, it would be easy to arrange for a printout to be made on the spot of each vote cast, which the voter could then view in secret, fold and place in the ballot box. Since the vote might have been cast for any of many thousands of candidates, the counting would need to be done by machine, i.e. with the aid of a scanner, but this process should be transparent enough, and, in extremis, there would be a paper trail.
Part of the way Fuzzy Democracy works is that it offers voters a large or very large pool of candidates to choose from. Further below, variants are proposed which might be described as partial or full Fuzzy Democracy. In the case of the latter, there would be many thousands of candidates nationwide for the individual voter to choose from. This is less daunting than seems at first sight. The voter is not expected to examine the many or the thousands of candidates in the weeks prior to the election, let alone view them in the polling booth.
In the UK, for example, you might have on screen the several candidates that currently appear on the constituency paper ballot. You would know about these candidates as you do now. If you are content with the selection, you vote on this screen. However, if you dislike this selection, you will already have identified candidates elsewhere who you would back, perhaps in a neighbouring constituency, or where you have connections. In this case you move to another screen, find or type in the name of your choice, check, and cast your vote.
In an introductory phase, which might last a long time, two screens would be a radical enough change for many voters, with a first screen for a handful of constituency candidates and a second screen of a manageable one or two hundred candidates based in the county or region. Only in the fullness of time would there be a (possibly contentious) upgrade to a third screen with a nationwide list of many thousands.
V. [Selection of candidates]
How, as a voter, does one go about identifying candidates who are not local and who one might wish to vote for? This is where there is work for the established political parties, or for newcomers, or for special interest groups. One might contact such a party or group for recommendations. Obviously this would often be done over the Internet. One might receive recommendations from one’s contacts in social media. Alternatively, one might simply know of candidates one would support through the established media, or on their past record, or through one’s line of work, personally even, and so on. Once one has identified a candidate one is sufficiently content with, one terminates the search. One does not normally search through all the thousands to find the perfect match for one’s own convictions. In this extreme case, it might be easier to put oneself forward as a candidate.
The conditions for candidature would be much the same as now. One would need a certain number of supporters for endorsement and a deposit, which should be affordable but not negligible.
A useful analogy for the process is internet dating except that identifying a political candidate is much easier since the candidate does not have to confirm that they want your attention (it is not two-way).
VI. [Costs; tangible benefits of democracy (better governance)]
Inevitably the small-minded question of costs will be raised. The costs of bad government and poor parliamentary decisions are so immense that those arising from a system which is designed to be self-correcting must, in comparison, be negligible. Of course, someone might be sceptical that improved representative democracy would lead to better decision-making. Two points can be made here. One is that the track records of other forms of government compare poorly to those of democracies. Dictatorships and oligopolies fail to deliver much and they mostly end badly. Indeed, one definition of a democracy is of a dispensation where the government can be changed without violence. The other point is that current and recent “democracies” have fallen a long way short of being properly representative and, therefore, their failures cannot be solely attributed to the democratic principle.
There is a further argument. Compare the way in which a consensus is arrived at in matters of scientific truth, it being acknowledged that science and technology are at the root of our present prosperity. In the natural sciences, there is no popular vote (not “one man, one vote”) to establish a hypothesis. There is an informal hierarchy whereby those who are acknowledged to be better informed are accorded consensually more credence than those whose knowledge is rudimentary. Interpretations and evaluations are filtered.
In Fuzzy Democracy the filtering process itself must needs be formal, but otherwise there are similarities of structure. Decision-making power is vested ultimately in those whose judgement in general and whose knowledge of the matters concerned are widely trusted. The essential difference to science is that politics involves matters of value, i.e. of (ever-changing) priorities, and these are rather different to matters of expertise. Hence “experts” can be overruled, although in practice there are no matters which are devoid of at least low-level expertise. Fuzzy Democracy aims to empower comparatively those who are well-informed and have considered matters thoroughly. These, like experts, may not always agree among themselves and otherwise they too can fall victim to groupthink, but neither are they to be dismissed lightly. In life there are no cure-alls. However, on balance, it may be expected that, under Fuzzy Democracy, the rationality – the reasonableness – of decision-making would be much enhanced.
Returning to the practicalities, which are also bound up with costs, a rethink of how elections are conducted is overdue. In our wealthy countries it would be entirely feasible to have semi-permanent venues for voting rather than always commandeering schools and the like. There would then be no reason, other than custom or theatricality, why all voting should take place on a single day. By spreading voting over a week or even a month, the number of computer stations needed would be much reduced. This would have other benefits, too. One could abolish postal voting, which is susceptible of electoral fraud. Citizens on travels away from their home constituency could vote at any location in the country, with pre-registration if administratively desirable. The dedicated (permanent) facilities might then also be offered for hire to civil society organisations, for example, for secure trade union elections.
VII. [Resumé so far]
Fuzzy democracy, the proxy mechanism, solves substantially the three interconnected problems of (i) votes failing to count; (ii) tactical voting; and (iii) votes going to the least bad (rather than the preferred) option. There will inevitably be a handful of votes that fail to get assigned at the transfer stage, but these can easily be limited to one or two percent, so that ninety-eight or more percent of votes do count. This is good enough – “Fuzzy” means near-perfect, not perfect – and is radically better than what we have at present. But how can it come about?
There has long been a principle of prudence that radical changes should be trialled in selected geographical areas rather than as a blanket measure nationwide. Taking the UK as an example, it would be possible, for instance, to introduce the “power of political attorney” mechanism county by county. Or for a regional assembly to adopt it. An analysis of where votes are currently “wasted” would enable two or three counties to be identified where such injustice in outcome was particularly grave. As a first step, the several constituencies in such a county might combine to install the hardware.
Fuzzy Democracy, the mechanism, being a universal and adaptable concept, would also be suitable for local government elections. And of course any substantial elections where the outcome is currently or potentially falsified by the defects it sets out to remedy.
VIII. [Themed devolution]
In the United Kingdom considerable powers have been devolved to Scotland and Wales, and were always devolved to Northern Ireland except in times of crisis. There has been occasional talk of such devolution to regions of England, too. Opinions differ about its wisdom. Meanwhile, most other countries have always been less centralised.
The question arises, in our increasingly interconnected world, whether decentralisation along a geographical dimension is the most effective organisational approach. For executive government we have ministries which deal independently with the different broad concerns of political life, which mostly cannot be intelligently defined geographically. Moreover, the matters that engage the passions of voters vary greatly. If the economy is one overarching concern, it is by no means the only one. There was maybe a time when it could be assumed that voters with certain opinions in one area, foreign policy, for example, would have conveniently matching opinions on others, such as home affairs or taxation. People were left-wing. right-wing or in the centre. Surely, those uni-dimensional days are past.
Taking the UK as an example, there is great controversy around infrastructure, with opinion divided on airport expansion, the management of the railways, power generation, environmental protection and house-building. There is discontent about the provision of fast internet. Not to
Just on this single policy area a properly representative democracy would need to provide voters with precision of choice so as to elect politicians on the strength of their engagement and standpoints on these matters, without regard to what opinions they might hold on matters of defence, assisted dying, education, healthcare, prisons or social security.
It might be argued that that there are parliamentary select committees in the UK, and equivalent bodies elsewhere, to focus on these separate subjects and examine expertly all considerations including the input of civil servants and lobbyists. But the question arises whether all who are well-informed are substantially satisfied with the work of such committees. More generally, though, there is the objection that the public has no influence over the selection of the committee members (except in the most indirect, least transparent manner) such that the composition of such committees must seem arbitrary.
There is, outside the box, an obvious solution: To have separately elected assemblies for the diverse grand areas of political debate. There would, granted, have to be a limit on the number of such assemblies, and demarcation rules would be needed with joint sovereignty where there is overlap. For coordination purposes an overarching parliament could be retained with similar or stronger powers to those of an upper house.
In a first phase, in the UK, the Commons would devolve powers to first one, then two or three and eventually seven or eight such assemblies, with experience and popular endorsement dictating the speed and extent of the devolution.
The rule must be that there should be some thematic unity such that it may be assumed that voters who have a certain stance on – here – a given infrastructure proposal will share opinion on another. This might take the general form of some groups of voters advocating ambitious projects and others favouring smaller scale or piecemeal ones.
A start might be made, least controversially, with an “Ethics” assembly to rule on legislation around the inception and end of life, on recreational drugs, treatment of animals, parental rights and responsibilities, on gender matters, on free speech, gambling and other issues which do not fall easily into the categories of right-wing or left-wing. Many would likely vote according to their religious belief, and others from a humanist perspective.
Infrastructure (including environment) could follow. Afterwards it might be desirable to combine some policy areas in order to limit the number of assemblies and elections, with the administration of justice, education, healthcare and welfare all coming initially under the auspices of a single assembly for home affairs. Foreign policy and defence belong obviously together. Ideally, taxation should be dealt with separately, and maybe not even combined with state expenditure. This would enable serious reform to the categories, structure and level of taxation, matters surely too important to be left to civil servants and a few political appointees. When the tax code has become so voluminous and complicated that, apparently, there is no single person who understands it perfectly, a clean and well-considered rupture would seem imperative. Big bang. Generalist politicians have had ample time to reform tax and there are few observers that would not argue they have failed.
IX. [Assembly relationship with the executive, dispersal of power]
In many European jurisdictions ministers are appointed as the outcome of coalition negotiations. In others, they are appointed at the sole discretion of a prime minister or president. It is possible to question whether either of these methods is ideal. In particular, it may be asked whether this does not leave too much power in the hands of a single individual at the top of government. Not only is the influence of the electorate minimal: that of most elected representatives is also much restricted.
A corollary of the proposed dedicated assemblies would be that they should propose and likely elect the executive for their policy area, i.e. the government minister or ministers. Such appointments would therefore no longer be in the hands of a prime minister or coalition negotiators, at least not entirely. Dismissal might be by a constructive vote: that is, the assembly would have to agree on a replacement before a dismissal could take effect.
It might be objected that this would run counter to the principle of collective decision-making in cabinet and indeed that of collective responsibility, i.e. the principle that the members of a government should speak with one voice.
Whereas the rules of collegiality may require that, normally, a minister should not speak out against an established policy which is outside their ministerial remit, requiring outspoken devotion to a collective line seems somewhat extreme and unnecessary. Moreover, it is often perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be hypocritical, and therefore it is not a principle that can be maintained in good faith.
A key aim of Fuzzy Democracy, alongside making most votes count and enhancing precision, is the dispersal of power. Certainly, some concentration of power is always necessary, and in a crisis more so, but we have arguably been witnessing across the liberal world an extreme concentration of power which is hard to reconcile with democratic principles. Some of that power has come to be concentrated in the civil service or its technocratic equivalent. Where expertise is concentrated, there is also power. With the hazard, too, of groupthink. Without robust democratic oversight, accountability and responsiveness are limited. Often, a single senior minister backed by a couple of junior ministers will not have the wherewithal to muster the intellectual resistance that may be needed to the ingrained habits of procedure and thought of a supposedly neutral civil service. A dedicated, democratic assembly, however, would provide a formidable counterweight, i.e. a check and a balance.
In the creation of special topic assemblies, the question would arise of the term (duration) of the assembly. There would be many more elections. Moving from a voting frequency at national level of once every four or five years to a much higher frequency would involve a cultural shift that not all would welcome. It might be desirable for the assemblies to last longer, say, seven years, which in the UK and elsewhere was the rhythm at the start of the 20th century. If there were seven assemblies, this would enable there to be an assembly election not more than once a year. (At least: Ethics, Infrastructure, Foreign Affairs & Defence, Home Affairs, Taxation.) In theory, it would seem desirable not to have simultaneous elections for several or all assemblies since this might diminish the attention given to each. Consideration of the interests of stability and continuity would find merit in the rhythm of only half of the representatives being elected at one time, as happens in some civil society associations, or with the staggered election (in six-year terms) of the US Senate; but this, and the cultural shift it implies, would perhaps be a step too far at present.
The proposal is not that all assemblies should be set in stone for a century. As major problems are eventually resolved consensually so it would be possible to disband an assembly or set up a new one to address emergent concern elsewhere. For example, the UK might want to have, pending reform, a separate assembly for healthcare whereas in other countries this might not be such a prominent or controversial topic. Italy might want a dedicated assembly to reform thoroughly its administration of justice, which seems to this outsider to be even more chaotic than elsewhere. It should not need to be permanent. Similarly, Germany might do well to have a provisional assembly to deal with immigration and integration.
And, of course, to repeat, some topics would require joint custodianship.
Critics will raise the question of electoral turnout, fearing that the proposed reforms might lead to this falling to unacceptably low levels. But we do not know. Arguably it would be much higher, at least in aggregate. It would not necessarily be the same people voting each time. If there are, say, five elections with a turnout of thirty percent each this might involve a higher turnout in aggregate than what we have at present where there is one election only and turnout of sixty percent. One should distinguish participative rate from turnout.
Apart from this consideration, there is another argument. Other things being equal, it is not self-evident that a high turnout is desirable. What is desirable is that all those who feel called to vote (i.e. those motivated to express a well-considered choice) should be able to do so, and do so with a high degree of precision.
[The myth of an homogenous electorate --->]
A fallacy has gained footing that, in an election, every last member of the public has a duty to vote. Indeed, in some places (e.g. Australia) this is a legal requirement, and elsewhere, too, it has occasionally been suggested that voting should be made compulsory. The hidden premise is that every citizen has the personal aptitude to assume this particular responsibility. But people are vastly varied. Someone might fulfil a valuable role in their community but have no head to engage in politics. Or they might be psychologically unwell at election time. Some people are reckless or have the minds of criminals. Others, upright and keen to vote, will be passionate and superbly informed about the issues, while others, equally intelligent and passingly knowledgeable, will be largely indifferent or even cynics. Why should the voice of voters who are fully engaged be drowned out by others who are uninformed, do not care or regard the whole show as akin to a beauty contest?
Light may be shone on the issue by considering another sphere of life. Do we as individuals have a duty to put children into the world simply because we have the apparatus to do so? It is essential that some people have children, and desirable that those who do also have the ability and resolve to bring their children up well. People who love children (rather than those who bear them stoically) should indeed have children, and maybe rather more than the familiar 2.1 population replacement figure. But it does not follow that this is the avenue all should take. Some will have a different calling in life. Maybe even politics. Everyone is responsible for something, but no-one is responsible for everything.
This said, people who have enjoyed a good education, especially those in the professions, are surely, prima facie, under a moral obligation to vote, and to do so in a considered manner. It might be supposed they also have a prima facie obligation to engage modestly at some point in their lives, be it early or late, in civic society if not in politics proper.
If things go badly, the abstention, silence or withdrawal of professional people especially can be held against them. This said, parties have, surely, no business harassing every last potential voter to turn out, irrespective of whether they are adequately informed or motivated to weigh their choice judiciously. Notwithstanding the ubiquitous photos of candidates, an election is not a beauty contest, nor should it be reduced to a choice of slogans. This surely is populism in the worst sense, eagerly pursued by parties that claim not to be populist and funded in some jurisdictions with public money.
It goes without saying that the polling booth must remain open to all citizens (except those traditionally disqualified) since any kind of educational or character requirement is wide open to abuse.
The electorate is, then, self-selecting. Therefore, other things being equal, the level of turnout is not itself a criterion for the validity of the electoral result. To recapitulate: There is little, outside the requirement to be law-abiding (or at least to observe the common law), which is a universal responsibility. Even common courtesy has its limits when, for example, it is being abused or is one-sided. No individual is obliged to put children into the world except they feel the urge to do so. Not everyone is obliged to be interested in politics, although it may be in their interest and although some certainly do have this obligation. When historically there has been a catastrophic failure of democracy, or what counted as such, as in 1930s Germany, the fault did not lie with those failing to vote for personal reasons, but elsewhere.
Gradual or rapid implementation of the twin principles of Fuzzy Democracy (proxy voting and thematic devolution) would have many ramifications.
(1) Individual politicians, especially the best, would find their hand strengthened vis-à-vis their party. At present, a prominent and popular politician in a marginal constituency might have countless would-be voters and so theoretically a super-majority, but located in all the wrong places. Under Fuzzy Democracy their power base would consist of supporters spread far beyond their home (i.e. geographical) constituency. It would also be much easier to become or remain a politician without party affiliation. De-selection would be less threatening. The fuzzy mechanism largely replaces the need for US-style primaries or other methods of preselection of candidates. Parties might become, as they were originally, alliances of like-minded players rather than formal organisations controlled tightly from the centre.
(2) With time, it is likely that think tanks would gain in influence at the expense of parties, one difference being that, outside its innermost circle, a think tank is not based on membership and so does not and cannot discipline adherents (since adhesion is informal). A think tank supplies ideas and research, not organisation or selection.
(3) Given precision and accuracy of representation, as Fuzzy Democracy makes possible, the status and role of opinion polls and focus groups would change and probably diminish. Social media would doubtless play a role in directing voter attention to certain candidates, but as long as no misinformation is involved, this is legitimate. (The fact that social media have been a vector of manipulation is another matter, unconnected, and for which there are remedies. One could, for a start, require registration to involve the same strict criteria as opening a bank account. This would enable persons posting malicious comments or disinformation under pseudonyms to be identified and barred (with right of due process and proper appeal). One could deprive the social media of advertising revenue, or at least curtail advertising expenditure on social media. Most problems have solutions once one thinks outside the box.)
(4) It might be surmised that, as it becomes easier to campaign with a realistic prospect of success and to do so without going through the party machine, overall a different quality of contender would emerge. There are reasons to hope that there would eventually be more representatives who were their own man (woman), more who were leaders rather than followers, and that these people would be more robust in the face of popular but ill-considered opinion. They might be articulate rather than media-savvy, or, shall we say, articulate in a different way.
(5) A further ramification is the effect on nationalist and separatist tendencies. Northern Ireland, Catalonia and Belgium come to mind, but other areas of incipient or suppressed conflict too. The dedicated assemblies, in particular, should offer novel space for policy and consensus away from sectarian divides.
Meanwhile, the proxy vote component of fully (as opposed to partial) Fuzzy Democracy would enable the unity of the – a – nation to be reinforced. Taking again the UK as an exemplary case, in a manner of speaking, Mr O’Groats in the far north of Scotland can vote for Ms Cornwall in the far west of England, Mr Jones of Swansea for Ms Patel in London, and Dr Kelly of Derry for Mrs O’Groats. Moreover, the dedicated assemblies combined with transferable power of political attorney enable the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon to be countered without resort to heavy-handedness. There is much that Fuzzy Democracy has the potential to defuse. By reshuffling the cards it offers a fresh start.
(6) A new European Project could apply the principles of Fuzzy Democracy to reject the predominance of political parties and the liberal or illiberal populism they imply or encourage. One emergent danger for serious democracy is the drift towards bi-polarity, which provokes ill-feeling, suspicion and conflict, not to speak of so-called identity politics and its basis in divisiveness. Having single parties for all topics means that disparate matters are bundled together unnecessarily and that differentiated reflection is effectively curtailed. It is this that sets the stage for populism, if populism is understood as advocating simplistic solutions and recklessly labelling specific groups as the culprits for whatever social ills are making headline news.
Pan-European assemblies for different broad topics (foreign affairs, infrastructure) could be elected with individual votes going from Athens to Helsinki, from Berlin to Barcelona. This would greatly strengthen the credibility of the European Union, or a successor, as a legitimate force, though one may doubt that those in the present European Commission have the imagination or vision to see this. Fuzzy Democracy (i.e. the proxy mechanism and themed assemblies) at pan-European level could show – or lead – the way for better democracy at national level. Realistically, though, the development, if embarked on, would likely be the other way round.
(7) The mechanism of transferable power of political attorney is highly adaptable and therefore suitable for a great variety of other electorates – for example, trade unions, shareholders in public limited companies, and local government.
(8) Separately elected assemblies for addressing distinct areas of concern, such as infrastructure, should divert some protest away from the street and into properly democratic avenues. When activists resort to blockades, often with an element of violence, in order to stop something being built, or transported, or demolished, it is in part because the political and judicial dispensation has deprived them of any other way of making their voice heard. Indeed, as things stand the established order is often perceived as having scant moral legitimacy such that it virtually constitutes an invitation to similarly illegitimate intransigence and therefore to legal infractions, disturbance of the peace and even sabotage.
(9) There could be a redefinition of the loose concept of the political class. Although the size of assemblies might be fairly low, maybe under a hundred even in a large country, in aggregate the number of members might be considerably greater than at present. These, at least, would constitute the first cohort of the political class. Going further, there could be a rule or custom that, in order to qualify for appointment to positions of a semi-political nature, for example, quangos, a person must have stood for an assembly and obtained a certain minimum of direct votes. This would put an end to people obtaining positions of political influence entirely without endorsement by the public.
(10) In a dedicated parliament, with weakened or many parties, there might no longer be a role for an official opposition, which would find itself replaced by ad-hoc oppositions. Not all spectators would miss the gladiatorial theatre of Prime Minister’s question time.
XI. [Minor points including electoral college]
A word on the redistribution of direct votes. It is imagined that this would best take place at a special convention lasting two or more days where like-minded candidates could get to know each other before assigning irrevocably their contingent of votes to another candidate. To repeat: many candidates will have fallen far short of the high threshold and so would have votes to redistribute while a few would have surplus votes likewise to redistribute.
There are certain other points of detail that have not been addressed here since they do not affect the fundamental concept and there is nothing special to add to current practice or discussions. These include, with possible solutions in parentheses: (i) Payment of deputies (reasonable but not overly generous recompense) and whether they may be expected to have outside employment (within limits); (ii) Financing of campaigns and spending limits (democracy is not compatible with plutocracy); (iii) Lobbying and the risk of lobbyists getting elected (mandatory declaration of interests and affiliations prior to the election period); (iv) the “Ombudsman” role of representatives (this function might be fulfilled separately or differently); (v) What happens when a representative resigns, falls into ill-health or dies (no replacement, no by-elections, since the local or constituency element is much diminished; otherwise through alternates, who would be runner-up candidates).
XII. [Summary and looking ahead]
In the case of the UK, the need to vacate parts of the Palace of Westminster in order to perform essential maintenance and upgrading might be taken as the occasion to establish, if only as an experimental step, one or two dedicated assemblies in cities outside London. It need not be a matter of immediately delegating full powers to such assemblies: for an interim period the last say could still reside with the House of Commons and the Lords, with later a permanent power of veto for the Commons. Westminster was not built in a day. The recommendations of such dedicated assemblies might rapidly obtain a moral authority that Westminster would find hard to resist.
Even without the say-so of the political establishment it would be possible for civil society to act. Let us return to the vexed “ethical” questions. (In fact, these questions are more properly understood as being religious in nature, with diverse religions and humanisms at loggerheads. Even humanism retains residual religious elements with a recognition of the need for ceremony and ritual around, at a minimum, the first and last things of life.)
The ethically sensitive questions include: fine-tuning or updating abortion laws; surrogacy; adoption policy; access to IVF technologies (designer babies); parental responsibilities & rights; assisted dying; issues arising from gender reassignment; the scope of equality policy (for example, opportunity versus outcome); any limits to free speech (censorship; prohibition of blasphemy); legislation and restrictions on recreational drugs; gambling; treatment of animals – there is hardly any area here where new technologies, knowledge and attitudes do not require a re-examination of tradition.
Note the enormous scope of issues involved here, each requiring a degree of expertise and for those debating them to have reflected long and hard. There will be few people in the land who combine these qualities with equally mature and firmly grounded positions on high finance, international politics, the environment, plus the justice and welfare systems. And those few people are unlikely to make it to a seat in the House of Commons or any legislature elsewhere. Yet, under the present dispensation, voters are called on to choose a single person to represent them on all these diverse matters. In this respect, too, the concentration of power is in overreach.
It would be feasible for the different Churches and organisations representing non-Christian denominations to combine with humanists, and others, to create a shadow assembly to discuss ethical issues thoroughly, without the undue time pressure characteristic of parliament, and to make recommendations where a degree of consensus was possible. True, it would have no legislative power, but in time, and maybe rapidly, it could obtain a voice in the political realm with greater authority than any parliamentary special committee.
At the pre-Brexit time of writing, discontent with the political parties and frustration among many at not being able to register a vote in line with their convictions would seem to be at an all-time high. Voters can hardly be blamed for their impression of having an Unrepresentative Democracy or else a Rotten Parliament. Added to this is the perception of many that, where some major issues are discussed (e.g. the very expensive rail infrastructure project HS2), almost ad infinitum, one side wins the argument but the other just presses ahead anyway. Democracy needs to be more than a culture of discussion, without consequences for outcome.
The twin pillars of Fuzzy Democracy offer practical solutions for how to reinvent participative government following the principle that all who wish to must be able to register their preferred direction of travel with at least some precision.
Implementing the proxy mechanism and themed devolution would, of course, be disruptive. Disruption is what is needed if remedies to enduring problems are to be found and implemented. Nimble incumbents will do well, and newcomers too. It is not the case that democracy is failing, as some contend, but it has been side-tracked by the refusal to innovate and move with the times. Fuzzy Democracy brings a new paradigm for representative democracy. It counter-acts bi-polarity and the accompanying divisiveness. It is the antidote to political resignation.