What can be done about our rotten parliament? Or rather, about an electoral system that prevents people voting with any precision and which counts votes in a distorting mirror so that some weigh far more than others. Parties and candidates with widespread support receive next to no representation while others without a proper majority dominate both parliament and government.
So something needs to be done about our rotten parliament. But what? Most circle round the wicked First Past the Post (FPTP) carousel calling out for Proportional Representation (PR), or Alternative Votes (AV), or run-offs in second rounds, or improved procedures for selecting candidates with primaries. And all agree that these mechanisms are half measures at best.
There is an alternative. It involves no vote going wasted and so an end to tactical voting. Yet it gives each citizen an enormous choice of candidates, so there is no voting for the “least bad” option. At each election the citizen has only one vote, so it is not too complicated. Too good to be true? Last century it was.
Here’s how it works. To get elected a candidate must obtain a fixed number of votes or a fixed proportion of the number of votes cast. Some outstanding candidates will receive far more, while most will fall far short. The electorate is now out of the game, and the scene moves to the successful candidates distributing their surplus and less successful candidates awarding their share of votes to like-minded candidates who are closer to the threshold. In a mouthful of six words it is: Multiply Transferable Power of Political Attorney.
This system was inconceivable last century because it would have required a ballot paper as long as a toilet roll and counting would have taken a parliamentary term. Now we could have computer screens in every polling booth. One types in the name of one’s chosen candidate, checks it is the correct Ms Jones or Mr Smith, and presses Print. One inspects then folds the printout and places it in the ballot box. The printing is superfluous, but this way transparency is preserved.
How does one find a candidate to vote for among the many thousands who have put themselves forward? Well, it is easier than finding a life companion on a dating site or the dance floor. You might know a candidate, or of a candidate, through your line of work or your cultural interests, or from your time in education, or through engagement in civil society, and so on. You might alternatively identify like-minded individuals from among those standing through a think-tank or a political party, or you might know of them through the mass media on the strength of past political performance or achievements in other areas. Anyone with a passing interest in politics will probably know of a few candidates they think sufficiently well of. You would check out several candidate websites, not thousands, and make a choice.
But what has happened to our cherished constituencies? If they are really cherished, they can remain, although not quite so watertight as now. The screen would first display a short list of local candidates, i.e. those resident in the geographical constituency. If there is one you like (you should already know) you go ahead and vote for them. If there is none you like you go to the national list and proceed as above. Some winning candidates would have a strong local base, whereas others might represent virtual constituencies, for example, the constituency of cat owners everywhere. Or, more appropriately, people with a particular way of life, or line of work, etc. An added bonus of this mechanism is that it strengthens the unity of the country. Mr O'Groats in the far north can vote for Ms Cornwall in the south-west, Jones of Cardiff can vote for Smith in London, and so on.
There might a safeguard against the winner-takes-all phenomenon. To prevent celebrity candidates amassing too many votes and so being able, with this power of patronage, to handpick loyal backers and pack the parliament, there could be an upper limit on how many surplus votes any one candidate can obtain. Voters would then have to be prepared with a second choice. The overriding principle here is the avoidance of excessive concentration of power.
This electoral system needs a name and the name proposed is Fuzzy Democracy. “Fuzzy” as in “Fuzzy logic” in computing or “Fuzzy matches” in search algorithms. Although this electoral system gets very close to the ideal and is superior in this respect to all rivals, it will not match the changeable will of the people perfectly, so it remains approximative, or “fuzzy”.
There are a few objections that might be raised. One is that the power of political parties would be much curtailed. Many people could get elected without the aid of a political party, and it would be easy for new political parties to emerge, perhaps with the result that there would many parties, therefore making the formation of a government excessively protracted. Worse than Italy or Israel.
One unspoken assumption here is the convention of collective ministerial responsibility, which says that each member of the government must support publicly the policies of all the others. Hence cabinet members must be (broadly) like-minded. The second assumption follows, namely the convention that cabinet ministers for specific posts must be selected according to their party affiliation, rather than on the strength of parliamentary support for their policies and competence. Both of these conventions can be questioned and rejected. Further below an alternative method is proposed for ensuring stable and democratic government.
A second objection is related, namely that the proliferation of parties, or their absence, would mean there could be no formal opposition, it being understood that a robust and vibrant opposition is a cornerstone of democratic government. But the lack of a formal opposition would not mean there was no opposition, merely that it would be ad-hoc and be led by changing figures. If desired, it would in any case be easy to devise a procedure for non-party members against the government to elect from their number a formal leader of the opposition.
Consideration of these objections leads on to a refinement of fuzzy democracy. It is surely preposterous to have a single assembly, representative or party to cover matters as diverse as high finance, taxation, defence & foreign affairs, education, health, social security, employment law, the administration of justice, infrastructure, and ethical issues. Not only can no one elected member be expected to have an equally mature and well-informed opinion on each of these matters; voters are placed in a parallel bind since at present they must always select a package or bundle of policies without any pick and choose.
The obvious solution is to have several assemblies for the various grand areas of political concern. The number of assemblies would need to be kept manageable, and there would be some overlap, which could easily be accommodated by joint stewardship or appeal to a senior chamber. To avoid elections becoming too frequent and so burdensome, the duration of the assemblies could be longer than at present. This would also encourage more long-term thinking.
Full-blown fuzzy democracy has many ramifications. One is that it is designed to disperse power so as to strengthen the voice of reason and the force of argument. Instead of a prime minister appointing cabinet ministers, these would be elected by the relevant assembly. Once elected they could only be replaced by a constructive vote, which means that before passing a vote of no-confidence the assembly would have to have chosen the replacement.
How might fuzzy democracy come about, seeing that, in contrast to every other sphere of life, the political system resists even minor change? Movement in these matters is mostly generational. There is a paradigm shift, and what was inconceivable one moment becomes the new conventional wisdom.
A start to the disruption of the status quo might be made, least controversially, by demanding the creation of separate assemblies to address “ethical” issues, these encompassing not only matters around the inception & end of life but also our treatment of animals, the availability of recreational drugs, privacy rights and the scope of parental rights & duties. Starting here would largely avoid the trap of the left-right divide. Indeed, it would be possible for those (typically religious and humanist organisations) that campaign on “ethical” issues to create informally such an assembly, despite their differences. A well-constituted ethics assembly, even without official status, would quickly gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and put the Commons Committees and the Courts to shame. Change must come from below.