Please help: how to make a big improvement in the alignment of political parties’ incentives with the public interest?

I am interested in these questions:

1) What incentives drive good/bad behaviour for UK political parties?

2) How could they be changed (legal and non-legal) to align interests of existing parties better with the public interest?

3) If one were setting up a new party from scratch what principles could be established in order to align the party’s interests with the public interest much more effectively than is now the case anywhere in the world, and how could one attract candidates very different to those who now dominate Parliament (cleverer, quantitative problem-solving skills, experience in managing complex organisations etc)?

4) Is there a good case for banning political parties (as sometimes was attempted in ancient Greece), how to do it, what would replace them, why would this be better etc (I assume this is a bad and/or impractical idea but it’s worth asking why)?

5) In what ways do existing or plausible technologies affect these old questions?

What are the best things written on these problems?

What are the best examples around the world of how people have made big improvements?

Assume that financial resources are effectively unlimited for the entity trying to make these changes, let me worry about things like ‘would the public buy it’ etc – focus on policy not communication/PR advice.

The more specific the better: an ideal bit of help would be detailed draft legislation. I don’t expect anybody to produce this, but just to show what I mean…

The overall problem is: how to make government performance dramatically, quantifiably, and sustainably better?

Please leave ideas in comments or email dmc2.cummings@gmail.com

Thanks

D

35 thoughts on “Please help: how to make a big improvement in the alignment of political parties’ incentives with the public interest?

  1. One main problem in terms of incentives is that the vast majority of people don’t have a clue what government departments are actually doing. This is quite reasonable as people have lives to live. However, if you leave the accountability mechanism to a panel of experts/select committee or such like, you get further away from the will of the people, especially when value judgments have to be made. You have written persuasively about the tendency of intelligent people to fall into groupthink and I suspect (but have no means of proving) that this happens regularly in government.

    I wonder if it would be a good idea to call people up for voter service (might need a better name!) which would be similar to jury service only holding government departments to account. That way you could have a group of people given enough time and resources to figure out what is going on, but given that they are randomly selected their conclusions would more closely reflect the will of the people. I would imagine such a group wouldn’t have to be that large to almost always ensure that the views of the group closely matched those of the general population.

  2. The examples you gave in brackets in your para 3 leave out, in my opinion, the single most important qualification. That is, that they should actually have a passion to create a better society and have an understanding of the divisions and inequalities of opportunity that exist. People who possess in abundance those qualities in your para 3 would be extremely unlikely, in my opinion, to be appealing to the majority of voters.

    It is good that somebody is giving thought to this issue.

    Patricia Willmitt

  3. Britain does not have a democracy, but rather an Elective Oligarchy whereby an MP or Local Councillor, once elected consider themselves delegates rather than representatives of their Constituents.

    The Prime criteria for any Member of Parliament or Local Councillor should be accountability to the Electorate that voted them into Office.

    All too often, an MP or Councillor is voted into Office on a Partisan basis and that far too frequently, the Candidate is chosen by the Party rather than the Electorate. There is a good case for Primary Elections for each Party Candidate whereby they have to convince the people voting for them their choice will work for the Constituent rather than be a placement, often with no local ties but just to enhance their personal career.

    Attempts have been made to introduce a right of ‘recall’ by Constituency Parties if sufficient Party Members are not satisfied with the performance of their MP or Councillor. Unfortunately, as has been seen, in order to bring about a system of recall requires the vote of those affected. The attitude is that of ‘Turkeys voting for Christmas’. It just ain’t gonna happen.

    It does not matter whether a new Party gets into Government or not. Though they may start off with good intentions, but invariably they will become subject to Party Whips and therefore be pulled into a Party line.

    The only possible remedy to my mind is a radical overhaul of the Electoral System. Nothing is perfect, not least FPTP but it is the least worst system. It is possible that system can be modified to be more representative of the Electorate.

    To my mind the best proposal that I have seen was put forward by Robert Henderson (https://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2015/04/29/britain-needs-electoral-reform-but-the-abolition-of-first-past-the-post-fptp-is-not-the-answer/

    A summary of the system is that the Boundary Commission pairs adjacent but disparate Constituencies and that the Constituents of both constituencies are allowed to vote for TWO candidates of either constituency but not both from the same Party. This would have an element of AV in that there would be some choice but it would be only the top two elected and be responsible for both constituencies. There would be no secondary elections as in AV. The person that had the most votes from both constituencies would be elected as would the person with the second highest vote no matter how far behind.

    This system would make the idea of a ‘safe’ seat less likely but would be more representative. A prime example would be the last General Election in 2015. UKIP gained almost 4 million votes over the Country which, in normal circumstances, would have equated to around 80 seats in Parliament, instead, they got just one because the MP was the incumbent. The result was that many voters were left disenfranchised because there were insufficient (though possibly a high percentage of the vote) to elect them in any one seat. A two vote system over two constituencies would possibly alleviate this problem. Obviously, this would benefit all parties where there is a close balance between Parties.

    The two Elected Officers would then have to work together for the good of their Constituents rather than their Party in order to be re-elected again and not rely on Party affiliation, but Government could retain stability because the Party with the highest number elected would get to form the Government.

    As things are now, even a new Party would quickly become the same old same old.

  4. There is a massive disconnect between voters and the political class. No doubt about that.

    Political parties are fixated on chasing a rather small selection of population – namely those who matter in winning a majority. If a voter lives in a “safe” seat, they really don’t matter.

    Which brings me on to the one thing that in my view, might change things – proportional representation. It would undoubtedly make politics more relevant, more interesting and mean the parties will not count on the majority of their supporters they can currently ignore.

    As to political figures, I would not let anyone stand for election unless they had held down paid employment for ten years. They should live in their constituencies and demonstrate connection with them. They should never be allowed to resign early unless through ill health. And most importantly, they should be made to meet as many of their constituents as possible, and not just at election time.

  5. Dominic,
    why would you suggest “government performance” as the variable to be optimized? Why not each indvidual’s contribution to the public good? Which government, which public? England’s? Scotland’s? Great Britain’s? Europe’s? How about security, demographic, climate dynamics which can no longer be addressed on a national level alone? Are you serious or is this a teaser? The indiviudual’s ability to work towards a sound judgement on these tricky issues is precarious enough. That should be good enough reason to stick to liberal democracy in our digital age where “nothing is true and everything is possible”(Pomerantsev)
    Best, Michael

  6. Depends upon how you define the public interest. I’m sure MPs and wonks would argue that they have to take decisions which are unpopular with the electorate, supposedly in their best interests. This is condescending nonsense in my opinion.

    If you define it a bit more narrowly as a public expression of support or opposition then it really isn’t that difficult to implement a system that takes the public’s wishes into account.

    At present one MP commands between 35,000 and 120,000 votes, these people make one decision roughly every five years. In the age of the internet ignorance is a choice and many people do partake in political discussion though they have remarkably little power to actually influence parliament outside of the election cycle.

    MPs who represent their people’s will well are not rewarded, those who merely follow party lines for their own advancement are.

    Hence give everyone a lazy vote on all divisions. Rather than having one vote the representative MP wields how ever many votes their constituency contains.

    Each subject however has the right to follow the debate, join it online for a period after parliament has voted and finally remove their vote from the bundle wielded by their MP should they so wish. Either by abstaining, voting for or against.

    Therefore every motion passed would have the explicit acceptance of the populace as a whole, whether through allowing their MP to represent or through their own voting.

    Constituents would therefore be more engaged but more importantly their MP’s alignments with their wishes would be far more apparent. MP’s who voting consistently against their constituent’s wishes would face recall after a certain percentage was breached on a defined number of occasions.

    It would also allow regional or minority sampling of opinion which a good MP would be wise to engage and communicate with, explaining their decisions and reacting to local demand rather than the needs of their parties with an eye to higher salaries in ministerial positions.

    Specifically on Question 3 I doubt there is a way to ensure that higher quality candidates are fasted tracked. Sub constituency elections and local associations, which often feature a paltry representation even from the local party’s membership, simply don’t require the display of such qualities as you listed. Nor are they ever likely to.

    The grassroots of political parties are very much grounded in the idea of committees and debate. In my experience there is no mechanism for good ideas to be passed up the chain and very little bar a vote for opposition to potential policy, though this is normally merely imposed anyway. The tasks that need to be fulfilled are manual and time consuming ( leafleting, teller etc) and overall little that would appeal to the brighter or more able.

    Indeed I’d argue there is little about politics in general which makes it attractive to such people.

    • There’s got to be *something* right in what you say here. At the same time:
      If my mechanic says I need to replace the whole radiator I might seek a second opinion but cannot be expected to make up my own mind. It is not ‘condescending’ of the mechanic to tell me what they know I will find unpopular. If the ‘second opinion’ says I don’t need a new radiator I may well opt to accept what they say, but may well not be right to do so.
      If my surgeon says my leg needs to come off I might do some research around the issue, might want to seek a second opinion, but basically I am in no position to disagree or disregard their decision.
      What is the difference? Or more helpfully: for what kinds of political decisions is there a difference, and why?

  7. Just a further thought on Q3.

    Bright people don’t generally seek power in my experience. They seek acclaim in their chosen field more often than wealth itself too. Not that they shun responsibility, more that they only take on responsibility when qualified to do so or when it is necessary to achieve their goals.

    Politics on the other hand gives little likelihood of acclaim or recognition and quite a high likelihood of the opposite.

    I can’t see any of this changing.

    One possible niche way around it would be for bills in parliament to be sponsored, championed or proposed by the general public. Hence, necessarily outside of party policy, a good idea promoting efficiency, regulation or requiring experience and expertise in a particular industry could bear the name of the proponent.

    As an example say a designer of algorithmic trading computers had a good handle on the steps necessary to prevent risk or exploitation. Currently, if they were predisposed to do it they could lobby an MP as to it’s need. They would be completely out of the loop once parliament ( in the extremely unlikely occurrence that it would get that far) debated it, though as there are very few people who would understand it to a sufficient degree such a debate would be largely pointless anyway. Any legislation drafted by civil servants would likely cause more harm than good and any new laws which entered the statute books would be unlikely ever to be used as both the police and courts would be unlikely to understand it.

    Maybe there is some way for professional bodies to take a more active role in politics. Both to limit the chances of one profession taking over the polity ( I’m looking at you lawyers) and to ensure that all sectors of the economy are represented…

  8. Stop publishing measures of GDP; indeed, stop measuring GDP. Much (most?) of the political process is in thrall to the manufacture of tiny increments of GDP growth that are not perceptible save in the metrics that are published and which are often subject to revision (ie, wrong). Stop fretting about quarterly GDP and you free up a huge amount of bandwidth for thinking about other things that matter far more, The notion of GDP was invented within living memory: it is not fundamental to anything, certainly not to prosperity. It is, moreover, pro-cyclical, which is the opposite of what one wants; when you tell people the economy is doing badly, they are less likely to invest.

  9. “how to make government performance dramatically, quantifiably, and sustainably better?”

    By making fewer things the responsibility of government. In other words, this is the wrong question. The question is: “how can we make delivery of the services currently delivered by government dramatically, quantifiably and sustainably better?” The way you phrase it, you cut off a whole world of possible solutions.

    Governments can’t act as if under the pressure of competition, as businesses have to and o every day, and various attempts to simulate it have largely failed. Therefore, it’s very hard to get government to act efficiently – look at defence procurement. We need smaller government employing far fewer people who are much better paid, so that it becomes as good a career option to do procurement for the DoD as it is for any other business.

    So anything which does not require the special coercive power of government should not be done by government, but instead by a collection of competing non-state actors (for-profit, non-profit, whatever) between which people can choose with their custom.

    This doesn’t necessarily have to be a totally “small spending state” policy; if you felt that e.g. education should be funded by the state, take the taxes, do vouchers and don’t control with which provider people spend them. But when you start to control you distort the market and you are heading back towards the place where the state runs everything.

    Why don’t we have a National Food Service? After all, everyone needs food, and people starve without it. Why hasn’t the government stepped in? Because everyone recognises the power of competition to keep prices low and customers well-served. Why not apply that thinking to other areas of life?

  10. Gosh, no one else? I can’t be the only one reading this 🙂

    > Is there a good case for banning political parties

    No. Because it is such an obvious idea, it is the first thing that anyone ever thinks of, but no-one ever does it. If you look all over the world and discover that no-one does an “obvious” thing (apart from, it would seem (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_without_political_parties), a variety of places that either you definitely would not wish to emulate or are so tiny that they amount to special cases) then you should take that as a pretty heavy hint that you can find better things to spend your energy on.

    • Indeed, the question of banning political parties is NO, NO, NO……It’s exactly the same as the question of banning competitors to Rolls Royce or Boeing…Politicians love censorship since it makes them more secure in office, but it is death to political life, and ultimately to society.

  11. I’m from Finland, I can’t say anything UK-specific. Not an expert either.

    2) Lobbying works, at least a lot of money is used on it. I think it is effective because facing media and the responsibility of being a elected politician is scary, so any help (often in the form of reassuring and coherent stories) is readily accepted by politicians.

    I don’t believe there is much lobbying starting from genuine public interest anywhere. Perhaps it just isn’t tried very often, but there could be another reason: Politicians think they are the authority in public interest.

    4) There is the philosophical case that parties have excessive power in the form of getting to select the candidates with any realistic possibility of getting elected. This might be fixed with STV with multiple mandates per voting district.

    In 2015 a retiring Finnish MP defected when casting his last votes for the term, with good results for the public interest. Defections are extremely rare (I don’t remember any others), while a lot of MPs get elected with views very different from the party line.

    Parties are supposed to be relatively effective for getting things done, but they obviously magnify the bad effects of social desirability etc.

    5) Quick polling with electronic signatures (signatures not at all widespread yet; Estonia is equipped for them), and thus getting authoritative samples of ‘public interest’.

  12. The answer is as follows:
    1. introduce proportional representation, subject to a party receiving more than 5% of the popular vote to gain representation in parliament
    2. the ability of, say, 40% of those on the electoral roll to call a referendum
    3. all referendums to be mandatory on MPs not advisory
    4. the referendum result to be implemented in 18 months from declaring the result
    5. a cleaned-up electoral roll consisting only of those who are UK citizens with a passport or entitle to a passport on the electoral roll
    6. the maximum donation to a political party to be limited to £5,000 per annum per person. Donations over £1,000 to be publicly disclosed.
    7. Corporations, unions and collective organisations of any kind to be forbidden from making or organising political donations whether in cash, kind or by providing support or facilities.
    8. All donations to be made directly from an individual’s own bank account or in cash and not by way of deduction from remuneration
    9. A special bank account to be set up as an independent, trust account open to public scrutiny for direct political contributions to be made and distributed to the political parties.
    10. Political parties to be allowed to have fund raising events so long as the sums from an individual count towards the £5,000 and £1,000 limits per annum. Sums raised in this way must be publicly disclosed.
    11. deprive the House of Lords of any constitutional power to block or delay a bill, confining them solely to the roll of advisory review of a bill, after which the Commons will decide whether to accept or reject the advisory recommendations.
    12. Members of the Lords are only paid an hourly rate if they attend the Lords or a committee of the Lords in an active roll of reviewing a bill. Attendance would be monitored by using an electronic record of their attendance
    13. Appointments to the Lords could be proposed by the government, MPs or the public and would be vetted by an independent committee of the Commons and the approved, short list voted on by secret ballot of the entire Commons. A 60% majority being required for appointment.
    14. MPs in the Commons to be over 30 years of age and to have worked outside the political establishment in the ‘real world’ (i.e. non-political or think tank or PR role) for at least 5 years

  13. 3) Randomised controlled trials on policy initiatives with a public register of the policy recommendation, trial outline, e.g. number of participating regions/authorities/persons, fully transparent trial database and analysis & recommended policy decision, e.g. local/regional implementation or full nationwide.

  14. Some personal views:
    – Politicians who have done nothing else but politics (first as students then as research assistants) encourage narrow and unworldly (SW1) views.
    – The party whipping system with associated bribes and threats is a deterrent to open and honest debate.
    – In an ideal world MPs should not only have some wider life experience to qualify as a candidate to be an MP but they should not be totally dependent on politics and the patronage of their political masters for their livelihood.
    – Assuming that MPs have to be paid a salary to ensure fair representation then perhaps these salaries should be paid from local council tax rather than from general taxation to ensure that that MPs give greater weight to the interests of their constituents than to the demands of the national party. This would of course require that constituencies were aligned with local authority boundaries.
    – The recruitment process of the major parties for candidate new MPs needs to be radically reviewed to encourage wider participation from talented people whose views are not constrained by political correctness and orthodoxy.
    – I would not ban political parties, even ones with “extremist” views, as I don’t think it is for the state to set the boundaries of what are acceptable views or to prevent people with common views forming organisations. In the case of “extremist” parties they should be prosecuted if they take or encourage actions ( eg violence, intimidation) which are illegal not for just existing.
    – Is the conventional way of doing and communicating politics on the way out? Will Trumpism (government by Twitter) catch on?

  15. 1) In a majority democracy, if your ruling coalition encompasses more than 51 percent of voters, it’s leaving rents on the table. If you’re getting, say, 70 percent of the vote, that simply means you’re delivering more value than you need to and failing to extract as much as you could. You could take a little more and give a little less without losing the election. So in a democracy, we can expect the ruling coalition at any given time to consist of about 51% of voters (and those the worst 51%) and that does indeed seem to be what we see.

    The solution to this problem is very simple.

  16. Juries are an example of a systematic mechanism for ensuring groups of people behave in the public interest. Random selection, a degree of compulsion, a limited time period and a very defined problem are essential ingredients. Juries could be used within parties for candidate selection, spending decisions, even policy decisions. The latter exposes the main limitation of juries: they resolve complex issues very well, but they always remain within the parameters of criminal and evidential law, and the issues remain focussed on whether the people on trial can be proved to have committed a crime.

    Therefore to resolve policies there would need to be a highly developed framework and process: what kind of policy decisions go to the jury? Who argues for either side? How is evidence presented to the jury? How are the questions formulated for the jury? It may be that coroners courts and libel trials could teach us something on that front.

    The major stumbling block is the element of compulsion. It would of course be possible to set up the party membership on the basis that everyone consents to the possibility that they will be selected for jury service to the party. The trouble is party membership brings in the very element that juries eradicate: a bias towards people who are interested in or motivated by power. As some of the ancients were aware, society needs people who don’t want to be politicians to be at the heart of politics, and random selection is the best way to do it. But without compulsion it’s no longer random.

    So I suppose the next best thing is for key party decisions to be taken by juries made up in the way focus groups are. For example, candidates could be selected by a representative focus group of the constituency electorate.

    I expect many would be terrified of the idea of policy decided by focus group. I think it would be a whole lot better than the current arrangements, so long as the structure was set up well. Policies would need to be highly developed before they went for jury approval. Candidates seeking to develop policies for jury approval would need to be granted equivalent access to advisers and researchers. It could be self correcting by way of a structure that deals with candidates who fail to get policies approved: initially given assistance and ultimately given the foot.

    I hope that you are thinking of setting up a new party. If you are please let me know, as I’ll happily give up on my own efforts and join yours! I see it as a desperate need, but I really don’t want to do this. All those who love me most dearly are advising me not to. Like you I’ve never joined a political party, mainly because I’ve never seen one I wanted to join. But to turn to your question 4, I don’t think we can dispense with them just yet, if ever.

    I see Brexit as a great British revolution, in the tradition of the Glorious Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the post-war welfare state revolution…. rather than in the sense of our one real revolution which we prefer to call a Civil War. If we want to keep this revolution bloodless we need to change only what must be changed, and retain everything else. People can’t cope with too much change at once.

    We need the Tory party, we’ve had it forever, and it’s not fundamentally broken. The Labour Party, however is totally destroyed, and it needs to be left to Corbyn and his gang. They will be irrelevant in a few years.

  17. Your questions touch upon a number of my personal bugbears so I’m going to get some of them off my chest.

    “how to make government performance dramatically, quantifiably, and sustainably better?”

    It is not obvious what is meant by this, nor what is meant by “the public interest”. Any question of this type always benefits from trying to get back to first principles as it is the hidden assumptions that lead to internally consistent thinking leading to flawed conclusions. For example focusing too much on economic indicators leads government to maximise GDP while ignoring that economic activity is a means not and end and GDP growth is a poor proxy for widespread economic security.

    I’m going to go with “what makes the people in a population happy about their lives while reducing to a minimum the number of people who are miserable”

    I would then split this problem into two related spheres. The realm of the physical and the realm of the emotional. The management of the physical realm would include the economic framework, the management of physical infrastructure and institutions and security. The emotional sphere will include non physical goods like social bonds, education, entertainment and the self confidence that one might call “freedom”.

    So government acting to increase economic efficiency at the expense of social bonds is not always the no-brainer decision to take. For example the Left have spent thirty years saying how wicked Thatcher was to prioritise economic efficiency for the old nationalised, unionised industries over the social bonds that existed in the communities in which they operated, but the left now entirely ignores the damage done to social bonds in communities where high levels of immigration have led to notionally greater economic efficiency. It is partly a continued belief in those bonds that were responsible for your success in the referendum. Lots of people still think of themselves as British and value the compact associated with it.

    How one measures success in either of these spheres is a)difficult and b)probably best not formalised as they will both be gamed and change over time.

    Our current system of measuring these things through elections is becoming self defeating. We have a political culture that rewards the pretence of serving the public interest over the actual serving of the public interest. Political success is now about controlling narratives and the idea that a good job has been / will be done rather than any actual improvement in the wellbeing of the electorate. Politicians do stuff to be elected rather than getting elected to do stuff. We have widespread disgust at political manipulation and the way that politicians speak in this weird, contrived manner and we express this disgust by rewarding it with votes. (although the recent electoral success of those that appear to break these rules is both a source of opportunity and a threat)

    So, here’s my wish list.

    As political debate is now more important outside parliament as it is within the prohibition on misleading the house should be extended to identified public engagements with a quasi legal system governing infractions. This should include media interviews, election addresses and public debates. Where a politician / prospective politician says something that is provably untrue they need to face some form of sanction which should at least require a public apology.
    I would also include under the term “misleading” the circular firing squad that has become the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of one’s opponents. I’d call an agreement not to do this the “Dimbleby Convention”

    I’d love to see some think tank set up an online fallacy bingo website where manipulations of logic can be identified in real time. It would be a fine exercise for university students of logic to watch Question Time and try to get them all. Crowdsourcing and verification by upticks would probably catch most examples. A theyworkforyou.com resource for rhetorical manipulation might inspire the worst perpetrators to mend their ways – or at least be identifiable to their constituents. It would also go a long way to educating the public in how not to be taken for fools.

    Any legislation or government programme will include costs as well as benefits. These need to be made more explicit. All legislation should be required to set out the terms of success of the legislation with the opposition to the legislation entitled to include the risk factors that might make it unsuccessful. Whether or not sunset clauses should be used may depend on the type of legislation used. I am not sure how it could be done but I’d also like to see the effectiveness of legislation traceable both to the politicians that sponsor it and to the civil servants tasked with its implementation.

    Associated with this we need to resolve the “salt problem” of governments receiving a mandate to do something (add salt to improve a dish) and, once invested in that course of action, feeling obliged to keep doing it beyond the point at which it creates more problems than it solves (applying the “more salt” mandate to raspberry jelly)

    This requires a change in attitude towards changing one’s mind when the circumstances change. At the moment it seems that a u-turn is damaging even if the original decision was right and the subsequent change is also right.

    People should also be more confident in disagreeing with one another within the same party. Arguing points is not a sign of dysfunction it is what politicians are for. With the ubiquity of recording devices there will be an increasing number of “gaffes” where private conversations diverge from the collectively agreed public view. Better to make a virtue out of it and draw a distinction between the collective view and the individual view. Political parties couldn’t be banned any more than any other expression of free association should be banned, but we should have a better grip on what they are and are not and part of what they are is an environment in which people can argue with each other

    The world could probably do with someone eloquently stomping on John Humphries when he pulls his gaffe/hypocrisy/u-turn/disagreement shtick. A few viral Paxman/Howard-like clips would act as a disincentive for the media bubble to be so self obsessed. Who the hell uses the word “gaffe” in real life?

    Parties need to show their workings. There is no excuse for not providing corroborating links in policy announcements. If the work has been done to determine is a course of action is worthwhile then don’t rely on the media to explain the policy implications when they would much rather discuss some comment made in a bar while half cut. Disintermediate the media and provide your grassroots with the ammunition to argue your case.

    Use Brexit and the process of “taking back control” as an opportunity to refresh the basic building blocks of democratic government. People who live Westminster have it so deeply embedded that they forget that lots of people havent really thought about it. The failure to respect the result of the referendum is a real problem and indicates that a large proportion of the electorate don’t accept that abiding by the results of an election is as important as having them.

    Finally, never assume that twitter storms or other social media led campaigns are in any way comparible to real engagement.

    Phew. I feel much better now.

    • Came here to say this. The rationality community in general has sensible-but-impossible ideas. I’d suggest following e.g. Scott Alexander.

  18. There are three particular methods that I can recommend, each based on increasing the need of political parties for better public agreement.

    Firstly, there should be more frequent elections of national government, preferably annually. This was suggested by the Chartists back in the mid-19th century – and is the only one of their suggestions that has not been introduced. To make such an arrangement more practical (ie for getting things done), I suggest that national elects should be of 3 types and that there should be rotation annually of which type of election we have. The 3 types being: (i) elections to a House for Existence with universal equal franchise (similar to the House of Commons); (ii) election of an Executive Prime Minister, directly and separately from electing MPs; (iii) elections to a House for Taxpayers with votes weighted by the amount of tax paid by each voter (which could be based around a modified and fully elected House of Lords, and based mainly on income tax assessments).

    Secondly, national elections should be more meaningfully extractive of the opinion of voters. This most likely by use of the Alternative Vote (AV) – and representation through more political parties. Given that this was rejected for the HoC back in the referendum of May 2011, there needs to be careful consideration of how this should be put to the electorate – and most likely by trying it first for say elections of a House for Taxpayers or of an Executive Prime Minister.

    Thirdly, by much more localisation. This most likely by transferring large wedges of political decision making to local government – including most tax setting and tax raising powers for funding (that wider) local government. This could be done in England for the sorts of powers already covered by parliaments/assemblies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – to existing county/borough tiers of local government with populations measured in the small millions. This would almost certainly require the partitioning of income tax between national and local government, as well as continuing with property-based local taxation. There is no reason why all these different income taxes could not be handled by HMRC as an extension of the current arrangement.

    I have a lot more thoughts on the details of why and how the above should be done. Such details might be better considered under separate blog posts.

    Annual elections would also help voters: having (relevant) political opinions would become second nature, rather than a rare event. Voters would remember much better, for periods of up to one year, the stupidities of parties in power and the stupidities of parties in opposition.

    The main theme is that politicians and their political parties would be much more beholden to voters – kept on the hop pretty much all the time – even running scared.

    Best regards

  19. There is a trend to have fewer MPs and make the House of Lords more democratic. I propose the opposite.

    We should have more mps who represent smaller constituencies. They should perhaps have a role on the local council alongside their national role. This way they would connect more closely with the people they represent and better know their concerns about matters such as Health, Schools, Roads.

    In a democracy, elected representatives are always going to have to have a degree of ego, bluster and bluff  How else could they survive the slings and arrows of the media and of opponents? That’s why we need to make greater use of our unelected representatives in the House of Lords, who should be picked for their talents, rather than gongs for the chaps. There should be a more rigorous appointment procedure, as for any job, and perhaps ten year tenure of the position. Lords can be more prominent in committees and ministries.

  20. Not being a political animal, I can’t say how effective it is (I’m more interested in the game theory implications), but the Australian Labor Party has formal discipline rules requiring MPs to vote according the decision of the caucus (unless given permission for a conscience vote, which is typically reserved for issues like abortion). The main arguments that I’m aware of are that:
    – input and decisions are made by a wider group than just PM/cabinet
    – party room provides platform for debate that isn’t swamped by people scoring sound bites
    – the party then presents a united front to the public, hopefully limiting “gossip” news stories

    Obviously recent history has demonstrated that the last point is not always effective, but I do think it has an impact on the policy decisions (whether or not they’re in the public interest, I can’t say).

  21. Possibly good, possibly stupid idea:

    Anyone who can get X votes from anywhere in the nation becomes an MP. Geography isn’t as reliable an indicator of common interest – or even community membership – as it used to be.

  22. I’ll only really focus on (3) here, as I don’t have much to say on the others. I think it would be very difficult to start a new party.

    To start a new party you need to identify a position that is not being filled by the other parties, and either convert people from other parties, where they may have some status, or attract people that are politically engaged but not in other parties, and are prepared to compromise with your party. You also need a way of keeping the cranks out, or at least not getting taken over by them.

    In terms of attracting other people, the question is really, do you want the politicians to be more professional (as politicians) or less professional? The kind of people you want are people outside of politics. You may get them involved, but how committed will they be? If it’s too easy for them to walk away (unlike a career politician) they may not be fully committed, and so not as effective as in their real career.

    To attract good people, you need to offer them a realistic change of victory, support with campaigning, research and the media, and protection from the public. With four large parties already, I think that would be tough.

    The only way I think this could work is if getting better people into politics is the defining aspect of the party, rather than any political position. In effect it becomes a party of independents, with the party machine dedicated to finding good candidates and supporting them, rather than having any centrally agreed positions. You can actively exclude anyone that’s been in another party, or has no achievements outside politics. It then becomes easier to select on desired qualities, without having to worry about ,or endorse, each candidate’s policy. Those that are successful may well then defect to a mainstream party with a good chance of getting a cabinet job. This would be success. It requires people with different political views to work together for the common goal, but it could work in the right area.

  23. “The overall problem is: how to make government performance dramatically, quantifiably, and sustainably better?”

    You used a lovely word there: quantifiably. And that’s where the fun starts. The principle is correct but the cart is slightly before the horse; before considering how to achieve the above we have to *first* consider how to make the performance of government truly quantifiable. I have no great insights there – but I seem to recall reading some interesting thoughts from you about how to assess the performance of the political media with meaningful metrics in one of your other blog posts; that may make a useful starting point.

  24. In part answer to your questions: Imagine you just want answers not explorations of the problem but please bear with me.

    In my opinion, Peter Brown (above) identifies the nub of the problem and therefore indicates the path to a solution when he says ‘Britain does not have a democracy, but rather an Elective Oligarchy whereby an MP or Local Councillor, once elected consider themselves delegates rather than representatives of their Constituents.’

    Essentially the political system is wholly outdated. It dates back to a time when ‘delegates’ were elected and given a long lease of responsibility due to the limitations of communication.

    Today we have near instant communication and the technical ability to gather or crowdsource the best information from the electorate (and particularly those with relevant skills and experience) about how to go about tackling problems but we simply lack a platform, or a system of organisation, for delivery.

    Online forums were the first use of modern day communications to facilitate debate and discussion about issues and haven’t really moved on much since.

    The solution would be to create an on-line platform that gathers news from mainstream news sources, blogs, campaign groups etc – basically anyone who has an established platform for sharing their views, expertise, experience and opinion on any social or political issue.

    Then the next step is to add debating, voting and delegation.

    Through the process of debate, individuals who have experience, expertise and skills at understanding a particular problem in a particular sphere will be identified by others, by their contributions to debates.

    So to provide an example. Imagine this online platform has a whole series of debates running on every conceivable subject organised by categories reflecting the offices of state e.g. health, education, defence etc.

    Now imagine that over a period of time a whole range of issues to do with defence are debated on the platform on a time limited basis. ie. a debate on a specific subject is initiated, contributors make their arguments and then after a period of days, a voting period commences during which people can place their votes. Initially this vote holds no power. It can only influence.

    However, over time, individuals will emerge who have a clear grasp and capability and then those people are then invited to as potential candidates to take the position of power (e.g. Defence secretary) by a voting process – the winner being selected.

    Then the question is how long power would be delegated for. I would suggest it would be for as long as they can retain the support of the voters. This would incentivise those in power to explain exactly what they are doing and why and to crowdsource refinements, even different approaches to delivery.

    I appreciate this is a big change and anyone who gives this some thought will identify a myriad of different potential problems, but they can all be overcome..

    Hope this helps. I built a working prototype for the first levels of this system a few years back which worked exceptionally well – you have my details if you want to discuss further.

  25. The biggest problem is trying to get your electorate to get involved, let alone vote: turnout is so often just about a third. However Brexit proved that if you give people a single issue on which to vote they may well ‘turn out’. I have read most of the foregoing comments and really appreciate the thought and the ideas that have been put forward – however it all falls apart if people don’t vote. Plans, manifestos and ideas are fine but people get bored very quickly with politics. At a recent prospective Councillor meeting on the Isle of Wight it was pointed out that the manifesto would be read by opposition parties, the media and fellow candidates – cynical if you like but true. In my experience constituents only get involved if they feel very strongly on a particular issue or they see injustice. Forums are a great idea but what is Facebook – in many ways it is already a political forum and look what Trump does with Twitter!
    Part of the problem is there are too many issues and people may support some parts of a manifesto and not others – and of course a long list of ‘wishes’ can turn round and bite.
    One idea I have is that there should be ‘provinces’ as in say Spain but on a much smaller scale. Items such as Defence, Immigration and Border Controls (and probably one or two others) should be handled centrally from Whitehall. Power should be devolved down to local areas. How can you possibly have blanket legislation that is applied to such diverse areas as the Island, London and Liverpool? If people knew they had some control over how their area was administered you might get more votes – at the moment the apathy is due to a strong feeling that locals have no control over their destinies.

  26. (1) We’d need to know more about what is meant by the ‘public interest’. It is hard to see how we could be specific about this without already being ‘political’ in some controversial way. If we aren’t specific about it, it will be one of those criteria which are so vague as to be useless – i.e. it will not be verifiable whether any system is in the public interest.

    (2) You talk of making predictions in the face of complexity. In an earlier blog you talk of wanting politicians to be good at forecasting.
    What kinds of predictions or forecasts are you interested in?
    People have been talking about ‘evidence-based policy making’ for a long time. But politicians aren’t obvious candidates for people to either (i) collect the data or (ii) determine what it might mean. I don’t think a ’60 minute lesson in statistics’ will help much either. Politicians could certainly be more responsive to evidence about what policies have worked to achieve certain goals. And there does need to be a far better system of interaction between politicians and scientists.
    But
    (a) Even the use of evidence-based policy making is limited – specifically because of (1) above. Perhaps the evidence suggests that introducing a sugar tax will decrease obesity. Is it ‘in the public interest’ to introduce a sugar tax? Well, that’s a separate issue.
    (b) ‘we’ are a huge stack of different Complex Systems – as individuals, communities, societies, traders, economies, and so on. This makes the ‘accurate’ forecasting of anything remotely interesting or specific basically impossible.
    Analogy: we know all the fundamental forces affecting the weather. We know a vast amount about particular conditions. And we have huge amounts of data about how these two have previously combined to produce the observed phenomena. Yet we are still not that great at predicting the weather even a few days in advance. Our current best forecasts are based much more heavily on models (simulations) than on any good theories.
    The weather is orders of magnitude less complex than the human environment. We react not only to how things are but to (i) how we falsely believe things to be and (ii) how we predict they will be – however inaccurately (cf. the polls in 2015). And the ‘rules of the game’ are changing constantly, and in unpredictable ways.
    (c) there is no ‘control’. For example it is not possible to compare the UK as it is and will be to how it would have been had the vote gone to ‘remain’. Given (b), even the use of evidence-based reasoning over relatively limited domains comes with huge uncertainty. Will the UK respond to a sugar tax in the same way as others have? We can make predictions but with relatively low levels of certainty.
    In part it was surely the desperate attempts to treat the human environment as a complex physical system which should be our complaint against economists?

    These issues lead to a more fundamental point, which brings me back to the questions of which forecasts you’re interested in, and why.
    As individuals we do not, we cannot and we should not make decisions about how to act based on predictions as to how we will in fact act. Many of your colleagues in the Leave campaign campaigned for Leave even though they predicted that Leave would lose – because they thought it was the right thing to do. In general our politicians cannot – and should not – be expected to make decisions merely on the basis of forecasts.

    In short: you’ll need to give us more information about (1) what notion of ‘public interest’ is in play and (2) what forecasts you’re interested in and why.

  27. You don’t have to ban political parties – just stop printing party names on ballot papers.

    If you have to make the effort to look up which party a candidate belongs to, you may well make the effort to look at their personal background at the same time.

    If people couldn’t automatically vote based on political party alone, it would give more power to attractive local candidates.
    A mechanism by which local people express their views is strengthened against the centralising/big marketing tendency.

  28. My response to question two is so obvious that I am embarrassed to make it: a new political party needs to be willing to discuss all issues that concern the public. At present, the very existence of some problems is denied by the main parties. Those in fringe parties who are prepared to discuss them are portrayed as extreme. The result is frustration from parts of the electorate that things that are, to them, important are whitewashed.
    At present, Jihadism and the failure of integration is a big issue on social media. Evidence on the ground (attacks, arrests, increased resources for counter terror) supports the contention that the UK has a problem but the cause of the issue is ignored by the MSM and main parties. It’s hard even to discuss why integration isn’t working without the discussion being shut down amid accusations of bigotry.
    If a new political party could open a discussion on issues such as this, without recourse to prejudice (that is, having a factual discussion) it would gain a lot of credit from voters.
    I apologise for my lack of eloquence.

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