by Douglas Carswell MP / 02 Nov 2012
This article is from the November 2012 issue of Total Politics
In Britain, where it has become the norm to impose lists of candidates on local party branches, political parties have started to choose parliamentary candidates via both open primaries and caucuses. From November 2012, there will be local ballots held throughout most of England to elect a local police chief for each police force (except London), and a number of political parties are using open selection methods to ensure that everyone – not just party members – has a say. Some may, of course, continue to select candidates for office using the old system, but they will probably lose market share as a result.
As politics becomes more ‘open source’, parties will themselves become less hierarchical. Those hopefuls who run for office will have a longer leash and greater autonomy. The internet gives us unprecedented choice. It smashes hierarchy and breaks open concentrations of power. It strips away barriers to entry, allowing in nimble upstarts. It forces established players to either adapt or lose out.
Those, at least, are some of the things it has done to the world of business and commerce, and it is about to do much the same to the world of party politics.
Citizen-consumers will not just want more choice and selection when it comes to choosing party candidates or voting for candidates with their own distinctive appeal; they will also want to make more political decisions for themselves.
The internet allows people to group together online and apply pressure directly. Voters are able to press their judgement upon individual congressmen and women and can demand the right to make more choices directly.
We will see more immediate democracy, where voters are able to initiate debates and votes on what matters to them. Just as they decide what is on their MP3 player, so too will they have a role in programming the legislative agenda.
Already in Britain a new system of ePetitions is allowing the demos to force votes and put items on to the agenda that perhaps their representatives cannot, or will not, address. Why leave it to a distant DJ to select the music when you can help choose the playlist?
Perhaps most significant of all, the citizen-consumer might not necessarily want the power to vote or make one-size-for-everyone choices at all. Instead, as we shall see in the next chapter, the citizen-consumer will demand in the public sphere the same freedom to exercise individual choices that he or she already takes for granted in the private sphere. If organised labour shifted the boundary between the public and the private in favour of the former, the citizen-consumer may well shift it back in favour of the latter.
Edmund Burke dot com
“But,” claim the old guard, “this direct democracy thing is not really what politics is supposed to be about. Deciding things is what we politicians are for, not the people.”
Often when a politician recycles some commonplace thought, but thinks that what they have said is original and clever, they speak – I cannot help but notice – with a slightly superior smile.
Many a time have I seen MPs wearing such a smirk as they invoke the great 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke, in defence of the notion that politics should be left to the politicians.
Why? Because Burke’s famous 1774 address to the Bristol electorate is, on the face of it, a magnificent defence of the idea that those we elect should exercise their own judgement, not slavishly transpose the wishes of those who elected them.
An elected representative, said Burke, ought to “live in the strictest union... and the closest correspondence” with his constituents. “Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.
“But”, Burke went on, your MP’s “unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living... Your representative owes you... his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” So there, Burke seemed to be saying. He knew best, not the people.
So there, today’s defenders of deferential democracy seem to say by invoking Burke: “Even the great Edmund Burke says it is so, so it must be”.
There’s one slight problem with citing Burke’s 238-year-old defence of the right of MPs to ignore the wishes of their electorate: not long after hearing what he had to say, the Bristol electorate threw him out of office. Far from being an advertisement for ignoring the wishes of the people, what happened to him ought to serve as a warning.
If one studies what Burke said in a little more detail, his main justification for trusting his judgement, rather than that of the electorate living in Bristol, was that those Bristolians were some “three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments”.
It’s an argument that was a little easier to make in 1774. Before people had radios, TV, 24-hour news or the internet, they might well have found it hard to follow debates taking place in the Palace of Westminster. Could such a point be made today?
Back in the days when the fastest thing in the country was a horse, politics had to be left to politicians. You had no choice but to send your representatives to faraway palaces by the Thames or the domed capitol on the Potomac, and have them decide things.
Today we no longer need to leave it to politicians in distant assemblies to conclude things that we are able to conclude for ourselves. Invoking Burke is not enough to hold back the pressure for more direct democracy.
The new centre of political gravity
The rise of the citizen-consumer will shift the centre of political gravity, just as the rise of organised labour in the late 19th century did. It will realign politics neither to the left nor to the right, but instead pull it down from the elites to the people.
As it does so, politics will become more liberal – in the classical English sense of the word – and more libertarian.
Edmund Burke was sceptical about democracy because he feared, as many do today, that the common people had dangerous and angry passions. Mass democracy, it was feared, would become demagoguery. Unpopular minorities would be subject to the arbitrary rule of the mob. In fact, the evidence is that the precise opposite is happening. iDemocracy is leading to smaller, less arbitrary government.