Representative democracy in a digital age: Fact or fiction?

It is a huge pleasure and privilege for me to be here today and to have the opportunity to see in person a Parliament which I have so long admired from such a long distance. Although my words today are described as a ‘lecture’, I am here to listen and learn so would rather think of them as part of a discussion. My remarks will centre on the question of Representative Democracy in the Digital Age and the challenges this creates for modern democratic institutions of all forms, but legislatures more than most. I do not have all the answers. I might have some of the questions.

Before taking this as my central theme, however, I want to say a few words about this location. The Westminster Parliament is indeed an ancient one. We will be celebrating our 750th birthday next year at the same time as the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. That long history has often led us as well as others to refer to ourselves as ‘the Mother of Parliaments’. While true in one sense, I can also understand why that phrase might be somewhat irritating to those parliaments which by implication are cast as the children. After all, many of these so-called infants have proved somewhat more mature than their parent. Australia, for example, had universal male suffrage before the United Kingdom did. It introduced votes for women before we did. It pioneered innovations such as the secret ballot, the non-partisan ballot paper and the postal vote before we did. Your rules around party funding and party registration arrived 15 years before we enacted them. I can see, therefore, that the tone of all these Mother of Parliament references over the decades must be somewhat tiresome for Canberra, as it may be for Ottawa and Wellington. The ‘Mother-in-law of Parliaments’ might seem to you a more accurate description of the relationship. Although I would like to stress, for the record, that my own mother-in-law is a wonderful woman.

As is by now well-known I am an enthusiast for how this Parliament conducts its business in the chamber and on the wider parliamentary estate. I hope to acquire more knowledge in this regard. There is, nonetheless, perhaps one area of your political culture here which I might not explore as deeply. As some of you may have heard, one of my personal crusades is a drive to civilise our own Prime Minister’s Question Time. You will forgive me, I do hope, if I admit this is not a campaign in which I am looking for an Australian export to the House of Commons.

We live in an age of scepticism, indeed of cynicism about politics, politicians and political institutions. Australia is slightly protected from this in that compulsory voting here means that this era of mistrust cannot manifest itself in the form of disturbingly low turnouts in elections, levels of participation which dilute the so-called mandate from those outcomes and bring democracy itself in to disrepute. Yet in most other regards, the corrosive charges that politicians are ‘all the same”, that they are ‘in it for themselves’, that there is a political class which is a caste apart from conventional citizens, that we are arrogant, remote and unaccountable, conducting our own business in our language without much interest in the opinions of others outside of our own ranks, are all charges which I suspect are as prevalent in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney as they are in Birmingham, Manchester and Southampton. We should not overstate the notion of a “Golden Age” in which politicians and public were fused as one. Frankly, it did not exist and where it came close to doing so this was due to a form of deference which has disappeared and whose loss, if we are candid about it, is not to be lamented. Yet “representative democracy” as a concept does not command the consensus that it once enjoyed. Many electors are unconvinced that the “representative” part of it is still relevant to them. As a consequence the “democracy” element comes dangerously close to being little more than the act of casting a ballot in national elections once every three years here or five years in the United Kingdom.

This sense of a distance within democracy stands in contrast to so much else in modern civilisation. The principal impact of the technological revolution which we have witnessed over the past twenty years has actually been to bring people closer together and in new ways to enable them to interact more closely with each other. The internet, the smartphone, Facebook, Twitter and numerous other more specialist social media mean that in business the whole nature of creating a company, funding it, growing it and establishing a market domestically and internationally has been utterly transformed. For individuals it means the capacity to invent or become part of vast new invisible communities online through shared interests in whatever it might be. Technological change has in a small d sense of the word massively enhanced our democracy, in that it has allowed multiple conversations and exchanges to take place which for reasons of practicality were virtually impossible beforehand. And this is a technological revolution with little in the way of hierarchy, rules or barriers to entry. It is the Wild West without the shooting. It is a truly extraordinary situation to be living through. Ten years ago, September 2004, in Britain at least, a Blackberry was still a fruit, an Android existed only in science fiction films, there was no Facebook as such, no tweets had been sent and the iPad was an unknown instrument. A decade later and many people could not live without all of these innovations.
Yet has representative democracy been as altered by the digital age as it should have been? I think the only honest answer is “no”. We have all adapted to this whirlwind of course via new websites, Facebook pages and twitter streams but, if we are candid, we have largely been reactive. On the whole, we have not been on the front foot about anticipating how we could adapt not merely the information which we as a legislature place in the public domain but the fundamental nature of our engagement with the public as well. Some of our colleagues have, in fairness, been closer to this ideal than others. Estonia, for example, moved towards internet voting much faster than elsewhere. Brazil, Chile and El Salvador have been pioneers in opening their parliamentary procedures up online. China, somewhat unexpectedly, has also been ahead of the crowd allowing internet public comment on all draft legislation since 2007, which puts plenty of European parliaments to shame. But the pace of technological change means that even the best are running fast just to stand still. A more fundamental assessment of what the term “representative democracy” means in the Digital Age has still to be contemplated. After all, the historic notions of representative democracy and parliamentary democracies were the belated by-products of the industrial revolution. They will have to evolve, perhaps radically, to meet the internet revolution or they will be left redundant by it.

It is precisely because of this that late last year I launched the House of Common’s own Digital Democracy Commission with the task of producing its report by January of 2015. The timing is quite deliberate in that I want the 750th birthday of the House of Commons to be an occasion for looking forward as much as, if not more than, looking back. I love history but I do not want to wallow in it. I do not think that there has been an exercise quite like this undertaken anywhere in the democratic world and we have set ourselves some almost reckless ambitions. Yet I am convinced that a brave and bold “Big Bang” approach such as this is required if we are to secure something more audacious than sharper websites, a funkier Facebook site or identification of what will be the next Twitter. We want to be able to divine what it is that an increasingly technologically adept electorate will want and expect from their parliament and their politics in 2020, 2025, 2030 and beyond and then decide how to overhaul our own arrangements to meet those entirely legitimate demands of us.

I am pleased to report that the Digital Democracy Commission has been received with enthusiasm and has not been short of submissions and suggestions on its subject. It is worth reciting a few statistics to illustrate the extent of its engagement on this issue so far.

So far, we have held 17 roundtable discussion forums with more still planned, participated at conferences, held an internal ‘digital marketplace’ to gather ideas from the professional staff in Parliament, reached out to colleagues across the world to learn from best practice beyond the shores of the UK,  received hundreds of unsolicited emails and phone calls from the public and interested organisations, encouraged others to ‘open-source’ their evidence, conducted face to face meetings with over 100 different experts, and of course enjoyed countless conversations via social media, resulting in currently having 1,799 Twitter followers in 48 different countries - we tweet approximately 5.74 times a day! In addition, I have written to the Vice Chancellor of every University in the UK. So far this has resulted in 31 replies with offers of help, ideas and further contact with academics at the cutting edge of their specialisms. We have run an on-line forum for politics students from nine Universities from across each nation in the UK, considering five separate themes, the results of which have been published on our web pages – pages that have been viewed by at least an estimated 25,000 people. We have considered and continue to look at what public participation means with a wide range of people and organisations, from the ‘tech’ world and businesses to charities and civil society. Some of our evidence-gathering meetings have been live-streamed and are open to the public. Even our terms of reference were openly and publicly sourced.

In all that we do in this crusade, however, we need to remember that representative democracy has to be about the maximum level of inclusion if it is to live up to its name. There is the risk that rapid technological change leaves large numbers of people behind. We need to ensure that there is a democratisation of data or else, in effect, we will go back to a politics of the property qualification with intellectual property rather than physical property the new source of the franchise.

Let me just set out why I am issuing this warning. When I was a teenager in Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s pretty much every household had a daily newspaper of one form or another and the vast majority of households watched news broadcasts several nights of the week. There was not an absolute equality of information but the amount of common and shared information about public matters was relatively extensive. I would assume that much the same was the case here as well.

In contemporary Britain and possibly Australia too, an increasing inequality of information is occurring. The true enthusiast for news can find more of it, more easily and at faster speed than at any time in human history. Such an enthusiast can perform the equivalent of reading twenty newspapers and watching thirty news broadcasts if not more. He or she can rightly be described as super-informed. Other adults, perhaps of the older generation mostly, still consume news much as they did in the 1970s. They might be labelled as standard informed. But there are also adults who virtually never read a national newspaper and have many alternative avenues for viewing television than 24-hour news. There is the clear danger that they become the sub-informed and divorced from our democracy. Technology did not in any malevolent sense create this divide amongst the population but as we respond to technology in our politics and our parliament we have to avoid elitism and exclusion. A democratic voyage that went from Ancient Greeks to Contemporary Geeks would not be a triumph.

So of all the many submissions which the Digital Democracy Commission has received in recent months, there is one comparatively simple observation which has stuck in my mind. It is from Valerie Thompson, the Chief Executive of the UK e-Learning Foundation. Valerie contends that:
“For digital engagement of any kind to be successful there are three essential factors, and all three have to be in place for engagement to be effective and sustainable. They are motivation (ideally positive), access (to a computer and Broadband) and skills. So many government funded initiatives address one or two of these, but only rarely is the whole picture recognised and addressed. This model certainly applies to the use of technology for the democratic process, and applies to adults as well as to young people.”
These are wise words which I am confident that the Digital Democracy Commission will take to heart as it reaches its conclusions. When those reflections and recommendations are published I sincerely hope that they will lead to further refinement based on the comments of other legislatures. It is only by such collaboration and a willingness to share best practice that we will all obtain the optimal outcomes for our own democracies. I very much doubt that there is a one-size-fits-all solution out there but I do believe that the solutions will have certain similarities in many cases. We shall see.

In all of this, moving towards the end of my remarks, I am an optimist. This is due to experience as well as inclination. Democracy is a flexible creature. It can evolve in many positive directions. If we are determined to be as flexible as well then we can reconnect parliament and politics with the public and raise the quality as well as the quantity of our democratic discourse. Change is our friend. It is emphatically not to be feared. It should be embraced enthusiastically. That is my objective.

In this, I am heartened by many aspects of the recent referendum campaign in Scotland. The voters were engaged as rarely before on a matter which evidently mattered to them. The use of new social media to motivate and mobilise the electorate was striking. The level of voter registration was vast and the turnout at almost 85% was the highest for any ballot in Britain since 1918 and without the catalyst of compulsion. If politics is dead, as it is sometimes fashionable in some quarters to state, then it involves a strangely intense after-life. Democracy in Scotland was certainly not a mere sham.

Neither is it in Australia. It is as vibrant as so much else in this amazing country. It has been an honour to have the opportunity to speak to you and to discover so much from you. Democracy is in our mutual DNA. Let us celebrate it. Thank you.