Alex Walker discusses global innovations in digital democracy and how the Labour Party should learn from these developments.
Democracy is in a bad way, and digital technology has not always been its ally. The damage that the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have done to our political systems is increasingly recognised. The tech giants have abetted the polarisation of political life, opened the door to new forms of electoral manipulation and presided over a ‘pandemic of ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’’. Scepticism and distrust in politicians and democratic institutions, already prevalent for a myriad of reasons, has been exacerbated by these developments. Given this, it is unsurprising that the focus of policy debate has been on how to regulate big tech and minimise harm online. Labour’s recently concluded ‘Our Digital Future’ consultation rightly asked these questions. Nevertheless, whilst this threat is real and action necessary, it should not obscure the fact that technology can also be a part of the solution to democracy’s woes.
To say that democracy is in crisis has become almost a cliché. This doesn’t, unfortunately, make the reality any less serious. The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement for 2019 found that ‘feelings of powerlessness and disengagement are intensifying’. Furthermore, surveys by the Pew Research Centre have highlighted widespread popular dissatisfaction with the functioning of representative democracy, and a prevalent view that politicians don’t care what citizens think. Many countries have turned to more authoritarian leaders, with little regard for democratic norms.
These developments should of course be of concern to Labour – you can argue all you like over whether it is a democratic socialist party or a social democratic party, but it is a democratic party. Setting out plans for democratic renewal should be a priority. This is easier said than done and there is no magic formula – many of the causes of democratic malaise are deeply rooted. However, what can be said is that democratic innovation should have a part to play. Despite the general direction of travel, there have been experiments in democracy in recent years that, if more widely used, may help bridge the divide between representatives and citizens. Digital technology has been used in many of these innovations, showing that tech can be friend as well as foe for democracy.
Finding new ways for involving citizens in democratic institutions and decision-making will be key to restoring trust in the political system. Digital technology is by no means a public engagement silver bullet, but there are some international success stories that Labour could learn from. In France, for example, a tool called Parlement et Citoyen has been developed and used for collaborative drafting of legislation and public policy consultations. Each consultation is hosted by a particular elected representative, who provides an introduction. The platform is then open for the next 30 days for citizens to suggest amendments, vote on other people’s proposals, add arguments and put forward supporting evidence. A livestreamed debate is then held between the politician and several of the main contributors. Many of the proposals are included in the legislation that is put before the French Parliament. One consultation on a draft biodiversity bill had over 2000 suggestions and 9334 participants; it was adopted by the Environment Minister and had a big impact on the legislation that was passed.
Looking further afield, there has also been significant experimentation with digital democracy in Taiwan. During protests in 2014, a civic tech group called g0v designed digital tools to help communicate and coordinate amongst the activist movement. After a change in political leadership, the g0v tech activists were brought on board by the government, and the vTaiwan process was established. It is designed to find ‘rough consensus’ on contested and divisive issues and involves crowdsourcing facts and information online which are then commented on by different stakeholders via the digital platform Pol.is. Pol.is is designed to encourage and promote agreement – it maps different groups and flags statements that generate the most agreement between them. This creates an awareness of the points of contention and areas of consensus and, in doing so, has helped break the deadlock on some intractable issues in Taiwan. By 2019 it had informed 12 pieces of legislation, including regulation of ridesharing and laws on revenge porn. Both Parlement et Citoyen and vTaiwan are moderated, and opportunities for trolling and gaming the process are minimised by design. Instead, they promote collaboration, political impact and reaching negotiated agreement.
As a party that strives to represent those who often go unheard, Labour should make innovative forms of democratic public engagement part of its approach. Digital technology, as harmful as it has the power to be, can be a useful aid in this. In general, it should be made to work for citizens, not against them. For this to be effective Labour needs to also address the digital divide and work to improve access to the internet and digital literacy across the country. These are policies for a manifesto; however, one place Labour could start would be its own policymaking process. The National Policy Forum is often criticised for being opaque and ineffectual. Whilst members are able to make submissions, it is unclear how they are used and the technology is basic. One move Labour could make in opposition would be to reenergise this process using new technology. However, whilst important, better engaging with the views of Labour members won’t be sufficient. Labour should also be looking to use innovations in democracy – be they deliberative, digital or participative – to reach out beyond its current supporters to the voters it has lost in recent years.
He Tweets at @alwalks96.