On 12th July 2017, I attended an invitation only event organised by John Rees Evans, in which he spoke about his vision of Direct Democracy (DD) for UKIP and for the country. In my view, the event was overly and inappropriately ‘presidential’ in nature and only attended by, perhaps, 80 people. I didn’t count them but the venue was quite small and there were many empty seats.
He announced his intention to stand, once again, for the party leadership but, other than that, his presentation was pretty much what he says regularly about DD and still omitted what is, for me, the important aspect of how it would work in practice. As you might imagine, the room was overwhelmingly supportive, but there were a few too many ‘cheerleaders’ for my political liking, and I was left with the distinct impression that I was not alone in having no idea how John’s view of DD would be integrated into the British political landscape, nor how we might get from where we are now to where we would want to be.
As it happens, no country in the world uses DD in its entirety, though one approximates it: Switzerland. At the end of the day, DD can never be used for every government decision and in Switzerland the principles of DD are integrated into the constitutional processes and the net result is a lot more referendums. As for the efficacy and practicalities of greater elector involvement, it seems to work. Switzerland is a stable and highly functional democracy with the bonus that its government is mandated to routinely gain the support of the people for federal legislation. If John’s ideas of DD are to be based upon the Swiss model, I’ve never heard him say so; if they are to be different then it’s time to lay that out in detail.
So, how should we get from where we are now to a political system that incorporates some DD?
Even in a DD perfect scenario, a political infrastructure still exists. By that I mean that there is still a parliament and a second chamber which, by definition, need a process by which they can be populated. In the UK we know that process as FPTP (First Past The Post), which is always used in general elections, and we have become used to the incompetent and self-serving governments it regularly produces. Let us make no mistake, our long-standing system of electing governments is a limiting factor in our nation’s development, manifested by our practice of routinely switching from one set of ideologies to another. It is combative and not co-operative, reinforces extreme opinion, is overly concerned with its own electoral projections and, all in all, a relic of the past. This much is certain, it must change.
My reading into John’s presentation is that, were we to present this revolutionary vision of DD to the British people, they would flock to our cause and elect a UKIP government which would then set about implementing it.
I have to say that I believe such a scenario to be unlikely. However, there is nothing like improbable and unrealistic assertions, passionately delivered, to elicit raucous encouragement and support from the home crowd.
He may well have underestimated the complexities of presenting an, as yet, incomplete formulation of an unfamiliar system to an audience, largely not minded to listen too closely. The existing electoral and governance system, whilst dysfunctional, benefits those in power and, as such, they are unlikely to want to change. It is doubtful that, in any meaningful timescale, a complex concept such as DD could ever attract enough support by itself without one or more enabling political phases, by way of stepping stones.
I do believe we need to change the way we are governed and, in any change process, it is extremely helpful to begin with a known environment then add a visible and understandable link to another environment. Quite simply, start with what people already know then connect that to something new in an understandable way. To move from one system to a completely different ‘other’ system, without linking the steps of familiarity, is significantly harder and probably unachievable in an electoral sense.
It is this stage process that is missing in the manifesto of John Rees Evans but the interim stage does already exist, it just needs to be a part of the plan.
The factor of ‘partial success’ should also feature in all change processes. In other words, were the eventual objective not to be achieved, would the stages in that process still be independently beneficial? For example, if a change process incorporates steps 1 to 10, if step 10 is not reached, does the whole thing collapse? Alternatively, would stage 1, in itself, be a valuable step forward, regardless of whether or not stage 2 was achieved?
We do need to change our governance and an independent and necessary first step would be to change the voting system to a more representative one. I have form in this with the voting system I designed, F2PTP (First Two Past The Post) www.makevotescount.co.uk , which is also a major platform in my leadership campaign. Not only would a fairer voting system make DD more achievable but, in itself, would represent a major step forward in co-operative governance, which is a concept already well understood by most people.
Sometimes you don’t go straight to chairman of the board, you have to work your way up. My suggestion to John is that he embrace voting reform as the first stage on the journey to the DD revolution. They are not mutually exclusive concepts.