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The Politics of Participation

Thanks to old (but not old) FutureGov hand Laurence Millar, Editor-at-Large, emeritus, I came across my online doppelganger the other day at this blog.

I found JS2’s post about ‘Open Democracy’ very interesting. Read for yourself, but ‘James Smith-the-Younger’ was sharing his burgeoning interest in new social, collaborative tools to get involved in the political process. I’m sure all of you reading this would like your citizens to feel equally keen to participate. I have always believed that a broad sense of ownership of the political process is essential for a flourishing community.

Of course, government is about governance - about accountability and responsibility. So it can’t be left to an enthusiastic few to dictate what does and doesn’t happen. I don’t think my father has any less right than I, or James Smith II, to be involved in decision making - and as my father doesn’t use the internet very much, policymakers can’t give themselves wholly over to online policymaking. But neither should we throw the baby out with the bath water - we need to explore how new tools can help government work better.

What follows is my response to my namesake’s blog post; I’d be interested to hear what you think.

I think the thing to understand about politics in an era of mass media is that manifestos are marketing pitches - and just like any marketing pitch, they are principally intended to show a political party off to best effect. For marketing to have a recurring positive impact, the message should of course correspond with the product - which is why George Bush (senior) got in to trouble when after declaring “Read my lips: no new taxes” he raised tax. However there is not a causal relationship between sugar-coated, high-level and really rather abstract statements of belief - and actual policymaking. No plan survives first contact with reality, as they say, and certainly not marketing plans.

Secondly, regarding constitutions - well the United Kingdom, along with many other countries around the world, has one. The fact that it’s not a written constitution does not mean it’s not “proper”. Think about what the difference between written and unwritten means. Let’s take the United States - their constitution, beautifully phrased, was hammered out by slave-owning gentry in the late 18th century - and continues to inform how Washington DC operates to this day.

In fact, in the last session of Congress - House Republicans dutifully gathered on the first morning to read through the entire constitution - an example of constitutional literalism to do America’s Founding Fathers proud. Yet it is this same constitution that is largely responsible for the legislative and policy making gridlock.

A written constitution is a statement of faith that what it puts in black and white will largely hold true for all time - and of course we know that 18th century views of how the world should be run are unlikely to be able to reflect the complexity of the world we live in now. Look at the US courts and how they’ve struck down the net neutrality policy of the US government - all according to constitutional precedent, from a constitution written in 1787. It might be the right decision - but I wouldn’t base it on principles laid down by 18th century, male, protestant, white, slave owners.

Contrast this with an unwritten constitution - which basically holds that legal precedent (evolving legal interpretation and subsequent legislative enactments) dictates how we should view the world at any point in time. This helps explain why slave owning was abolished in the UK in 1833, and not in the US until 1865 (following a war which cost the lives of 750,000 people).

With all our good intentions, it is not self evident that everything we think about how the world should work in 2014 should constrain our grandchildren’s children in 2114. I love my Nana - but her outlook on the world was informed by a very different worldview to mine. If you believe that a constitution should be able to respond organically to changing circumstances - that’s why it should be unwritten. It enables every generation to legislate and live according to their own circumstances.

To follow through on your analogies - an unwritten constitution is open to reiteration by consensus, whereas a written constitution is proprietary and comes with hard to change licensing conditions developed in a previous era.

What I do think is very interesting is the question of whether, and if so - how, politics will be affected in an era of micro media (distributed, highly social media). I’d like to think that it will help refocus a plurality of discussion on the issues that make the biggest impact on all of us on a day-to-day basis: local politics. This would certainly help reduce the affective divide between younger generations of citizens (like yourself) who are interested in forming tightly-defined, short-lived, communities of interest to solve particular problems, and ‘traditional politics’.

I completely get the fact that a democratisation of media is enabling ‘non-experts’ to have their voice heard across the spectrum of issues; in the internet, talk has gone from being cheap - to being free. Many younger people find it strange to see that in an ever more collaborative, participatory world - politics and politicians belong to another era (which they do - they’re digital immigrants rather than digital natives). But rather than trying to tackle the biggest, most complex issues - the kind of small interest groups enabled by the internet that you’re interested in are probably best deployed at the local level. These days context is king.

Creating self-help groups for the marginalised (single mothers, the disabled, the elderly, ethnic minorities, longterm unemployed) to effect change in their community and get their voice heard; determining the right balance in land use - green space vs low cost housing; school policy; these are all issues to be addressed with commitment, and passion, which can be better harnessed and directed with the many group-formation and organisation tools available.


On 1 February 2014 nancy wrote:

These are all problems that we face. Do we tear ourselves from our computers, and go for a walk? Are we social on the Internet or in the neighbourhood? Do the town councils know us? The worry of course is that the incapable are given powers to change our lives, but Dahl's Witches have already swept over the community, country and Commonwealth: it is too late.

Once you really are involved, you begin to realise what a pain it is; and how wonderful it was commenting how ineffective, for instance, policies made by ruling parties were, and playfully taking the blame for the bodily malfunctions of the powers-that-be.

On 1 February 2014 hardy wrote:

Attached below link on obtaining private investigator's licence in Singapore…

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