If there’s one thing I learnt from campaigning in the EU referendum, it was that people feel that politics is irrelevant to their lives; that it is inaccessible and out of touch. As a political activist, I passionately believe that public policies can transform people’s lives. That while politics might be clunky, it is an honourable profession to improve people’s lives.
But there’s something wrong with the way we do democracy.
Last month I attended a political party meeting in my local area to choose our candidates for the council elections across London in 2018. There has been a lot of drama surrounding this in Haringey – but I’m not going to go into that here. This piece is about how the process of local democracy works – or rather, spectacularly fails – to be open, meaningful and credible.
Here’s the story.
The selection meeting started at 15:30 on a Sunday afternoon. To be allowed into the meeting I needed three things: photo ID, proof of address (in the last three months) and my party membership card. Membership card – tick. Driver’s license – another tick.
But proof of address was a problem: I get nothing sent physically to the house. Who does? Hasn’t everyone gone paperless? After 15 minutes of hunting through folders and draws, I gave up.
Instead, I downloaded a bill from my online account, dropped it into my offline Evernote and synced it to my iPad. I could, at least, get through the door. This was all against the clock. If the meeting started before I arrived, I’d be refused entry and not allowed to participate.
After the faff of ID checks, head counts and a roll call, there were some procedural votes taken by a show of hands (often recounted as the numbers didn’t match up).
Next, we had to choose three questions to ask the two candidates. 14 questions had been submitted in advance (I don’t know how nor who from) and more could be suggested on the day. There was no clear process for selecting the questions and so a painful 90 minutes followed. That’s right: 90 minutes to choose three questions.
We wordsmithed the questions by committee, continued to the argue about the process, attempted to group the questions, needed to agree on a method for selecting the questions, and held several votes on whether the candidates should have 5 or 10 minutes to answer them. All of this while happened while navigating the anger of different tribes and the confusion of new people in the room.
Eventually the two candidates appeared (separately), gave a 5 minutes speech and then had 5 minutes to answer all three questions. No debate, no challenge, no follow up questions, no time for any discussion. No interaction between the candidates nor the audience (of voters). Then we voted on paper slips, these were counted, the results were announced and we left.
It was democracy at its worst: void of humanity, focused on procedure, and irrelevant to most of us in the room. We could have asked all 14 questions if we had simply had two hours of discussion. I left feeling that it had been a waste. If, as a member, I thought it was a sham, imagine what someone not familiar with party politics would think.
I recently read Gavin Newsom’s book, Citizenville, which critiques the way we run government and calls for technology to be used as a way of actively engaging people in the process. He calls for the gamification of civic engagement, rewards for city-level policy suggestions, and advocates for the release of government held data to unleash technological solutions to people’s lives. Gavin imagines the town of Citizenville where easy tech solutions transform people’s engagement with their community.
Now let’s imagine my meeting had taken place in Citizenville. This scenario applies the most basic of technology – nothing fancy, costly or time-consuming. Everything below a teenager could sort out with 30 minutes of preparation.
- The meeting wouldn’t require me to be present at all. An online video of the candidates would be available setting out their pitch and I’d be able to securely vote (like I do for all other internal party elections). Therefore making it accessible to all eligible members who couldn’t make it at the allotted time.
- If I wanted to be in the room, all I would need to do is turn up. My membership details could be accessed online by the meeting facilitators and I’d answer some personal security questions to confirm my identity.
- The questions for candidates would have been voted on in advance using an online poll via a closed Facebook Group. Follow-up questions could be submitted by those watching the live stream (either public or only viewable by members through a closed link) and by those in the room.
- The candidate would answer the questions as part of a debate – with the other candidate(s) and interactions with the audience. A dedicated facilitator would keep the conversation moving and ensure all the questions were asked. Someone else would be responsible for inputting any additional questions from those watching online.
- The vote would be taken using mobile phones, or if the act of voting still requires pen and paper, the votes of those in the room would be added to those who have voted online. The results would be announced.
Nothing particularly complex. No specific subscriptions or equipment. All doable from an iPhone.
More and better democracy
This meeting in Citizenville would stop you going crazy. It was awful trying to choose questions with no process and 50 people in the room.
It would have been accessible to those unable to make the meeting; the carers unable to leave a friend or family members alone, the mother or father without childcare, the students on a field trip, the elderly not up for the walk, the retail worker on the shop floor, or the couple on a city break an EasyJet flight away. All could have had their voice heard, made an informed choice, and participated in local democracy.
It would have been a better meeting. The real-life meeting wasn’t meaningful. We spent four times longer choosing the questions than the candidates had to answer them. No one had the opportunity to meet each candidate, let alone engage in actual discussion. It was a process from a distant era.
Yes, we made a choice, but it was the lowest bar of democracy.
Whilst choosing our candidates is vital in a democracy – for a party it is a really important thing to do – imagine what we could have done if we had harnessed those two hours (100 hours with 50 people in the room) to do something practical in our community. Let’s cut down the process and focus on making changes to our local area.
Politics is failing because of meetings like this. It is old-fashioned, disconnected and irrelevant to most people. If political parties don’t change – and change right now – then they’ll die. In fact, maybe parties – at least the parties of the last 100 years – are already dead.
Perhaps it’s time to give up and start something new?
Do we wait for parties to modernise?
How disconnected do we need to get from people’s reality before we’ll change?
I don’t know exactly. But if I’m forced: yes, no, too long.
Photo credit: From Flickr user “Mindaugas Danys”,, used under the Creative Commons license. Original photo here.