Digital democracy debate: MPs demand hoverboards for all by 2020

digitaldemocracyThey had the Digital Democracy debate in Parliament this morning. This link should take you to a transcript for the rest of today, but I’ll need to go to Hansard in the morning to get a permanent link to it. (UPDATE: Here it – hopefully permanently – is) That does show just one of the problems we have with the concept of ‘digital democracy’ and as I said before, I think a lot of the Commission’s proposals, especially around education and participation, are very good and the next Government needs to work to introduce them.

However, all those good ideas flee the room the moment online voting gets discussed. What we get at that point is the MPs doing the equivalent of demanding that everyone gets their own hoverboard by 2020, regardless of what the laws of physics might say about that possibility. If the House of Commons wants to ignore the laws of physics, it damn well should be able to!

Eppur si muove, as they say, and if I had better Latin, or any Latin at all I’d add ‘and yet it’s still not secure’ to all their beliefs that everything will be fine with online voting if we just wish for it hard enough. Robert Halfon gave a speech that was a masterpiece of Parliamentary because-I-wish-it-so nonsense, that in a true online and digital democracy would have been littered with ‘[citation needed]’ markers as he spoke. For instance, in one short paragraph of his speech:

People want new options[citation needed], and it is up to us to provide them with some[dubious claim – why can’t the people generate their own?]. We must not fool ourselves: the decline in voter participation is strongly linked[citation needed] to the fact that new generations interact in different ways[citation needed] and therefore require different ways of appealing to them[citation needed].

He then later goes on to discuss Estonia’s online voting as though no one had pointed out the many many security holes in that system but then, it seems that anyone who wrote to him about voting security was apparently ‘abusive’ and using a ‘farcical argument’ because our current voting system is not perfectly secure. By the same logic, the next time Mr Halfon needs to replace a bucket with a hole in it, I shall recommend he buys a sieve.

Robert Halfon is not alone in suddenly shedding any demands for reasonable evidence in order to embrace the bright shiny precious of online voting. Tom Brake manages it too, telling how a survey on Facebook reached a whole eleven people of which seven were in favour of it, and someone called Andy thinks it can be made secure. There’s your slogan: Online voting – Andy says your vote is safe.

There is a point here, and it’s that MPs need to be sceptical about claims of the proposed benefits of online voting because there are far too many people out there who’ll happily ignore all the flaws in the hope of making large sums of money from it. For an example, see this blog post from Electoral Reform Services (the commercial arm of the Electoral Reform Society) which asserts that online voting, and particularly their version of it that they want to sell to you, is perfectly safe.

It may be that we’re just days away from a breakthrough in security that will make online voting safe, just like physicists might now be putting the final working touches to the gravity-nullifying devices that will make hoverboards a reality. Then again, it might never come, and rushing ahead as though it will definitely come is asking for disaster. When we get tweets like this from MPs:


I wonder what else they would like to legislate will happen before 2020? If Parliament wants to put serious investment into electronic security (particularly to educating people to keep the computers they’d be voting on free from viruses and malware) then maybe we might get somewhere, or at least the spinoff benefits of improved security systems would benefit us all. If they just want to rush ahead regardless, we’re all in trouble.

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A ‘digital democracy’ can’t ignore security

digitaldemocracyThis morning, there’ll be a Parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall on the report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy.

Overall, it’s a good report which you can see here. It proposes some interesting and useful new ideas for opening up Parliament and giving people new channels to get involved and be informed, while generally not running away with itself and succumbing to the techno-evangelism that has people proclaiming that the internet will solve all our problems.

However – you knew there’d be a however, didn’t you? – it drops the ball when it comes to online voting. Not quite as badly as the ‘Viral Voting’ report last week did, but it has a very worrying approach to security in its conclusions. Yet again, there’s an expectation that security problems don’t have to be bad if we want to pretend that they’re not bad, rather than facing them head on.

The section in question is here. The Commissioners deserve credit for speaking to the Open Rights Group and including their comments in the report which sums up the problems very well:

“Voting is a uniquely difficult question for computer science: the system must verify your eligibility to vote; know whether you have already voted; and allow for audits and recounts. Yet it must always preserve your anonymity and privacy. Currently, there are no practical solutions to this highly complex problem and existing systems are unacceptably flawed.”

Unfortunately, when faced with the fact that “there are no practical solutions to this highly complex problem”, the Commissioners don’t then adopt the sensible position that efforts need to be made to try and solve that problem before any real deployment of online voting can begin. Instead, they talk about how ‘the concerns about security must be overcome’. Not the issues or the fundamental problems, just the concerns. They then go on to recommend that ‘in the 2020 general election, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.’ And they can all be given a jetpack or a hoverboard as a reward for voting, I expect.

Yet again, the cart is being placed several miles ahead of the horse. Trying to push for implementation of an idea by a certain date in the hope that fundamental problems can be solved by then is asking for trouble, and for a system to be rolled out (probably alongside a massive PR campaign to assure that it’s perfectly safe) that’s riddled with security issues. I understand the appeal of online voting, and I understand the appeal it has for politicians who want to be seen to be engaging with technology, but engaging with technology means understanding it, and understanding it means accepting that security is a fundamental issue not a peripheral concern.

If you really want secure online voting to happen, then you’ll need to spend a lot of money and time developing a secure system, in the same way our current voting system evolved over time in response to security challenges. Rushing something through to meet an arbitrarily imposed deadline is always going to see security being compromised, and that’s an attitude we shouldn’t accept when our entire democracy is at stake.

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What would it take to have a Tory-Labour coalition government?

It seems that the prospect of some kind of grand coalition is the bad idea that will not die of the moment, probably given an extra burst of unlife by the election campaign having started yesterday despite no one wanting it to. There’s more of a link than just that coincidence, too, as both are pretty much just obsessions of the Westminster bubble right now, with no real relevance to anyone outside it.

As I said in my post at the weekend, I don’t think a Tory-Labour government is likely after the next election, or indeed any election unless there’s some crisis driving it. (This, of course, is assuming we have the same electoral and party system as we do now – when that’s changed, as it has in Scotland, it’s much more likely to happen)

The sort of crisis it would take wouldn’t be just a single election that doesn’t deliver a clear majority or an obvious coalition of one big party and one small party. In that circumstance, I believe we would end up with a minority government that would attempt to survive by numerous deals with other parties. It probably wouldn’t last too long (though never underestimate the power of party discipline) but would be much more preferable to Labour or the Tories than a coalition with their ancient enemy.

What there’d also be in the run-up to the following election (be it six months or a year away) would be massive pressure from the media to the public on the lines of ‘you’ve had your fun, now make a proper decision this time’. The hope would be to end any incipient crisis (or at least kick it a few years down the road) by getting a majority government (or at least a workable coalition) from a second election. However, if that didn’t happen, we’d be into a political crisis, and I could imagine that you would then get a grand coalition of some sort. It might not last a full term, but I suspect it would come in to try and deliver some changes to the system to deliver stable government in future. (In other words, electoral reform that benefits large parties, not small ones)

The other option would be if there was some international crisis (economic and/or geopolitical) that prompted the need for some form of national unity government. That’s what prompted national governments in the UK in the past, but there don’t seem to be any of sufficient scale on the horizon to justify a national government. There’s my hostage to fortune, so come May when we’re facing Putin’s invasion or the complete collapse of the European economy triggered by a Syriza-led government in Greece, feel free to mock me for it.

There have been occasions since WW2 when circumstances could have led to Britain having another national government but luck and electoral timing appear to have spared us from it. For instance, if the second election of 1974 hadn’t delivered a majority and certain allegations about Jeremy Thorpe had come out, a national government might have been the only solution. (And there have always been dark rumours about things happening behind the scenes to make this happen)

Another more recent potential might have been if Gordon Brown had gone for an election in late 2007, and then found himself facing the full blast of the global financial crisis with little or no Parliamentary majority. Pressure to at least find some way to bring the Opposition closer to Government could have been immense, and who knows where we might have ended up?

The British system has been very good for years at dodging full-on crises, and it most likely will again, but it takes a major crisis to provoke a response that’s wildly beyond the norm and I don’t think one inconclusive election will be enough to make it happen.

The Duke of Newcastle - the last Prime Minister to serve without a predecessor in Parliament.

The Duke of Newcastle – the last Prime Minister to serve without a predecessor in Parliament.

A thought occurred to me this morning that with Gordon Brown stepping down as an MP at the next election, if David Cameron is re-elected, there’ll be no former Prime Minister in Parliament. There’ll be living former Prime Ministers – John Major, Tony Blair and Brown – but as the first two haven’t taken seats in the Lords, they’re not in Parliament. Assuming Brown chooses to follow their example (possibly confirming a new precedent), none of them will be in Parliament.

That got me wondering about if it had ever happened before, and if so, when was the most recent case of it? Going back to the start, this is what I found:

Following the convention, we’ll assume Walpole was the first Prime Minister, and thus there was no former one in Parliament during his time in office. Having been created Earl of Orford, he remained in Parliament until his death in 1745, through the whole of the Earl of Wilimgton’s time as PM and the first two years of Henry Pelham’s.

Wilmington and Pelham both died in office, thus there were no living former PMs during the Duke of Newcastle’s first period in office. He was then replaced by the Duke of Devonshire before returning to office when Devonshire resigned. Newcastle was in power till 1762, and Devonshire didn’t die until 1764, then Newcastle lived on until 1768, during which time the Earl of Bute, George Grenville, the Marquess of Rockingham and Pitt the Elder all served as Prime Minister.

Of those four, Bute lived the longest and held a peerage, thus remaining a member of Parliament in the Lords until his death in 1792. There were a number of Prime Ministers during that time, the longest lived being the Duke of Grafton, who survived until 1811. Following him, Henry Addington (who joined the Lords as Viscount Sidmouth after being Prime Minister) lived until 1844.

(EDIT: Charles Dundas in the comments points out that the Earl of Bute was only a member of the Lords until 1780, but Grafton was an ex-PM in the Lords from 1770 until 1811)

Viscount Goderich was the longest-surviving PM of Addington’s time, living till 1859 (and outliving four of his successors), with Lord John Russell (later the first Earl Russell) the longest-lived of Goderich’s time. Russell lived to see Disraeli and Gladstone trade the premiership back and forth, though Gladstone was the longest-lived. However, he did not enter the Lords, and served as an MP until 1895. When Gladstone left Parliament, however, his successor the Earl of Rosebery also lost the Premiership to the Marquess of Salisbury, though Rosebery lived on until 1929.

At Rosebery’s death, David Lloyd George was still in Parliament and would serve as an MP until 1945, while Stanley Baldwin (both a former and future PM at the time of Rosebery’s death) would be in the Lords as Earl Baldwin until 1947. Attlee and Churchill were then both former Prime Ministers and leaders of the Opposition while the other was in office. Attlee would remain in Parliament as Earl Attlee until his death in 1967, and then there would always be at least one former Prime Minister in the House of Lords until Thatcher’s death in 2013.

On her death, Gordon Brown became the only former Prime Minister left in Parliament, and so, to answer my original question, if Cameron remains as Prime Minister and none of the three living former PMs enter the Lords, this will be our first time without a former Prime Minister in Parliament since the Duke of Newcastle’s first term in 1754-56.

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Douglas Carswell, ministerial by-elections and things that were obvious in retrospect

While looking around for some background information on the previous post, I found this blog post by Douglas Carswell from 2012 talking about the 1919 Re-Election of Ministers Act, which mostly ended the practice of ministerial by-elections. (They were completely ended by an amendment to it in 1926)

He was using it to argue for open primaries and recalls, but there’s one line in there that shows where his thinking was going a couple of years before he switched to UKIP:

If an MP was invited to become a minister, they were seen to be changing sides – and had to seek a fresh mandate from the people to be their representative.

So, his choosing to fight a by-election when he changed sides from Tory to UKIP shouldn’t have been a surprise, though the interesting question is going to be if he’s now established a new precedent and Parliamentary tradition. Mark Reckless followed the same course, but will any other MPs, especially the next time someone defects to a party other than UKIP?

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Reading this article about how MPs who want to climb the greasy ladder to the Ministerial Jaguar have to toe the line continually in Parliament reminded me of one idea I’d like to see tried to try and free Members of Parliament.

We currently have a situation where to be a Minister within the UK Government, you have to be a Member of Parliament – either Commons or Lords. Unlike other countries – the US is probably the best and most well-known example – we don’t formally separate the executive and legislative parts of the government and so David Cameron serves both as Prime Minister and Member of Parliament for Witney. (And if the Tories got a majority but he lost his seat, he wouldn’t be able to continue as PM)

There are many advantages to this system, and for once, it’s not one that Britain is alone in using (Angela Merkel, for instance, represents the constituency of Vorpommern-Rügen – Vorpommern-Greifswald I in the Bundestag). Leaders and ministers need to have that local mandate to be able to serve, and it ensures that ministers are accountable to Parliament. On the down side, however, there are the issues mentioned in the article of MPs having to do as they’re told if they want to get into Ministerial office, and constituencies represented by a senior Minister not getting the same sort of representation in Parliament as those represented by backbenchers.

Now, one way to change this would be to follow the American example and completely separate the two, but that would be a pretty radical change to the system and I’m not completely sure the country is ready for the idea of a directly-elected Prime Minister and executive. However, the French system does suggest a way in which the two can be separated a bit more, and fits in with British tradition too.

Until the First World War, MPs who took a post as a minister had to resign and be re-elected in a by-election if they became a Minister because their circumstances had changed. The French still have a system whereby if a member of the National Assembly is appointed to the Government (and some other constitutional posts) they cease to be a member of the Assembly. However, they circumvent the need for a by-election by using the principle of a substitute. By this process, a person who may become a minister names a substitute at the time of their election – as in Britain, having the individual electoral mandate is seen as important – and if they do take up a role in the government, their place in it is taken by the substitute. That way ministers still need to be elected, but in day-to-day business, there’s a greater separation between Parliament and the Executive.

It’s not the be-all and end-all of constitutional reform, and would need some more thinking through about the wider ramifications, but it’s an idea that might bring some improvements and one I’d be interested to see tried.

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An easy opportunity to get more women in Parliament

Following some of the links from the Lib Dem Voice Golden Dozen, I found this post by Richard Morris suggesting names for potential new Lib Dem members of the House of Lords.

As I’ve stated many times before, I’d like to see the House of Lords replaced with an elected chamber – it’s the 21st century, I think we’re in a position where the British people should elect their own Parliament – but as reactionaries and opportunists in other parties happily conspire to prevent that from happening, we remain with a house of patronage. As a result, it looks like Nick Clegg will get to name fifteen people to the Lords (and for this post, I’m not going to open up the can of worms that’s the party’s Interim Peers Panel)

However, I noticed something in Richard’s post that of the 14 potential new peers he suggests, only three are women. This isn’t to single out Richard – I’m sure most Lib Dems when asked to come up with a similar list would come up with a similarly male list of the great, good, worthy and safely uncontroversial – but if there’s one thing the benches in the Lords aren’t short of at the moment, it’s men. Looking at the list of peers on the party website, there are 94 Lib Dem peers, of whom 66 are men and 28 are women (those figures do include Jenny Tonge). In terms of representing women, that’s slightly better than Have I Got News For You, but still pretty poor when compared to reality.

Assuming that Clegg doesn’t take the attitude that the best way to win the game of House of Lords appointments is to not play and appoint no new peers, why not take a bold approach and announce a list of fifteen women? It would still leave the party’s representation in the Lords well short of equality – but another list of fifteen would bring that close – but it would be a statement that if we do have to have an unelected chamber, the party is committed to making it representative. I could quite easily come up with a list of fifteen Lib Dem women who’d all make very good peers, so surely it’s not beyond the ability of Nick Clegg and his advisers to come up with one?

Doing that would be a way of making the statement that the Liberal Democrats are still committed to doing politics differently, and I expect it would serve as a way of making us look very different from the sort of list that Cameron and Miliband are likely to propose for their parties. And for anyone complaining about positive discrimination, it’s quite clear from the list of existing Lib Dem peers that there’s clearly been discrimination in favour of men over the years, and this is a chance to show that we’re not going to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done.

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