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Want to rethink the revolution?

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Essay | 15 minute read
Why not ask a 'tech' entrepreneur to remodel our political system instead. One writer embarks on a thought experiment for creating an alternative to the political establishment

How would a tech disruptor change our political system?

I’m dealing with the UK system here because as recent events have shown, our political system is shambolic and in profound crisis. So, purely as a thought experiment, how would a tech entrepreneur go about disrupting it?

Anyone who has spent time in the tech world will know old-fashioned industries that fail to embrace technology are seen as the lowest hanging fruit. In an established industry run by people in their fifties, sixties and seventies who have a vested interest in things remaining exactly as they are, it’s highly unlikely that they will try and disrupt their own industry from within. Even if they know it’s the ‘right’ thing to do (as I imagine many of them do) there is simply no incentive – or appetite in the organisation – to attempt wholesale strategic (usually digital) change.

It takes leadership of an extraordinary kind to take a large, established organisation and redesign a new model of operation that deliberately sets out to destroy its existing inner workings. Imagine the impact on a company’s share price if the CEO announced that their existing model was out of date and they needed to invent a new one. Exactly. It’s never going to happen. This is where the tech disruptor comes in, spotting the inability to break from conventional systems as a massive business opportunity.

Unfortunately, our political system is harder to change, despite its failure to evolve for the exact reasons outlined above. A tech entrepreneur can’t disrupt politics in the same way as it might a traditional business. Given the recently exposed lapses in moral values of many of the tech giants in their exploitation of our data, many people will say that’s a good thing. But I am suggesting that politics could still benefit from feeling the heat of a competitor using a tech disruption approach. Political systems do, after all, get disrupted from time to time, through revolutions, which tend to be a bit messy. Could the application of tech principles offer a sleeker alternative?

To start with, you have to forget about trying to change the incumbent model that you want to disrupt  – Netflix, for example, did try and sell to Blockbuster early in their evolution, but Blockbuster politely declined before Netflix went on to replace them. It’s a total waste of time. The people in the House of Commons have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. Most of them have been there for so long it is pretty much a political re-enactment society rather than a working Parliament these days.

The opiate effects of standing in the same celebrated chamber as Bevan, Churchill, et al. – and the hubristic conclusion they must draw that if they are an MP they must be of the same stock by association – cloud their judgement. It makes humility impossible. A disruptive entrepreneur knows the folly of trying to persuade the incumbent to change. The people currently in it have invested far too much to get there to want to bring about much change – whatever they may say – so we just have to get on with building a new system ourselves. No arguing about it on Twitter. Or demonstrating outside the House of Commons, for that matter. There is too much work to be done in building the future for us to waste time arguing the merits of doing so with a physical embodiment of the past.

Now that we have dispensed with the idea of trying to get the existing order ‘onside’ or ‘disrupting from within’, we need to build an MVP, or a ‘minimum viable product’, to see whether anyone is interested in building a new political order. There’s no point spending vast amounts of money to build a new system without knowing whether your idea has any traction in the real world. You have to build a basic version that people can use, and test their responses with it.

But how would you build an MVP for a new political system? You start by listing the failings that the new model technology could address and construct a prototype that answers each of these major flaws. Then you have a good chance of attracting people and getting going in earnest.

So what are the main failings of the existing democratic model we need to fix? Let’s start with six or we’ll be here all day.

1.     All votes are not equal. This is not a stealthy way of trying to bring about Proportional Representation, I’m just laying out the facts. The value of your vote depends on the number of people in your constituency, how many of them vote and whether someone representing your political views is standing for election in your constituency. Our new system would have to be an actual democracy where each vote has the same value and where all points of view are heard. It doesn’t matter if people are screaming, ‘PR doesn’t work!’ I’m not getting into the cul-de-sac of that argument because I’m not trying to persuade anyone to change the existing system.

I’m starting afresh, just as a tech entrepreneur would. I’m building something that deals with the problems that the existing system can’t or won’t face even though it’s the kind of glaring flaw a schoolchild can understand within sixty seconds of having ‘democracy’ explained. This is the maximum point of leverage in getting people onside that a tech entrepreneur would utilise. It’s the ‘Vision’ statement. ‘Every vote is of equal value’ is a sales pitch people will get behind because how can you argue that one person’s vote should have more value than another?

You could even borrow a recent, winning political slogan to ‘take back control’. Not from one political chamber to another, both of which are equally disconnected from the real world, but to give to the people themselves. Ensuring all votes are equal and counted is something a tech platform could uniquely manage. Building it on blockchain would remove the ability to manipulate any result. Adopting technology to increase access to elections for people who can’t get to their local polling station is also a must, and technology could be used to verify identity and prevent voter fraud.

The natural next step in a tech approach would be to introduce KPIs for voter engagement. Why are people not interested in politics? Because the system is unfit for the modern age. Any new system should have the responsibility to find out and use technology to increase voter engagement by listening to those voters; crucially, they should actually be prepared to change the system based on what voters say rather than just listening to the ones who already agree with what they have decided they want to do in advance. This is how a tech company grows. By listening, evolving, iterating, testing and so on.

2.     The second major weakness of the current system that a tech disruptor would exploit is representation, or lack of. The path to becoming an MP today is so skewed in favour of privilege that it makes it impossible for our House of ‘Commons’ to actually represent the full breadth of the society it governs. To start with, you have to be a member of a political party to have a realistic chance of becoming an MP. So first you have to climb the greasy pole in one of those organisations and tick the boxes required to qualify for selection: ‘A first in PPE from Oxford or Cambridge, you say? You’re the progeny of a previous editor of the Times? You went to Eton? Marvellous. I recognise that tie. This will be a formality…’

Political parties are also looking for people who already share their point of view, so before being selected you have to hold the views of one of the existing political parties, established at a party conference in whichever seaside town of choice. Now, call me a cynic, but is it possible that because of this process you might get a high proportion of people becoming MPs because they want to be MPs, and are prepared to hold whatever political views they have as lightly as required to fit in with a party and increase their chances of becoming one?

Yes, independent MPs do get elected too, but very, very few. The voting process also, by definition, removes the chances of getting MPs who have views that diverge from one of the three existing main political parties. To remain in a political party you are also not allowed to change your view because in the rarefied world of political discourse, ‘changing your mind’ is referred to as a ‘U-turn’ and seen as professional suicide. If you rock the boat and speak outside the party line, you risk deselection and the slippery slide out of professional politics you have spent so many years trying to scale. Thus increasing the chances of an MP being malleable and compliant enough to conform to the will of their party’s leadership.

In another example of linguistic ‘spin’, they call this inability to change your mind – regardless of the facts, coupled with the silencing of your own conscience – ‘loyalty’. Any new system has to fix the calcified methodology that creates a circularity in terms of our Parliament’s inability to evolve. Changing the process of selection is essential, therefore, to increase the diversity of opinion and representation of our government. Which is why it will never happen unless we build a new system.

How would technology answer this? I don’t think this is a problem technology can answer. Not all tech companies rely entirely on technology. The current path to becoming an MP is built in such a way that it attracts too many of the same kinds of people. It may sound obvious, but the outcome you get if you aspire to something (like being an MP) determines the kind of person who then aspires to be it. So you have to look at what it means to be an MP if you want to change the kind of person who wants to be one. Take nursing, for example. No one wants to become a nurse because of the money, prestige, fame or vast amounts of paid holiday. They do it because they are caring people who want to help others. The quickest way to change the kind of people who aspire to be politicians, then, is to change the reality of being one.

3.     Which brings us to vested interests. Our current political system is too easily manipulated by vested interests so we have to find a way to reduce that possibility or expose it to transparency when it does occur. There will be both a non-tech and a tech solution to this. In terms of the vested interests looking to change government policy to their best advantage, a platform could be built that anyone could use to look at what each interest group wanted – a system of validation that looked at the unintended consequences of an interest group getting what they wanted so that the decision-makers had all the facts to hand before making a decision. And to protect against the vested interests of MPs, it would be illegal for any MP to work for a company they had ever procured from when in public office. Or to have any job other than being an MP while they are one. Of course, lots of existing MPs will oppose this, claiming that it will stop the kinds of ‘high fliers’ we need aspiring to be MPs in the first place (by which, of course, they are referring to themselves). But this is precisely the point: just as the NHS attracts nurses based on their values rather than what they can ‘get out of’ nursing, the same would apply to public office.

4.     Facts. Yes, we need to bring facts back into politics; they should form the basis of any public policy where the electorates’ lives will be changed or put at risk. Again, there would be a technical solution to ascertain which ‘facts’ are actually facts and which ‘facts’ are opinions. This is not as insurmountable a problem as it first seems, especially if you have devised a way to prevent vested interests with louder voices than someone with an alternative point of view from manipulating public opinion (a tech approach to disrupting the media would be nice too, of course, but disrupting politics is enough for now).

You could use technology of a similar kind to Wikipedia to build a database subject to peer review. This could inform government policy as a starting point. Then, if anyone wanted to claim something as a fact, they would have to be prepared to prove it and face scrutiny if their view differs from the consensus (based on peer-reviewed evidence). We already have organisations like NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) which determine what medicines the NHS will pay for, and as imperfect as this system may be, it is better than a free-for-all. If you think this is all too difficult to achieve, then think about a dentist – if you need a tooth taken out, do you go to someone who has a peer-reviewed certification or someone who is qualified in their own opinion? Exactly.

We make assessments, and accept certification, on this kind of thing all the time; we need to apply this same approach to politics. Where there are no facts or evidence about the efficacy of a proposed course of action, we should adopt it in a small capacity in order to get those facts before rolling something out to the wider public.

5.     The planet gets a vote too. The human race is rapidly approaching its finish line, which is not something I want my grandchildren or great-grandchildren to experience. It’s not about saving the planet. The earth doesn’t care if we are wiped out; species come and go, after all. But if we want our species to be around for a while longer, then our new political system has to pay attention and protect our environment. We need an environmental equivalent of the NHS that looks after the nation, from the quality of its soil to its wildlife and its air. The NES maybe. This is another good marketing argument for our alternative-model tech company. With our new system, we are, quite literally, trying to save our world.

6.     The House of Commons itself. The Palace of Westminster is old. Our political system is old. It has a lot of heritage. Lots of eminent figures from history gave speeches there, but it is literally falling apart. Tradition is fine, but not when it alienates huge swathes of the public by re-enacting practices (and wearing antiquated necklaces and fancy-dress outfits) from a nation’s past, alongside superannuated values that verge on the abhorrent today. From a disruption perspective, Parliament should have been vacated aeons ago. If a political system has any value, it has to be about building the future, not hanging on to the past. In this case the past is literally holding our political system back. By all means, celebrate and (if possible) learn from history but do it inside museums and schools. Government could move to a part of the country where a new facility can be built – one that reflects the modern age and utilises technology to educate citizens on how the system works. It could be built in a part of the country most in need of investment (or basically anywhere other than the south-east) and the existing building should be converted into the museum it has been for some time. MPs who love the old building so much could always stay there to run the gift shop.

So what are our next steps? If I was building a disruptive tech company, I would raise a small amount of money to build a prototype based on delivering this list and then launch it, learn and make continual incremental changes based on voter behaviour. Using this evolving process, I would find out if enough people were interested in change to actually use it. It would be incredibly badly paid, hard work for a few years and everyone with a vested interest in seeing it fail would be unanimous in their opinion that it would never work. But if you kept going and kept listening to ordinary voters, it just might take off. And if it did evolve into a structure that was transparent, that people began to believe in, it could be applied in a pilot area, perhaps local government, and then who knows?

One thing is certain: whatever your view on this summertime thought-experiment, change will never happen as long as we rely on the existing structure. The new generation of ‘robber barons’ currently wielding the media, funding political parties to further their interests, and the emergence of an MP who runs a hedge fund (is there a more perfect modern equivalent of a robber baron than a hedge fund manager?) all prove my point. It’s clearly time for an updated version of Magna Carta. One that meets the pace of change in the modern age.

Either that or revolution. Anyone?

Dan Kieran’s new book, ‘The Surfboard’, is published by Unbound. Buy here.