Indirect or representative democracy usually consists of the legislature (e.g. the parliament, congress, assembly, etc.) and the executive (the government including its leader, who is usually called the president or the prime minister). There is no reason why this structure, with some reasonable modifications, cannot be maintained.

Why representative democracy is needed

Earlier, we examined the limitations of indirect democracy. Even if not perfect, this form of governance has proven its value in a relatively short time, particularly in dealing with the challenges of social space and time. Firstly, indirect democracy has provided an opportunity to govern on a large scale (such as a nation state). Even if we had a perfect direct democracy on a small scale, such units would have to send representatives to negotiate with each other – ending up in some form of representative democracy, as it would not be possible for everybody to negotiate with everybody else. Time is, of course, an issue too. There are countless day-to-day decisions that need to be made on the national level, not to mention those of international politics. If we had direct democracy on a large scale, making these decisions would be prohibitively time-consuming, using a large proportion of everybody’s time. So, indirect democracy can achieve what would hardly be possible for direct democracy. On the other hand, the meritocratic component, in one form or another, could feasibly do the same job, but this would mean too much power being concentrated in the hands of an unelected group. And as already discussed, even if benign, such a regime would lead to political infantilisation. Indirect democracy lends itself to a much better fit between accountability and political powers. Thus, as in the previous case, indirect democracy is needed to compensate for the limitations of direct democracy as well as of meritocracy.

How the legislators can be selected

Voting seems an obvious method for selecting legislators, but there are three major issues in relation to voting that need to be addressed in more detail: which voting system to use, what to vote for, and funding. In addition, we will also look at the selection of the government ministers and the leader.

Which system? While no voting system is perfect, many political theorists would agree that the single transferable vote (STV) is the most representative and therefore most democratic method. STV, also called choice voting, is a preferential (or ranked) voting system, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. The count is cyclic, electing or eliminating candidates and transferring votes until all seats are filled. A candidate is elected when their tally reaches a quota, the minimum vote that guarantees election. The candidate’s surplus votes (those in excess of the quota) are then transferred to other candidates at a fraction of their value proportionate to the surplus, according to the voters’ preferences. If no candidates reach the quota, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, their votes being transferred to their next preference at full value, and the count continues (there are some variations of the above, but this is the gist). STV has the following benefits:

  • Solid coalitions (sets of voters who share a set of most preferred candidates) are proportionally represented (which is why STV is considered to be a system of proportional representation). In effect, this method produces groups of voters that reflect the diversity of the electorate, each group having a representative the group voted for and the vast majority of voters having a representative to whom they gave their first preference.
  • As there are no, or at least very few, ‘wasted’ votes, voters can feel more confident about voting for a small party or for independent candidates – avoiding the need to vote for ‘the lesser of two evils’. Other systems naturally lead to, effectively, a two-party system in which the two parties are sometimes barely distinguishable. Many people do not vote for a party of their first choice for fear of their vote being a ‘spoiler’ – giving an advantage to their least favoured candidate (this concern is real – in 2000, George W. Bush won the state of Florida by 537 votes and independent candidate Ralf Nader received almost 100,000 votes. Nader was considered more left-leaning than Gore, so there is little doubt that most of these voters would have voted for Gore rather than Bush, and only a fractionally greater number would have made a difference, giving Gore the presidency and changing the course of the US). The STV system is immune to this issue, as everybody can vote for their first choice, which strengthens democracy.
  • The system tends to handicap though extreme candidates because, to gain preferences and so improve their chance of election, candidates need to canvass voters beyond their own circle of supporters, and so need to moderate their views. Conversely, widely respected candidates could be elected with fewer first preferences by benefitting from strong subordinate preference support.
  • As parties can file more than one candidate, the public can vote for individual candidates who best represent their views. If there are two candidates from different wings of their preferred party, they can vote for the one they agree with and not the other, or even vote for candidates from different parties.
  • While all other PR voting systems presume that parties reflect voters’ wishes and so give power to parties, in STV, political parties are, strictly speaking, not even necessary. This is not to say that STV excludes them. Individual candidates still need to form alliances (for funding reasons, for example), but there is an opportunity for such alliances to be more fluid than traditional parties.

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STV is already used for parliamentary, European and local government elections in Ireland and Malta, for local government elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland (and also for the Northern Ireland Assembly), Senate elections in Australia as well as some regional elections there, and in New Zealand, along with many municipal elections in the US (and city elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts), as well as some indirect elections in India, Nepal and Pakistan. It is even used for electing certain officials in the UK parliament. The reason why STV is not even more widespread is because it is not in the interests of the ruling party (of whichever colour) to change the voting system that brought them to power in the first place.

What to vote for? In line with this, the focus at elections should move away from the current fixation on parties and individuals in favour of policies. This has several advantages: it reduces the importance of parties and ‘lazy voting’ (habitually voting for the same party irrespective of its programme), it stimulates voters to become better informed, and it reduces the likelihood of immaterial factors (such as a candidate’s charisma) overriding what really matters. Nowadays, many voters are actually unsure what their party stands for. In a recent online experiment, voters were asked to match policies with their party of preference, and many participants got them wrong. Furthermore, policy voting would be more democratic, as it would reduce the need to focus primarily on marginal or swing seats (a particular issue in first-past-the-post systems) that makes the value of votes unequal. What policy voting would require, in practice, is that the ballot papers should include a brief summary of the policies in a few key areas that the candidates stand for. This potentially raises two issues. First, the summaries need to be short, and therefore they may be over-simplistic. For that reason, more detailed versions would need to be available in the media and online before voters are required to make a choice. The second issue is empty slogans and emotionalisms that have low informational value (such as ‘we are pro-business’ or ‘let’s make … great again!’). To deal with this, a non-partisan commission would need to be established that would make sure that all policies are presented in an acceptable way according to pre-set criteria.

Funding is an important and thorny issue, so let’s see what the possible options are:

  • Income generation (e.g. through merchandise)
  • Volunteering
  • Public funding
  • Individual funding (i.e. membership fees and donations)
  • Organisational funding
  • Self-funding

Creating sufficient funds from the first option (income generation) would take political entities away from their main focus. The second option is, of course, helpful but it is insufficient (volunteering can’t provide computers, premises and other money-bound necessities). Option three is justified, as the public depends on and is served by the political system. Individual funding is also justified, as individuals vote and making a financial contribution is another way of affirming their preference. Organisational funding (be it by private companies and corporations, or unions) cannot be justified though, as organisations are not political entities in the way individuals are (organisations cannot vote). Self-funding can be rejected too, on the grounds that it gives an advantage to the wealthy, which makes the process less democratic.

If the above is taken on board, funding can be a combination of volunteering (and possibly some income generation), state funding, and individual funding. Those who run for political office should be able to set up a fee-based membership and/or receive individual donations. They could then receive matching funds from the state as a multiple of the individual donations. Individual donations and membership could be further encouraged by making them tax deductible. Some reasonable limit needs to be set though for these contributions, so that the wealthy do not command disproportional influence. Crucially, limits should be set on spending as it is all too easy to get around contribution limits[1]. Super PACs (Political Action Committees) in the US, which can receive unlimited contributions, including from corporations, are an example. The UK, Canada, Ireland and some other countries already have limits on spending and contributions. As well as getting the dirty money out of politics, this makes political entities reconnect with the people, as they rely more on their support. In addition, all donations should be transparent, to make sure that donors are not buying favours or directly benefiting from their donations. There should be some limits to media coverage too. Much funding goes towards media coverage when there are no such limits and we can see what a circus this creates out of politics in the US. A far more efficient and fairer, as well as less intrusive, system can be found in the UK, with proportional media coverage for all major players.

The above is all about selecting the legislature; the selection of the government has some peculiarities and needs to be addressed too.

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It seems strange that in many countries, ministers are appointed to a post they know little if anything about; for example, somebody can become a minister for education without having any prior knowledge or experience in that field and then, in a couple of years, they can be moved to a different ministerial position, such as, say, health, about which they also have no previous knowledge and experience. Clearly, this cannot be the best way to run a department; ministers really should be individuals with at least some knowledge and/or experience in the relevant field. The counter-argument that, with no prior experience, they come without preconceptions or preconceived ideas and can bring fresh eyes and thinking to an issue does not hold, as those who have to make decisions in an area they know little about rely on their assumptions even more. To secure those with knowledge and experience, ministers would not need to be chosen from the pool of elected representatives (very few professional politicians are experts in something else, but many professionals have sufficient governing skills). The leader of the government could propose other ministers, who must then be approved by simple majority of the legislature. If the choice is not approved, the leader can consult the legislature, take on board their suggestions, and make another choice until one is approved. This method is proposed as the leader and ministers need to work together and there should be some affinity between them. Choosing ministers otherwise could create divisions within the cabinet and make the decision-making process prohibitively slow.

The leader of the government (president or prime minister)

While ministers can be non-elected specialists in their field, there is no justification for having a non-elected leader, as they have an overarching (non-specialist) role. Thus, the leader must be one of the representatives. Presently, the leader of the government is voted in by the electorate or the leader of the largest party is either appointed to that role or voted in by party members). For example, in the crucial time of UK history, Boris Johnson was elected to be Prime Minister by only 1,600 party members. In contrast, we suggest that the leader should be voted in by all the legislators. Electing the leader directly may sway the electorate from focusing on policies towards focusing on an individual. Even in non-presidential systems, party leaders today have disproportional importance because it is a foregone conclusion that they will become the head of government if their party wins. This is why we propose that more than one legislator can be put forward for the role of the leader by a sufficiently large group of his or her colleagues. The two candidates backed by the greatest number of legislators would enter the final round and the one who receives greater support would become the leader. For this purpose, we suggest using the simple majority system. One may ask, if STV is the best system for the electorate, why not for the legislature? Well, in modern-day democracies, competition has taken over from cooperation by far. Much consideration is given here to addressing this imbalance, but we must not allow cooperation to overtake competition either. This would create an overly homogenous, bland political system, which would be unlikely to respond well to a change of circumstances and would psychologically disengage the electorate. Electing the leader of the government and approving other ministers by simple majority vote would maintain a healthy dose of competition.

The role of indirect democracy

The role of indirect (or representative) democracy here would not be very different from what indirect democracy, by and large, already does. Radical changes may therefore not be required. True, representative democracy has gone wrong (even terribly wrong) many times, but this has usually happened when proper checks and balances have not been in place, which is what this model intends to address. In a nutshell, the role of representative democracy would be to deal with concrete issues: making specific decisions and implementing them in practice. In other words, it is about legislating and executing (hence the terms used below).

The role of the legislature (e.g. parliament, congress or assembly)

As it is already the case, the legislature would make and approve laws (the government should not be able to make new laws or raise new taxes, for example, without the agreement of the legislature). This would be achieved through debating and voting. Debates are necessary to ensure that the process is open and transparent, through questioning ministers and requesting information, as well as workable and efficient, through scrutinising new proposals and suggesting improvements. The legislators can also check how public money is being spent and track how new laws are working out in practice.

Only one major difference from the established practice is suggested: abolishing party whips (enforcers of the party line who make sure that their fellow party members vote according to the official party policy). Clearly, forcing legislators to vote in a particular way is incongruent with core democratic principles. When serving one’s party takes precedence over serving the people one represents, the job of legislators (or representatives) is ill done.

However, in our model, legislators would have two additional roles:

  • to provide feedback to the council based on ‘reality checks’ (checking if the council’s proposals are implementable).
  • to provide feedback on the direct democracy initiatives, also based on reality checks (e.g. legislators could moderate the will of the people to drastically reduce immigration or taxes if they felt such a move would hurt the economy)

The role of the executive (the government)

The government would execute and enforce legislation or laws. This is linked to the responsibility of the government to run the country and to manage things on that level, day to day. It would also maintain international relations, set taxes, choose what to spend public money on, and decide how best to deliver public services, such as the health service, education, the police and armed forces, and welfare. Government ministers would be required to regularly attend the legislature sessions, answer questions, respond to issues raised in debates, and keep legislators informed of any important decisions they take.

The role of the leader (president, prime minister): there is an appetite in some countries to keep their kings or queens as the formal head of state, which is harmless as long as their roles are strictly ceremonial. In practice, the president or the prime minister is really the leader of the state (and will be referred to as such to minimise confusion). This role may be justified for several reasons:

  • The need for an overarching perspective: it is easy in politics not to see the wood for the trees, which is why it is important to have somebody whose task is to keep various threads (e.g. activities in various departments) together.
  • International relations: it is more practical than using ambassadors or other representatives who would lack sufficient authority for any decision making, and is more personal than just having large delegations.
  • Emergencies: sometimes there may not be time for deliberation, and it may be vital to have one person who can make a decision as quickly as possible.

The role of the opposition

The long-term sustainability of society requires governance that is stable, but also flexible, adaptable and evolving (self-correcting). We have seen in the previous chapters that ‘more of the same’ is often a recipe for downfall, as success makes a society more conservative and reduces incentives for change (as in the case of the US). Political opposition can be helpful in avoiding this stagnation, as it is in a better position to recognise changes of circumstances and the need for adjustments. The trouble is that in present systems, opposition is often marginalised. Opposition members can question ministers and score a few points for the next election with their speeches, but in reality, they play only a small part, if any, in decision making. This is because the governing party normally commands a majority in the legislature or forms a coalition with a minor party precisely to neutralise any possible influence from the main opposition. Such an attitude is to be expected, as otherwise the government would frequently find itself in gridlock and unable to be effective (as sometimes happens in countries with simple proportional representation models, though it’s by no means unique to them). So, we need to make the opposition more relevant and at the same time minimise such gridlocks. Here’s how the former can be encouraged and the latter discouraged:

Balancing competition with cooperation: we have already discussed the damaging effect of an imbalance between these two that is endemic to capitalism. When competition dominates in politics, opposition focuses on criticising the government no matter what, which is a poor way of utilising human resources and creates a high level of political entropy. Likewise, the government, as a rule, does not adopt even good proposals from the opposition to avoid appearing less competent than them. Too often, proposals are chosen that are best for the party’s standing rather than for the country. We should have no illusions that these two things always coincide. Supporting the best proposal irrespective of where it comes from should be considered a strength, not a weakness. The following points can contribute to achieving a better balance between competition and cooperation:

  • The STV voting system and a focus on polices rather than parties could soften the sharp divide between those who govern and those who are in opposition.
  • Abolishing the party whip and no longer forcing legislators to follow the party line.
  • Making debates relevant: debates in legislatures are nowadays often reduced to a formality with little, if any, impact. To make them more relevant, government ministers should be obliged to respond to the scrutiny of opposition (e.g. if the government proposes tax cuts, they have to be specific about which public services will be affected and how). Incredibly, at present this is not the case (UK ministers, for example, can even leave the room without answering a question if they do not like it). The same should apply when an opposition proposal is dismissed: reasons should be given. If none are forthcoming, the opposition should be able to cry foul and, as a last resort, seek arbitration from the council. In such cases, the council’s role would not be to decide which proposal is better, but only whether the proposal of the opposition has been justifiably dismissed. To reduce any undue slowing down of government, the council would need to respond in a pre-set time. If the council concludes that the dismissal is not justified, the government would need to reconsider the merits of the proposal or seek the view of the general public.

Utilising fuzzy logic[2] in politics: at the moment, political decisions are usually based on binary or black and white systems (i.e., the winner takes it all). This is not always the best way forward; using so-called fuzzy logic can be much better and, crucially, more democratic. Systems based on fuzzy logic are more complex but produce highly balanced and nuanced results. Let’s take a simple example: the governing block wants to increase a particular tax by 10%. If 40% of representatives vote against this and 60% vote in favour, under the binary system the tax increase would go ahead in full. Under a fuzzy logic system, the tax would still be increased, but only by 6%. Taxes are increased or decreased in proportion to votes, which makes opposition more relevant and reflects better the will of the whole legislature. Fuzzy logic cannot be always used, but in many cases it can.

How indirect democracy can be kept in check

Citizens obviously regulate representative democracy through voting. But this in itself is not sufficient. Voting usually happens every four or five years and a lot can be done against the wishes of people in between. We need to bear in mind that the length of time between elections cannot be shortened on a regular basis as it would be impossible to govern meaningfully if it was much shorter. Therefore, other means of direct democracy besides voting, such as petitions and public demonstrations, should be not only legitimised but formalised, in order to make them really effective. For example, if a petition manages to collect a pre-set number of signatures (the number would, of course, depend on whether the petition was at a local, regional, or national level), the legislature will have to put the issue on the agenda for a debate, within a pre-set period of time. If the outcome is unsatisfactory, this would trigger a referendum that would have to include an alternative proposal. A similar system already exists in some places. We saw earlier how citizens in Switzerland can challenge a law by gathering 50,000 signatures within 100 days to force a referendum at which voters decide by a simple majority whether to accept or reject the law. In our system, a referendum would not automatically repeal a law, but it would force it to be brought to the Constitutional Council, which would then choose one proposal or the other (depending on which is closer to the constitutional principles) or suggest a further alternative to be considered by both sides. Similarly, if a certain percentage of the population participates in a public demonstration, the government should not simply be able to ignore it but must respond and allow the legislature to hold a debate before making the final choice. If such a debate does not bring satisfactory outcomes, arbitration by the council may have to take place. Such an approach is also likely to reduce violence and vandalism in demonstrations, as meaningful results could be produced without the need to resort to extreme measures. But, how do we calculate the number of demonstrators? Algorithms have been developed for counting from surveillance images (CCTV cameras) and other photographs that can provide good approximation for this purpose. Both the representatives of the demonstrations and the government can be present when the calculations are carried out by independent experts. We suggest that in this case, even young people below voting age should count as long as they came voluntarily rather than being brought up by those in charge of them. However, any groups that participate in acts of violence or vandalism should be excluded.

The Council should also be able to examine governmental decisions and indicate whether they are in conflict with the general framework. They could do this by official notices to which the government is obliged to respond before the decision is implemented. The legislature will need to reconsider or amend their decision and enter into a dialogue to find a solution that is acceptable to both sides. If they cannot reach an agreement, all citizens are consulted by means of direct democracy (i.e. referendum or citizen assemblies), the result of which would be final. It is possible, though, that the time may be so limited that no such means would be realistic. Situations of a gridlock between the council and the legislature and also insufficient time for a snap referendum should be very rare, but still need to be considered. In such cases, the legislature’s decision should hold, on the basis that they are elected to deal with emergencies. However, they would require a super majority; otherwise, the council’s objection would hold until a referendum.

[1] This would require keeping a record of all their campaign spending, and sending that record to the electoral commission after the election. To ensure transparency, spending returns should be published online. Parties who spend over a certain amount should have this return independently audited.
[2] See the part Thinking Anew.

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