There is a section on Harriet Harman’s Commons Leader website called ‘Your Voice‘, where citizens are invited to submit their thoughts on the Government’s Draft Legislative Programme (a.k.a. Draft Queen’s Speech).
The speech was launched yesterday in the House of Commons, with an event immediately afterwards in which Gordon Brown and other Cabinet Ministers went to Bermondsey to meet local people. This concentrated use of ministers was similar to what Hazel Blears had suggested on Tuesday, in a speech to the SMF:
why shouldn’t the Cabinet meet in locations other than the Cabinet Room at Number Ten Downing Street?
Just imagine if the Cabinet meeting took place at the British Legion, Swindon, the Town Hall, Grimsby, or the Victoria Community Centre in Crewe.
Regardless of whether you think this is a cynical publicity stunt or a genuine attempt to listen to the people, it is clearly an example of direct democracy. People are being invited to converse with Ministers directly, without mediation. Via the Commons Leader website, they are now being asked to write to Government directly.
Surely this undermines representative democracy (see my earlier worries about citizen juries). Rather than provide new ways for the Government (which even the most committed statist would admit is a sprawling bureaucracy) to interact with sixty-five million people, why not strengthen the channels by which citizens can already speak to the state, via their MPs? Why not award Members of Parliament a larger office budget, say, so they can maintain more staff in constituency surgeries, so that problems could be dealt with in more detail, and quicker?
Why not budget for MPs or Councillors to convene some kind of constituency convention, or panel, at which citizens could feedback thoughts on the DLP? Individual MPs could compile a summary of local feeling, in much the same way as select committees and independent commissions summarize the testimony of their witnesses. Do it over the summer recess, say, just before party conferences, and you would have a pretty comprehensive snap-shot of what the country thinks… but without the tiresome bother of an undersubscribed yet expensive web-tool which has no visible method of actually engaging the citizen in dialogue.
Websites are a fantastic way for individuals in relatively small networks to communicate with each other. But I’m not sure it is the most efficient way for the Government to enter into a conversation with its citizenry. A basic online form definitely falls short.