The Deputy Prime Minister, wearing a blue shirt and a blue tie, today launched Your Freedom, a government website where you can lodge and rate ideas for removing restrictions on your life. Oh that it were that simple!
As The Guardian commented, it’s very easy to mock or dismiss this sort of initiative – though we need to remember (I can’t forget, and won’t forgive – where is that apology, Editor?) this paper’s pre-election editorial stance. The coalition’s open and apparently real commitment to civil liberties and liberalism is very welcome. But really. All supposing that the government is indeed listening – and previous experience with petitions to the No. 10 website isn’t exactly favourable – didn’t we just have an election? And isn’t reviewing our laws exactly the sort of thing we elect our MPs to do on our behalf? The UK is, ultimately, a representative democracy and we vote an MP to be our voice (as they all commit to doing on behalf of all their constituents in their victory speeches) in parliament. Just how do we weight the votes cast on these sorts of website in terms of their popular support? Say if something attracts a level of support of 1m votes – which would be large, and much larger than the maximum 370 votes in favour of a particular initiative which I can see thus far on day 1 – then, out of the 61.4 m people in this country, or even of the 45.4m electors, is that representative enough to count as being ‘popular’? Well, quite frankly, no. And if widespread public consultation about laws is to be the future, we’d better be prepared for some uncomfortable – and fairly uncivil and illiberal – responses since the wider public isn’t always on board with the requirements of a modern, rights-based society, particularly where it involves the rights of other people.
The possibility of engineering collective support for a particular initiative also needs to be taken into consideration: it’s all too frequently easy simply to manipulate these sorts of votes. All supposing the Your Freedom site can drop a cookie on to my pc to stop me voting on a multiple basis, who’s in control of that? What happens to my registration details? And who’s watching as I cast my ‘vote’ for something that the state might not, on a from time to time basis, find particularly desirable? And aren’t these the sort of civil liberty/intrusion issues which Your Freedom was set up to free us from in the first place?
So, the principles of the need to weight the level of support for particular initiatives, as well as the need to rule out the frankly weird and wonderful, and the trivial, puts us right back where we started – with elected officials (and their unelected advisers and paid civil servants) coming up with well, to be cynical, the answer they first thought of. I don’t want to see Clegg doing the job he’s doing but, frankly, why don’t you just get on with the business of government?
Other than that, the site could do with a bit – well, a lot – of moderating, since several of the ‘ideas’ seemed to be re-hashed versions of each other. That’s just confusing in any purposeful ratings exercise. Others are simply off the point of the exercise. Ohh – and get a new server, would you? The one you’re currently using just isn’t up to the task of mass consultation and that is, frankly, a quite embarrassing outcome.