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Creating a democratic consensus

1 November 2007

Jon Bright (London, OK): I was at a fascinating seminar yesterday jointly put on by the new economics foundation and the de Borda institute. And even I was initially suspicious that a three hour seminar on a system of consensus voting could be fascinating.

Lordi, Eurovision 2006 winners, were apparently the middle of the road consensus candidates

The system, which is awaiting a final name but which some people there dubbed the 'preferendum', runs as follows. A moderated discussion takes place between stakeholders in a particular issue, on the basis of an open rather than closed question. If the issue is where to site a new landfill, then the stakeholders would be the people whose waste is thrown into the landfill and in whose area the landfill must be sited - but the question is not posed as "where shall we put a new landfill?" but rather "how shall we dispose of our waste?". All options can be put on the table - one large landfill, several smaller ones, paying to have the waste shipped elsewhere, perhaps cutting down on waste produced, etc. Everyone has the opportunity to bring their suggestions to the table. Once a list of suggestions (of length n) has been established and agreed upon, a vote is taken using a method called the 'modified borda count'. Everyone ranks their options in order of preference, each first choice receiving 'n' points, second choice n-1 etc. The most points wins (roughly the same method is used, incidentally, by the Eurovision song contest).

The point of the whole affair is to create consensus. The option which is liked by some and despised by the rest will not win, even if the some are in the majority. It is the option that is broadly acceptable to all - which wins a number of first preferences but also lots of second and thirds - that will be adopted. And, hopefully, the process of consultation will foster an atmosphere of co-operation, giving the final option legitimacy not afforded by a narrow majority win.

There are hundreds of potential applications (though the organisers emphasised that they would not want to apply it to our electoral system). Participatory budgeting schemes, which we covered the announcement of back in July, fit well. Resolving thorny problems such as landfill sites or road pricing schemes are other possible uses - as long as the question is posed in an open way, as a problem that everyone must take part in finding a solution to. de Borda, who are based in Northern Ireland, also see the potential for using the preferendum in conflict resolution.

The EU reform treaty was the one issue that immediately sprang to my mind. I think I can say without controversy that there is little in the way of 'consensus' on the EU at the moment in Britain. Even if we were to have a referendum on the treaty (which would turn into a referendum on the EU pretty quickly) this consensus would not be generated, because it would be phrased as a closed question: do you want the EU or not? An open process - what type of EU do you want? - would generate a range of options of which a moderate choice would probably be selected. Most importantly, the idea of public trust and legitimacy in the system might be somewhat restored.

There are hundreds of issues of implementation, of course. How do you generate a list of options large enough to represent everyone's views but short enough to be practical? How do you include huge numbers of people in the discussion in a meaningful way? What role should experts have in the creation of these options? All big issues. But at a time when science and technology are developing more rapidly than ever, I find it refreshing and not a little inspiring to indulge in some blue sky thinking about our democratic processes as well. nef and de Borda will be running some pilot schemes next year, and I'm looking forward to seeing what comes out of them.

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