I went down to Nick Clegg's launch of “Your Freedom” today, a government-run crowd-sourcing exercise to identify laws and regulations that should be removed from the statute book. Encouragingly, the site appears to be attracting lots of traffic at the moment (either that, or it’s just incredibly slow) with its launch accompanied by the inevitable outburst of mirth and cynicism on Twitter and blogs. And it's hard not to raise a smile at the bizarreness of some of the entries submitted. This being the internet, it’s difficult to know whether the entry entitled “ban necro-bestiality” which calls on “Paddy Ashdown or whoever you are” to “overturn Britain's rotten seedy culture of legalised sex with dead animals” citing European Human Rights legislation, is serious or not. Certainly some of the comments beneath it appear to be!
Joking aside, I want to first say what a breath of fresh air this is. The last Labour government was without doubt one of the most obsessive and controlling we have had in years. It’s not just the headline issues of detention without charge and ID cards; it’s the databases of peaceful protesters and the use of FIT teams to monitor them; the anti-terror laws that allow police to harass photographers; the spread of CCTV and finger-printing into the classroom; the arduous restrictions on international artists trying to enter the UK - the list is huge.
This savage assault was combined with a constant and petty-minded meddling. Well over 3,000 new criminal offences were created by the last government outlawing everything from failure to nominate a neighbour as key-holder where a burglar alarm is installed to creating a nuclear explosion.
So whilst it’s fun to have a dig let’s remind ourselves quite how dreadful Labour were on these issues - and if you think they’ve since repented read Alan Johnson yesterday berating the coalition for its “complacency” on terrorism at the ACPO conference. Let’s be thankful then, for the moment, that the government is taking a calmer approach to law-making and has set in motion a process that should restore many of the rights and freedoms that have been lost.
That said, I have concerns.
First, with Clegg and the Coalition’s approach. Anthony pointed out to me at the launch that Clegg looked tired. If this really is a historic occasion for the people to reclaim their freedom he didn’t really seem to believe it as he went through the motions in a short stump speech. It was noticeable how he dwelt longer and showed more passion on removing business regulations than on fundamental civil liberties. Come on, you wanted to say, this should be every Lib Dem’s wet dream! What's striking is how little sense there is of how this all ties in with the Coalition’s wider agenda on political reform. This is because a somewhat mechanical and piecemeal approach is being taken. Larger issues to do with how the ultimate sovereignty of the people can be realised and their rights guaranteed in a constitutional democracy are ignored.
Second, this is a very individualist conception of freedom reflecting the ideological make up of the Coalition. The site talks about restoring freedom to “individuals and businesses” - but what about the freedom of collectives like trade unions? This point is well made by Alexandra Runswick, of Unlock Democracy, who points out “The government must also be open about how it intends to treat proposals that its members might have ideological objections to, such as scrapping some of our existing industrial relations laws. If particular ideas or interest groups such as trade unions are to be shut out of this process, Nick Clegg should clear about this from the outset.”
Trade union rights, as expressed in international human rights treaties, are routinely violated by the UK with its repressive union laws bequeathed to us by Thatcher and followed slavishly by New Labour. It would be remarkable if the rights of the largest voluntary movement in the country are to be excluded from a supposedly bottom-up debate on freedom. Will Nick Clegg answer this challenge?
Third, the process. People are cynical about “consultations” for good reason. Clegg is being slightly disingenuous when he describes this in his short intro vid as a “Totally new way of making policy”. We’ve had the Downing Street e-petitions site, as well as various other online government consultations and there was nothing revolutionary about these experiments in digital democracy as government routinely ignored demands, including hugely popular petitions such as the one against road pricing which had 1.6 million people.
In the same vein, Clegg isn’t committing himself to implementing the most popular ideas, only the “best suggestions”, as he puts it. How will the government react, for example, to entirely rational and sensible demands for drug laws to be liberalised? I think we know the answer. But once it starts looking like they are simply picking ideas that fit with a pre-existing agenda it will rightly be labelled a stitch up along with all the other sham consultations.
Then there’s the site itself. I have some experience of trying to run an online political consultation having done so with the Power2010 campaign. As with “Your Freedom” we asked people to submit ideas to be discussed and debated online in comment threads before being voted on. This process brings with it the well-known problem that the most organised and active interest groups will push their agenda to the fore (this is true of democracy in general, of course, but on the web it's amplified). It is also extremely limiting. People visiting a website have no obligation or real incentive to educate themselves on the issues or explore alternative points of view. It’s easy just to turn up, copy and paste your favourite rant, and then move on.
Of course, there will be moderators who can identify this but I can’t help but feel that an opportunity has been missed to build in more deliberative processes that would have allowed people to explore and probe the issues face-to-face, as happened with Power2010’s deliberative poll ran by James Fishkin which brought a representative sample of over 100 people together over a weekend to discuss political reform.
It was striking how seriously people treat the issues when given the chance (especially compared to most web discussion) and I can’t help but think an opportunity has been missed for a much richer public discussion of what the values are that people want protected. This could have informed and fed into the online deliberation and would have also been more inclusive allowing the large percentage of the population who aren't internet users to join in. There’s also important design points, which Chris Applegate has picked up on, on the need for more rigorous moderation and the removal of duplicate ideas – changes that should be made quickly if Your Freedom isn’t to descend into farce (though I don’t agree with him that people should have to specify the law they want to remove as this is too big a barrier to participation).
Having made these points, I want to make clear I still think Your Freedom is a great initiative. I will be popping over there regularly to submit ideas and vote on what laws I think should be removed. If Your Freedom stimulates all sorts of new campaigns - as Laurie Penny was quick off the mark to do with the Digital Economy Act - and public discussion and the government is open to having its mind changed it will have been worthwhile. If it raises people’s hopes falsely it will go down as a failure and we will know that the “new politics” really is no different from the old.
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