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Technology and political seating plans

The UK has a moderately fair voting system to elect members of Parliament—perhaps with a caveat that postal and proxy votes may well be enforced by colleagues or local heads of families or religions. The second drawback of democratic elections is that everyone has a vote, even if they have no understanding of what they are voting for. As ever, this implies we need better-educated electorates. Once elected, only tiny numbers of the representatives actually go to many of the debates (as is obvious from TV coverage). These numbers are totally distinct from those who hear the voting warning bells throughout the building (and elsewhere) and who then rush to vote in person according to the demands of their party. Their decision on the voting is definitely unlinked to any discussion that has been made in the debate, and possibly they may not even have understood the topic. If they disagree with their party, they are unlikely to offer their own opinion, or that of their constituents, if it is bad for their political career. Rarely is a vote defined as a ‘free vote’, whereas this should always be the case. This is equally true at local council meetings, and I have experience of each political party having a pre-council meeting to decide how they will vote on different topics. The ‘debates’ within the council meeting are then just window dressing.

For major topics (major as assumed by the political leaders), the House is packed and then we hear some incredibly pitiful school playground confrontational shouting from one side versus the other. Rarely does it seem like a debate, but just ranting with the message that ‘We are best, you are wrong!’ The most important message that comes across to us, the electorate, is that the content is irrelevant if in some way it can be presented to denigrate the other side. Since the leading members often have similar backgrounds, it is far from clear which of them is truly to the left or right on many issues. Indeed, if they were to behave like independent normal humans, they would never be in such total agreement with their party on every issue.

My minor and modest piece of technological change would be that each member presents their identity card to a random seat number generator as they enter the chamber. They then must occupy that seat. The childish confrontational shouting match would then be very difficult as there could be a total mixture of opinions on adjacent seats. The original two facing sides with a space in between, which was initially designed to stop fighting (for the same reason as the hooks for leaving swords outside of the chamber) should now be irrelevant. This concept is not limited to facing-bench parliaments, but could be equally applied in the semicircle seating in other assemblies such as the US Senate and Congress, or the United Nations (and probably every other national assembly).

At a stroke, this would swamp the opposing-team, mob-rule characteristics, and leave only a common focus on problems that are being addressed. It is difficult to be totally offensive to an opposition if you are sitting mingled in with them. Disagreement is fine, and indeed many problems lack a simple unequivocal solution, so attempts will vary with political instincts, but no longer could the members blame failures as the policies of the other side (there is no other side in my seating system).

The second item of technology (for the UK) would be to dispense with the bell system (including any in local pubs), but when a vote is to be taken it must be made at the seat that has been randomly allocated by the computer, by the person assigned to that seat (i.e. for people attending the debate). Only for the assigned seats would there be a three-button voting system that could be activated. For the other seats, the buttons would be inoperative. The three options would be yes, no, and abstain. It would be totally secret, so votes would be genuine opinion, not forced by the Whips. The use of abstain might well be valuable for those who disagree with the party, but not strongly enough to vote against them on a major issue.

This is not going to solve all political problems, as often there is no solution with laws and political action that can be fully effective. Nevertheless, the random seating would force a very different style of debate that might be far more rational, and stop the confrontational rubbish that we currently witness. It would raise the standard from local politics to a focus on national and global concerns. Adversarial politics inhibits a focus on the outcomes that are for the good of the nation.

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