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Last Updated: Monday, 18 April, 2005, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
Do we really need an election?
Feature
John Brunsdon
BBC News

The proportion of people who choose not to vote has risen from 17% to 41% in 50 years.

If "none of the above" was a political party, it might reasonably expect to be sweeping into power any time soon.

So has our system of parliamentary democracy had its day, and if so - could any of these systems replace it?

EXTREME DEMOCRACY

Put aside thoughts of polling booths at the top of Everest and bungee-jumping MPs, this is more about using new technology to put decision-making power in the hands of ordinary people.

Turnout improves under Extreme Democracy

Its central philosophy is that government should not just be the realm of specialists, and that the internet revolution makes it possible for everyone to be involved directly in running the country.

It does not necessarily advocate the scrapping of representative democracy, but sees "activists" - politically-engaged citizens - shaping policy alongside MPs, or their equivalent.

FOR: We can all have a direct input in issues that matter to us.

AGAINST: "How do you work this interweb thing again?"

DEMARCHY

This philosophy manages to trump Labour and the Tories on efficiency savings in the civil service - it would scrap the lot, along with MPs and the State in general.

In its place, a randomly selected group of citizens would debate and decide on policy.

Randomly selected groups would also run the business of government - looking after schools, the health service, transport etc - on a local level, although these groups would be selected from volunteers with expertise in their particular area.

You would be expected to serve on a "citizens jury" for a set time every few years.

FOR: The jury system has worked for hundreds of years in criminal cases.

AGAINST: Things might get a bit too random.

e-Democracy

A less extreme version of Extreme Democracy. This envisions keeping the political status quo, but getting ordinary people to take a greater interest in politics by making it easier to get your voice heard.

Stephen Coleman, professor in e-Democracy at Oxford University's internet institute, says politicians need to do more to embrace the information age and interact with voters.

"Politicians have used technology in a very old-fashioned way", he said.

"Where they used to put a leaflet through your door at election time with a picture of themselves with their wife and dog, they now put up a website with a picture of themselves with their wife and dog, and then when no one is interested they say 'Oh this doesn't work'."

But he also has some very low-tech suggestions to increase turnout. "I'd invest in tea and buns at the polling station for a start", he says.

And he advocates a national holiday in the run-up to an election, where people would spend the day debating the issues before making their decision.

FOR: You can talk directly to your MP on matters of government

AGAINST: Your MP can talk directly to you.

CANTON SYSTEM

The Swiss system of government. The country is divided into small areas called cantons, comprised of approximately 3,000 communes.

A central government links the cantons into one unified country, but this controls only matters of common interest, such as foreign policy, defence etc.

All other issues, including the economy, are determined by the cantons, which have their own parliament and constitution.

New legislation must also be approved by an optional referendum, which is called if a petition of more than 50,000 can be put together on any issue.

FOR: Switzerland is one of the wealthiest and most stable countries in the world.

AGAINST: Remember what Orson Welles had to say about it in the Third Man? "In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock..."

BIG BROTHER

That's Big Brother, as in Jade Goody rather than George Orwell. Could also be called I'm a Politician, Get Me Out of Here!

This system of government would keep the House of Commons, but allow MPs a free vote on every issue with a secret ballot to ensure they did not simply follow the party line every time.

Big Brother house
Debate in the Local Authorities (Finance) Bill goes on into the night

It also sees regular electronic plebiscites on major policy decisions - viewers would watch the debate on TV, then cast their vote.

Professor Coleman, who wrote a report for the Hansard Society on the democratic lessons of Big Brother, said: "You have to accept the Big Brother class is bigger than the Newsnight class and you have to find a way they can participate in democracy, otherwise you end up with an oligarchy made of people who watch Newsnight."

FOR: We all get to decide policy.

AGAINST: Davina McCall as the Speaker anyone?

BENIGN DICTATORSHIP

Had Thomas Jefferson been around at the last election, he might have said: "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 40.5% of the 59% of people who bothered to vote may take away the rights of the rest."

So why not do away with democracy altogether?

Some suggest there are already elements of benign dictatorship at work, or at least unelected bodies making key policy decisions - the Bank of England's powers over interest rates, for example.

Could a similar system of unelected but expert oligarchs make a better job of running the country than the various parties have?

FOR: No more party political broadcasts to sit through.

AGAINST: Benign can all too easily become malignant.





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