Enact: Modern Direct Democracy for the UK

The political system of representative democracy in the UK is old. It has a centuries-long history, having been developed and thought up in an age very different from ours. Today, we live in a world transformed by technology. The internet in particular has changed the game completely. It made things possible which no one would have dared to even suggest a generation ago. In that context, more and more people are asking a fundamental question: if technology and the internet changed so much, why does the political system not reflect that at all? Why is the 21st-century UK still on a 19th-century operating system?

Enact UK has an answer to that question: ‘Why not upgrade?’ They are a new political party that doesn’t aim to promote any political agenda. Instead, they seek to change the way the system works to allow the public to decide on policy matters - directly. A vote for Enact would not be an endorsement of a platform, but ‘a vote to be able to vote more’ on specific issues.

An app for voting would play a major role in the Enact update of the system. Anyone would be welcome to put forward policy proposals through this app and the public would vote on them. Enact MPs would then implement the decisions, their role being facilitators and managers rather than decision-makers. Enact proposes a system that “allows you, the people, to determine the laws and changes you see fit.” As the introduction to the project reads, “together we can take the steps needed to build a more robust and trusted system of governance, without sacrificing the brilliant things we already have in our country.”

Below is an interview with Ollie Bielski, co-founder of Enact. We discussed the details of the innovative changes to the political system proposed by Enact as well as its implications and the potential Enact offers in today’s technologically advanced world with politics stuck in the past.

To start off, what is Enact and how did it come about?

Enact is only several months old now (although it has taken much longer to arrive at the ideas and concepts it embodies), so I would describe us as a ‘startup political party’. We believe that we can offer something that will be very appealing to people, and, in a way, is long overdue now. These days, we vote for MPs or other representatives, who then decide on everything for a couple of years before we get another say. And if you’re unlucky as to where you live, your vote essentially doesn’t count at all. So when we were thinking about how we could change and solve this, we settled on a system very close to direct democracy. 

Direct democracy offers a way for everyone to have their say. And it is fair because it’s a bottom-up system instead of a top-down, imposing system where the government says something and you just have to do it, whether it’s right or wrong, and no one else gets much input. But there were some problems with traditional direct democracy, namely tyranny of the majority, so we’ve come up with Enact as a way to get around those problems using modern technology with very specific votes, structures, and order of doing things.

So, is Enact a party that proposes to just change the system instead of proposing specific policy changes?

Yes, exactly. We are offering the means (via our technology and voting system) for voters to then be able to take the UK wherever they want, with as few changes as is workable. This would mean things keep running as they are now - until voters choose otherwise. This allows Enact to be neutral and that’s where Enact’s real merit lies. If you look at our Twitter followers, we’ve got everything from centrists to BLM activists to right-wingers to absolutely everyone, and all of them say ‘this is a brilliant idea’. By keeping out of the policy shooting match, we can appeal to anyone.

How would Enact change the system, then? How would it give people more direct power?

Enact is essentially a system of direct democracy put into practice through technology. And it is designed to fit in with what we have now, keeping changes to the political system at a minimum. Enact MPs will serve as intermediaries between the people and the government. They will vote as instructed by the public decisions made through the app, and people will vote for Enact MPs because they offer them an option to participate in politics directly through the app. If we won a general election, then sovereignty would move to voters with MPs and government implementing and managing services on their behalf with the full Enact system being in place.

Everyone always asks us about the Swiss direct democracy system. There, the issue is that while you get to vote on things directly, the proposed solutions to any problem will still come from the government and what they think they can do about it. Enact goes one stage further; it not only asks the people about the changes they want to make but also offers the opportunity for groups, businesses, or individuals to propose their own ideas and solutions. And that’s an intentional selling point.

Why have you decided to support direct democracy over other political/voting system alternatives? What makes it better?

Direct democracy, when set up correctly, is essentially an indisputable position. The only argument against it is that people might not be smart enough to know what they are voting for. But Enact is not asking the public at large to solve nationwide problems, just to vote to say what their preferred choice would be, and that’s easy because everyone is entitled to their opinions, so there are no ‘wrong’ answers.

Direct democracy also ends the debate between first past the post and proportional representation. Nationally, the people that don’t normally get a say suddenly do - all the people who vote for small parties that today can never get policy implemented, for example. Likewise, if you live in a swing seat, your vote no longer counts for double or triple of what the safe seats count for. A few people in swing areas - say, Nottingham - can now swing the whole election while people who live in rural Leicestershire, their votes really don’t count as much. So the whole first past the post or proportional representation topic, and the problems they bring either way… Direct democracy improves on both of them. We didn’t set out to do that, but it just does.

Direct democracy enables voters to choose what to change and to not have everything handed to them from above. It reduces the chances for politicians to line their own pockets and furnish their careers. It stops politicians from taking policy where they want, nudging and pushing the public around using the state machine. This would be the first time we actually know what the public wants, not what the media or big players say the public wants. I could go on and on, and your readers probably could too...

What if some people prefer to have their active, autonomous representatives in the parliament, rather than just an intermediary who facilitates their direct involvement? They might feel like the MP is the expert who knows much more than they, the voters, about the political decisions that should be made.

There might be people out there who think that an MP knows better than them, but people are getting ever more involved and ever more political. People are not incompetent. Just as they order pizza or a taxi on their phone every day, they’ll be more than happy to vote on policy on their phone. It is just a continuation of the same trend. The old-school viewpoint that the MP knows best will eventually become a minority viewpoint. After all, almost everyone knows, at this point, that Matt Hancock didn’t really know best. 

In contrast, there is such a thing as the wisdom of the crowd, which is nothing to scoff at. There is nothing that 65 million people don’t know more about, compared to 650 MPs plus the 10 thousand people in the civil service; no matter what you ask them about. Whether you ask them about skiing, politics, or Isaac Newton… If you ask 65 million people, the sheer brainpower, in terms of what you’ll get, is out of this world. 

And that’s where the ‘Proposals come in with Enact. There will be inventive and genius solutions that come forward that MPs and politicians, you, or I would never have even thought of. Even if you ask tens of thousands of people, you get amazing things. With millions of people? Some people know so much about certain things! That’s why this is a much better way to do politics than a top-down structure.

On your website, you mention that one of the advantages of Enact is that it would result in less social division than we have today. How?

Things that come from the bottom up are always given more respect than if you’re told, top-down, what you have to do. If everybody agrees, upon entering a local museum, not to touch something because it’s culturally significant to the local people, you almost wouldn’t need to put up a ‘do not touch’ sign. People know what it means; they’re not touching it, it’s special to them. As soon as the ‘do not touch’ sign goes up, people’s fingers are all over it. That top-down rule, even on a basic level like that, doesn’t carry as much weight with people. If the lockdown was voted upon, for example, and people decided by themselves to impose it, that would garner much more respect than Matt Hancock and his two doctors besides him saying ‘we must do this to you’. People would respect it. There would be less social division. So that’s one concrete example. 

On the other hand, you could turn to Brexit and say that that was voted on by the people and it hardly caused social cohesion, but that’s because, with all due respect, they didn’t do it the Enact way. We voted to leave, and then how we were to leave was what caused all the animosity. With Enact, you vote for concrete proposals, not just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a top-level issue.

So how can someone, under Enact, create a proposal that will then be voted on by the public?

The creation of the proposal has several stages. First, there is the essential individual rights check, to make sure you’re not coming forward with ‘deport all Jewish people’ or something stupid like that - you simply can’t do that with Enact. Then, there is a check whether your proposal idea is unique because there’s no point in ten people working on similar proposals.

Then, the proposal is blind-peer-reviewed, so you don’t know which peer-reviewers you’re going to get, there are many of them - and you don’t know each other, so there is no bribery, no nepotistic contracts. The system randomly selects who will rate each area (likely two or three separate experts for each area). And from them, you get a rating for each. The ratings allow the public to see easily and quickly what the experts think - and then decide to heed their advice or not.

As an example, proposals for a bridge will have a rating for the cost (‘Is it realistic?’), a rating for construction (‘Can it be built? Would it be safe?’), a rating for implementation (‘Can it be built in the time given?’), an environmental impact assessment (‘How would it affect the area?’), etc.

This process is actually nothing that revolutionary. The peer-reviewers would just be lawyers and experts in the relevant areas. There is also nothing difficult about assessing whether your proposal breaks individual rights or not. It’s not a political (opinion-based) process, it’s a legal one.

A significant part of the Enact system is the departmental vote. Why is that?

Department votes are votes on individual areas or sections of government - which everyone is familiar with - such as Transport, Home Office, etc. With Enact, these are voted on separately.

Under the present system, when you wanted, for example, Theresa May to change her approach to Brexit, you had to vote for an entirely new government. That’s a huge swing! That means I have to change how the trains or tax rates work when all I wanted to change was the course of Brexit. With Enact, it’s highly likely that voters would pick policies from different parties for different areas - or even the same areas if they could - rather than a wholesale change of government. People are not simply either left or right on all issues.

Departmental votes are where the overarching ethos or vision is created. It’s where people decide where they want the country to go, what they want from trade, what foreign policy they want, and so on. With Enact, these decisions come from voters, not a party or the government.

Would the fact that it’s the people deciding on issues, rather than politicians, change the outcomes significantly?

Yes, and in critical ways. Today, politics is all about re-election. If someone is offering promises to the NHS, to local schools, to whatever will win the votes, it’s not about those issues but about getting re-elected, and they just deal with the fallout of not fulfilling those promises afterwards - or they will be out of office so it won’t matter. 

With regard to making more prudent decisions, there’s a famous quote that says “no one spends others’ money as carefully as they spend their own”, and that is, I think, true. So when people are voting about how their own money is used, they think about their families, their children, and so on. Someone like that is not going to vote for their own benefit now at the expense of their future. And that is a majority position. The long term is much better left to the people.

Another thing is that with Enact, you can’t do sweeping, fast, and arbitrary legal changes just because you felt like it because first, you need a lot of people to agree on it. Under Enact, you can make a petition when everyone is angry and invested in a topic, but the aforementioned Proposal process takes time - 12 months or so unless there is a (real) emergency. By the time people get to vote on it, they might not be so emotive about it anymore.

This might get people worried about crises or about some action that needs to be taken fast. And Enact does have an emergency option that expedites the process when it’s really needed. In relation to that, people often ask me about the military. They say that if there is an attack, you need people in a situation room, not soliciting votes from people. But that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what Enact tries to do. There are already plans in place for a situation like that and the army would do what they always do. Enact is not proposing that everybody vote on executive decisions. It is a change in the legislative system. If there was a foreign fighter jet over Dover today, the military would not turn to the House of Commons for instructions, and Enact will not change that. However, when you want to declare war rather than engage in self-defence, it’s the opposite. You want people to have their say on that.

As a matter of fact, can you imagine how hard it would be to start a war? To actually invade a foreign country (as opposed to self-defence), you’d need a majority vote to go through. I can’t think of a way to make the world a safer place than countries to have direct democracy. Who wants to pay for wars? After all, income tax in the UK was invented as a temporary measure to pay for the Napoleonic War in 1800.

Does Enact have the potential to be really popular, given its non-partisan lack of a policy manifesto? Don’t many people just want to impose their views on others through politics, which is what traditional parties offer them?

On the contrary. The lack of a policy manifesto is one of the big factors that we hope will allow Enact to upstage today’s party politics and draw a much wider range of voters. So far, this is proving correct even more so than we expected.

Yes, some people would like to rule over other people. A big part of the Enact system is preventing the tyranny of the majority. At the moment, of course, we have the tyranny of the minority, so we’d protect against that too. Enact is ultimately a majority vote system, but the key is what you’re voting on. If someone tries to propose a vote on deporting a certain religion, that will be prevented at the first step and will not happen. It’s giving the majority the say on things, but with a few key, carefully chosen protections to ensure legality. You don’t need gatekeepers to decide on what’s appropriate and what’s not. It’s basic individual rights, really.

In the online world, you get a feeling that there are a lot of people out there with views that they want to impose on others, which you hear about constantly from both the left and the right. Whereas actually, if you start talking to real people who live in this village and that village, most of them are essentially centrists. They don’t know it yet - they’re left-wing on some issues and right-wing on others. But the vast majority of people aren’t looking to impose their views on others, even though it can feel that way if you read Twitter and go on YouTube and see people putting their points of view across there.

Is there something Enact can achieve, politically, short of actually winning elections - which is almost impossible for a ‘startup political party’ to do? What can you offer people in the intermediate term?

Every MP that Enact gets gives voters more power and say in parliament because each will be instructed via the app on how to vote. They are not your “representative” in the traditional way, but more like an attorney who acts as instructed by voters.

That is not something any other party can offer and with this, we can apply pressure, Nigel Farage-style, on the government, insisting that we want people to have a proper say. Let’s say that the Tories folded to Enact one day and said, “Okay, if enough people sign a petition we will stop doing whatever we’re doing.” That alone would mean Enact has changed politics so much - that would be even bigger than leaving the EU, in my opinion. If you want your government to stop doing something, you’d be able to do it, peacefully, no Jefferson-style guns required. Just sign this, and it’ll stop, by law. If Enact achieved just that, it would have already helped this country immensely. Of course, if we achieve that, we won’t stop there; the full implementation of the Enact system is the goal.

By voting for Enact, people will be able to exercise ever more influence over what actually happens in UK politics, similarly to what the opposition does today. And when it becomes the majority party, it will mean that the mechanism underpinning Enact will effectively automatically transform the UK from a representative democracy into a direct democracy with limits and safeguards - or, as we like to call it, ‘participation democracy’. 

In this day and age, we have to accept that technology is here to stay, and it will get increasingly sophisticated. We either leave politics in the dark ages and let the tech nefariously take us over, or use this existing tech for all of us to gain a metaphorical seat at the table of power, stand up for ourselves, and have a say.

Learn more about Enact at goenact.uk

Follow @GOenact on Twitter

This interview is not sponsored content and Lotuseaters.com have not received any payments by Enact or anyone else in exchange for publishing it.