Joan Smith: Armchair politics - as good as a seat in the House

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It couldn't have happened to a nicer Liberal Democrat. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, last week launched an experiment in democracy, aimed at creating a "more open and less intrusive" society. He inveighed against laws that "interfere in everyday life" and asked you (I use the word loosely) to help him by posting ideas on a "Your Freedom" website. He invited "you" not just to identify laws that need changing or abolishing, but to get involved in making actual government policy. "You" certainly made the most of it.

Restoring the death penalty was popular, especially for drug dealers. "Third time cought [sic] dealing compolsary [sic] hanging', as one concerned citizen phrased it. So was beating up and even executing burglars, with one correspondent noting that "if you hadn't attacked me you wouldn't have gotten hurt". Immigration was another popular subject, although the individual who wanted to "stop immigration from Muslim countries" ran into a bit of trouble with the site's moderator. "Stop deleting my post and allow people to comment and vote on it," he (or she) remarked crossly.

One of the earliest posts wrote lyrically about "life as it was", fulminating against the Human Rights Act and "the ridiculous idea that we pay prisoners companstion [sic] in jail". Sadly, a number of individuals failed to take the Deputy Prime Minister seriously, demanding such things as the right to marry a horse and an end to the ban on slaughtering domestic livestock at home. One correspondent called for a ban on necro-bestiality because "I don't want to have to worry about what some pervert might do to my cat when it dies".

This is e-democracy in all its glory, a Lib Dem variation on the e-petitions people were encouraged to post on the Downing Street website (only to be totally ignored) under Labour. It's a species of populism that was roadtested – to destruction, some of us believed – in 2003, when the Labour MP Stephen Pound offered to sponsor a Bill based on a vote among listeners to Radio 4's Today programme. A Bill allowing people to use any means to fight off burglars won. That was before e-democracy really took off, offering an irresistible forum to spout all sorts of rubbish without the bother of going down to the local pub.

To be fair, not every idea posted is reactionary, satirical or illiterate – just quite a few. As an experiment, I posted one myself, suggesting that civil partnerships should be open to heterosexuals, but I couldn't get back on the site to find out how it popular it was. I'd actually rather write to my MP, but then I'm one of the people – there are more of us than Clegg thinks – who still believes in representative democracy. It's fashionable to hate MPs, but few people get into Parliament without a coherent political philosophy, amended over time, and some notion of how legislation works.

What I find especially exciting is that, now we have got the ball rolling, the debate is totally out of the Government control, Clegg declared. So what was the point of electing a new one to run the country only two months ago? The Deputy Prime Minister has even promised that the "best suggestions" will be put into practice, although he didn't explain who'd have the final say. Either he'll have to ignore thousands of posts, infuriating people who believed his promise that they are now in charge, or we will find ourselves living in a very peculiar type of society: like Saudi Arabia, with public executions and convicted drug dealers being birched on roundabouts. Nothing very liberal or democratic about that.



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