Thinking hats on, please: In the first of three essays this week on improving democracy, Edward de Bono explores point-scoring and parallel headwear

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The Independent Online
A MOTHER offers her child a free choice of vegetables: 'You can have spinach or cabbage.' Now that is a free choice. Or is it?

Most politicians believe that what people want is a strong government with the illusion of democracy. After all, philosophers have always known that the illusion of free will is every bit as good as the real thing. But having something chosen for you is still not the same as choosing for yourself. The democratic choice is still similar to the free choice offered by the mother to her child. We tolerate a very crude form of democracy because it is practical and it gives us the strong governments that we are told we need.

In this quest for strong government we tolerate a system that survives mainly because we cannot conceive of better ones. I intend to put forward some concepts in order to open up some new thinking on the matter.

Under the first-past-the-post electoral system a candidate who gets one vote more than an opponent gets the seat. Those who voted for the loser might as well not have voted. Theoretically, a party could win every seat in Parliament by just one vote - and just under 50 per cent of the voters would thereby be totally ignored.

The usual cry is for proportional representation, which works quite well in some countries but leads to weak government in others. What is the alternative? There is a remarkably simple one that would be easy to implement. If a member of Parliament is elected with 60 per cent of the votes cast in his or her constituency, that person has 0.6 of a vote in the House of Commons. If the member obtained only 40 per cent (in a three-sided race), that member has only 0.4 of a vote. In this way, voters whose candidate was defeated would still be represented because the voting power of the winner would be reduced.

Under this system a majority of seats would not necessarily ensure a ruling party. If the opposition had better-quality votes these could add up to more votes than those held by the party with the largest number of seats. For example, 10 votes worth 0.4 each would be outweighed by six 0.7 votes.

At this point, matters could go in two directions. We could proceed with normal majority voting as at present. On any issue the party with the largest number of votes would win. The fact that the total number of votes would be rather less than it is today would not matter in the least.

There is, however, a second possibility. Voting targets could be set. These need not be the same for all matters. For example, for economic matters a target of votes equal to 50 per cent of the seats in the House might be set. For legal matters the target would be 60 per cent. These targets would decrease by 5 per cent a month. This would then encourage a government to seek out support from the other parties if it wished to ensure the prompt passage of legislation.

The beauty of fractional voting is the ease with which it could be implemented. Any enterprising political journalist could work out the 'real' voting strengths in Parliament and the 'real' votes cast on any issue. It is also a system that is totally fair.

In theory, both the winning candidate and the runner-up could take their seats in the House of Commons and both could use their fractional votes on any issue. Only the physical size of the chamber and the cost of having more members there would make this impractical - and those are not very good reasons.

In most democracies there is a dictatorship of the majority. Except for publicity purposes the opposition might as well not exist. The losers have to sit around and wait for the next election. But, in a fast- moving world, to vote occasionally and then be ignored - except for by-elections - is not enough.

So we could allocate 10 per cent of the seats in Parliament to a public 'jury'. In fact, we would leave the seats exactly as they are but would add on this notional 10 per cent. How are these new seats going to be filled? There are several options, some of which are more practical than others.

We could literally have a jury, picked like a court jury. Members would vote on the issue before them. Each vote would be a full vote and would go into the general voting total. This jury could be changed every month.

Instead of a jury we could have a referendum. If 70 per cent of people voted in favour of the motion, 70 per cent of the extra seats would be counted as having voted in favour. Referendums at present are a lot of bother to organise, but with interactive television in the future this approach might make sense.

It would be much simpler for now if the apportioning of the extra seats were to be decided by public opinion polls. These are now sophisticated instruments. They are simple to operate and allowance can be made for the margin of error. So if an opinion poll on the issue showed only 40 per cent in favour, only 40 per cent of the extra seats would vote in favour. Perhaps it would be wise to do three polls and to take the average.

In this way the public would continue to have a direct influence in Parliament and Parliament would have to take the public into account at all times and not just in election years.

In future, people are even more likely to vote according to their perception of how the election might affect them economically. But who can understand the complexities of today's economics? Even economists cannot agree about these matters. How is the democratic citizen to vote on such issues? To overcome this problem we could set up an 'economic advisory council'. Members would be there ex-officio (for example the governor of the Bank of England), by appointment and after coming out ahead in an economics examination. In all economic issues Parliament would have added to its normal capacity an extra 10 per cent of notional seats. These extra seats would follow the voting in the economic advisory council. A 55 per cent vote in the council would mean 55 per cent of the extra seats in favour of the proposal.

Just as public opinion would influence government, so would expert opinion. The same principle might be extended to other areas of expertise such as ecology, legal affairs, health, education and so on. The extra seats would exist only when required.

We come now to the absurdity of the adversarial system. It is childish to believe that one party has all the answers and that members of the other are, at best, idiots and, at worst, villains. There is a convergence of good sense which is available to all. There are accepted ways of dealing with inflation and with environmental hazards. There is no monopoly on wisdom. When I start my own political party I shall promise to take the best ideas from wherever they may be - with thanks and acknowledgement.

The absurdity of the adversarial system has held back the development of Western civilisation by about 400 years. The system was set in place by the infamous Greek gang of three; Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These gentlemen determined the patterns, habits and method of Western thought.

It is a system that lacks the constructive, creative and design energies that are so essential today. We need much more constructive thinking and much better ideas - and these will have to be designed, not discovered.

What we need is 'parallel' thinking, where we put forward different views, different values - and then seek to 'design' a way forward.

There is a simple method of parallel thinking that is being taken up by many of the world's largest corporations. This is the Six Hats method, in which each of six metaphorical hats indicates a mode of thinking. The white hat is concerned with information, and when it is in use everyone focuses on the information available and the information required. The red hat permits the expression of feeling, intuition and emotions without explanation or apology. The black hat is for caution, risk assessment and criticism. The yellow hat searches for benefits, values and feasibility. The green hat is for creative energy and the design of new alternatives and new possibilities. The blue hat organises the thinking process itself. Only one hat is in use at any one time. All members of the group, in parallel, look in one direction at a time.

The method works because criticism is put in its place as only one mode of thinking. The method removes egos and politics from the discussion. It unbundles thinking so that instead of someone trying to do everything at once, each aspect of thinking is carried out separately with full energy and attention. Many people have reported that the method reduces meeting times by 75 per cent. There is nothing magical about it. Why should we suppose that the biochemical setting of the brain is optimal for all types of thinking at every moment? Separating out the modes of thinking allows each mode to be used far more effectively. By comparison, argument is a crude system that never allows for a full and honest exploration of this subject because each side is too concerned with making its case.

There are those who will claim that the great success of Western civilisation in the field of science and technology has been due to the argument system. This is a total fallacy. The main driving force of Western success in science and technology has been the 'possibility' system. In science the possibility system provides the hypotheses. In technology the possibility system provides the visions. There is a direct link between the possibility system and what I am proposing here. Unless we conceive of possibilities we cannot move towards them.

There are three enemies to progress: complacency, tradition and evolution. There is a huge complacency about the supposed mother of parliaments. Tradition is of the highest value in things that do not matter but a mathematical nonsense in things that do. We rely on evolution, not design, for the development of better ideas, but forget that evolution is very slow, very wasteful and often very painful. So do I expect any of my proposals to happen? I do not. The illusion of democracy may be just as good as the real thing.

This is an edited version of last night's 'Opinions', the first in a series produced by Open Media for Channel 4's 'Bite The Ballot' week. The next one will be shown tomorrow at 8pm, and will appear in Wednesday's 'Independent'.