What the minor parties have to say about digital and democratic reform

Having taken a look at the digital and democratic reform policies from the manifestos of the two major parties, I also wanted to dig a little deeper into the minor parties. It’s impossible to tell what the next government is going to look like right now but based on current polls, it’s unlikely that Labour or the Conservatives will be able govern alone, requiring at least a confidence and supply agreement with one or more of the minor parties.

So this analysis looks at the the Greens, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, UKIP and the SNP (whose manifesto was released later so this was added subsequently). Again, I’ve looked at four factors: broadband, digital inclusion, open government and democratic reform. And to remind you, I did this in the hope that it helps us understand where the next five years might be heading in terms of democratic reform and open government. I chose the first two not to suggest that digital is all that matters but because these are both key enablers for transformation. I could equally have looked at education and innovation policy.

Broadband

The minor parties are very light on broadband, but Plaid at least puts a real, measurable number on things by saying that everyone in every part of Wales will get at least 30Mbps broadband. The Greens want affordable, high-speed broadband access too and will create an obligation for telecommunications networks to deliver this. The LibDems want to continue what has already happened (which I said in the analysis of the Conservative and Labour manifestos is pretty mediocre) and promise to “complete the rollout of high-speed broadband, to reach almost every household (99.9%) in the UK as well as small businesses in both rural and urban areas.” The SNP recognises the rural challenge in Scotland and promises fibre to 95% of Scottish households by 2017. UKIP don’t say anything about broadband or network infrastructure. But they do tell us that the internet is “growing as a medium to commission and commit crime.” Perhaps seeing this in a different way, the Greens and the LibDems promise variations on protecting both internet freedoms and stopping the abuse of data.

  • Greens   2/5
  • Liberal Democrats   1/5
  • Plaid Cymru   4/5
  • SNP   2/5
  • UKIP   0/5

Digital Inclusion

The LibDems and the SNP are the only minor parties who specifically address digital inclusion. the LibDems promising to “develop cutting-edge digital skills courses for young people and the unemployed” and also promising to continue the shift to ‘Digital by Default’ public services but making it clear that these must be accessible and available for all and not leave people behind, “by upholding the highest standards of accessibility in digital services and maintaining government programmes on digital inclusion.” The SNP acknowledge that we have to improve internet access for everyone and “especially for some of our more remote or disadvantaged communities” and note that they already have a programme of free wi-fi in public buildings. The Greens do say that “active citizenship has to be informed citizenship” but don’t elaborate how this will relate to literacy, whether it is digital or democratic.

  • Greens   1/5
  • Liberal Democrats   4/5
  • Plaid Cymru   1/5
  • SNP   2/5
  • UKIP   0/5

Open Government

The LibDem’s again have a fair bit to say about open government. This could actually be because their manifesto is more than twice the length of Labour or the Conservatives and a good 50 pages longer than the Greens, who have the second longest! The LibDems want to extend Ofcom’s community radio grant support to ‘online hyperlocals’, to make sure that the government isn’t monitoring “every keystroke”, have committed to maintaining and developing the Government Digital Service and, as I mentioned above, Digital by Default in public services.

The LibDems will continue to release government data sets in open and accessible formats but don’t say how or by how much this will be extended or if and how outsourced providers will be brought into this, though they do say that private companies providing public services will be subject to FoI laws. There will also be a Technology Impact Assessments as part of the policy design process.

The Green Party “supports a world of open, freely flowing information”. They oppose surveillance and the privatisation of data held by the government and, going further, say that government data should be open to all (they cite the recently privatised Postcode Address File). They will encourage the use of this data to create civic apps. The Greens explicitly rule out the sale of personal data, such as health or tax records, and want to leverage the government’s purchasing power to support open standards.

UKIP don’t have much to say on openness and transparency, though they do flag up some changes to the health system that includes “County health boards [who] will have the power to inspect health services, conduct snap inspections and take evidence from whistleblowers.” Given the emphasis on participation in the Scottish Government, it’s a strange that there’s nothing in the SNP’s manifesto but it’s perhaps unsurprising that this is not a focus for Plaid in a General Election.

  • Greens   4/5
  • Liberal Democrats   3/5
  • Plaid Cymru   0/5
  • SNP   0/5
  • UKIP   0/5

Democratic Reform

We can’t really get more involved in democracy if we don’t understand it and it’s disappointing to see a lack of attention to citizenship education and political literacy in the manifestos. Although the Greens talk about “informed citizenship”, only Plaid make a tangible commitment to this and promise to make citizenship education compulsory at secondary and further education levels.

UKIP have lots of ideas about to reform democracy. In a UKIP world, after a carefully orchestrated referendum, the newly divorced UK will shrink the size of Parliament and Government (gone are the profligate ministries, like energy and climate change, or foreign aid), they’ll reduce paid political advisors and make the appointment more transparent. Gone are most of the bodies that monitor how things work: health, social care, education. In come local County boards. They, like the Greens, want more power for local communities to challenge planning applications that go against agreed local plans, proposing “a binding local referendum triggered by the signatures of 5 per cent of electors within a planning authority area.” The SNP also mention making decision at a community level but are vague about what this actually means from a democratic perspective.

And UKIP like referendums (though they don’t talk about the cost anywhere), we’ll get a “Citizens’ Initiative”, where every two years there’s a national referendum on “the issues of greatest importance to the British public, gathered via an approved petition, provided the petition has more than two million signatures”. The outcome will be included in the Queen’s Speech. And there’s more! All petitions with more than 100,000 signatures will get on the Commons’ Order Paper to be “genuinely debated and voted upon.” The Greens aren’t averse to referendums either. Whilst not quite on the same scale as UKIP they join them in wanting recall referendums for MPs (Plaid call for this too) and also want to introduce “referendums on local government decisions if called for by 20% of the local electorate”.

UKIP want open primaries for selecting prospective parliamentary candidates, the only party to put this in their manifesto. UKIP also want a proportional voting system, though they don’t say what. In fact all the minor parties are demanding PR, with the LibDems, SNP and Plaid proposing Single Transferable Vote and the Greens suggesting the Additional Member System currently used to elect the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

SNP, Plaid, the Greens and the LibDems all want votes at 16, they all want a reformed and elected House of Lords. The SNP are perhaps the most forceful on this point, making it clear that “an unelected second chamber is not acceptable in a modern democracy. Those with no democratic mandate should not be writing the laws of the land and SNP MPs will vote for the abolition of the House of Lords.” The LibDems propose reducing it to 450 Members and the Greens to introduce single-terms of 10 years. UKIP on the other hand wants to severely limit postal voting and doesn’t see any need to encourage young people to engage in democracy.

Only the Greens promise to repeal the Lobbying Act, making the point that they have been strong opponents of it through its parliamentary journey and they want a Bill of Rights. They are also unique in suggesting that their solution for further regional devolution will allow for local tax raising powers and will be led by a bottom-up constitutional convention. The Greens further propose the creation of a Cornish Assembly (modelled on the National Assembly for Wales) and a citizen-led democratisation of the City of London, all subject to referendums.

  • Greens   4/5
  • Liberal Democrats   3/5
  • Plaid Cymru   3/5
  • SNP   3/5
  • UKIP   1/5

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