Constituents should be able to vote online on issues like Syria airstrikes

By Alex Wiltshire.

syria protestA decision regarding any military action in Syria should be undertaken with close consultation with the electorate, and an online constituent vote could be the perfect solution.

The House of Commons will on Wednesday hold a debate and subsequent vote on whether the UK should extend its bombing campaign against the so-called Islamic State (IS) beyond Iraq and into Syria. Indeed, it is a vote that is in danger of being undertaken without the full necessary democratic controls, thus undermining the system of representative democracy.

David Cameron’s decision to hold a vote follows the announcement taken by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Monday that he would allow his MPs a free vote on the issue. This was following days of inner party political wrangling on the topic, which threatened to divide the Labour Party to breaking point.

Corbyn himself opposes airstrikes in Syria and wrote a letter to his MPs last Thursday, stipulating that he ‘does not believe that the Prime Minister’s current proposal for air strikes in Syria will protect our security and therefore cannot support it.’ This prompted a series of resignation threats from his shadow cabinet who supported the case for air strikes, as it appeared likely that Labour MPs would be whipped into voting in favour of the party leadership. And all this whilst the opinionated UK voter is left to watch the events unravelling in the news and, yes, on the internet.

Indeed, in this instance, here springs to mind a far more appropriate, and indeed democratic, method for establishing a UK position on whether to bomb IS in Syria; internet voting.

I would not normally consider employing a method of online voting to decide issues of policy. We live in a representative democracy, one where we democratically vote for someone to represent us in parliament and formulate positions on policy which reflect the views of the constituency. After all, unless voting tactically, at the general election in May we did vote for the candidate, or candidate that represents the party, that most reflected our views on a variety of issues.

Yet an issue of this nature would seem to fall beyond the scope of a general election. According to the website May 2015, when voters were posed the question ‘What is the single most important issue that will influence how you vote?’ Only 1%  responded that defence would be the most important issue to them. However, it seems this issue has generated great debate amongst the UK electorate that far outweighs the importance it was granted in the vote for the general election.

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Jeremy Corbyn is facing divisions within the Shadow Cabinet on the issue and has given MPs a free vote.

Moreover, the particular issue of air strikes appears to be beyond party politics itself. Indeed, this is no more exemplified than through the issues Labour have had in attempting to arrive at a common position. It is believed that up to 100 MPs could defy the Labour leadership and vote for the air strikes. Furthermore, it is reported that around a dozen Conservative MPs could vote against the government proposals. The issue of defence, and particularly one that concerns the bombing of another country, can be a very personal one for the individual. It is an example of the post-political nature of modern day issues; issues that are beyond formulating a position based on political allegiances of left or right. It is therefore appropriate to employ another method that allows the electorate to regain primacy over policy and become greater involved in the decision making process.

Internet voting provides a means by which the electorate can do just that, and it can be employed in a relatively simple manner. I am not suggesting here that a referendum type scenario should be utilised. It would be a time consuming exercise, involving the obligatory lengthy campaign trails of both sides, time that is simply not available when taking a decision on whether to go to war, even though the use of the internet would considerably reduce this time and be a potentially cost effective method of conducting the vote. The return to primacy of the electorate does not necessitate that a vote be taken by a pure means of direct democracy.

The alternative is for an online vote within each constituency, the result of which can either be binding or used to guide the representative MP in debating and ultimately voting on whether to extend the undertaking of airstrikes into Syria. This would naturally require the imposition of a free vote for MPs and remove the problems experienced by Labour in attempting to establish a common position on the issue. Online voting would, firstly, be a quick and easy method of conducting the vote. Jeremy Corbyn, in attempting to establish a common position for Labour, managed to consult the views of 107,875 party members in an online poll via email prior to meeting his shadow cabinet. Secondly, we would also likely see a high turnout as, much like the issue of Scottish independence, many have been influenced by this debate, in particular the younger generation of voters.

Furthermore, an internet vote overcomes both the problems discussed above. Firstly, the fact that a Commons vote regarding airstrikes could be inherently undemocratic as it is beyond the scope of the general election. There is a requirement for the electorate to regain control of decision making processes to some degree, and an online vote would provide the perfect solution. Secondly, it also mitigates the problem of airstrikes representing an issue beyond party politics. For this reason the method of a constituent vote is preferred as opposed to consulting party membership and subsequently formulating a common party stance, as was the approach of Corbyn in attempting to establish a party position. As discussed above, the issue is one of a very personal nature, and is an opinion that is not established through traditional left/right allegiances. The MP represents all of their constituents and this method would ensure that everyone’s views are heard.

The vote on Wednesday regarding airstrikes against Syria is in danger of becoming one that is distinctively undemocratic and potentially out of touch with the general public as MPs are either under party instruction of given free rein to vote according to their personal preference. In order to return democratic authority to the citizen, and supplement the post-political nature in formulating a position on airstrikes, an online constituent vote must be implemented.

Alex Wiltshire is a Masters graduate in International Relations and European Politics from the University of Bath.

WebRoots Democracy conducted a Twitter poll on this subject before the Commons vote. Out of 720 respondents, 70% voted in favour of online referenda in constituencies.

Do you think the UK should introduce an online voting option for elections?  Take a moment to sign and share our e-petition.

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