liquid democracy


Liquid democracy is among the most ambitious, even utopian blockchain-based projects. As envisioned by the multi-national group of people making up the Democracy Earth Foundation, we the people would be able either to vote on issues (direct democracy) or to delegate that vote to a friend, colleague or expert or to an elected politician (delegated or perhaps representative democracy).

By its nature, this is a long term project, and is as much about society as about technology. As Sunny Sangha, Democracy Earth’s UK ambassador, says “liquid democracy will only work if we have a democratic culture”.

Liquid democracy could be applied on different levels; neighbourhood, city, nation or supranational, as well as by other bodies such as corporations, unions etc. Sangha is behind People Power Brum, a liquid democracy project in Birmingham, which has its sights on local elections on 3 May this year.

The aim is to find 101 “everyday heroes” to stand as independents, promising to implement liquid democracy. The group is very unlikely to hit the 101 figure but Sangha admits to having been “crazy ambitious” anyway, in hoping to produce a scaled up version of Frome’s flat pack democracy (in which independent candidates successfully campaigned under the umbrella Independents for Frome).

To put things in perspective, Frome has a population of 26,000, Birmingham one of 1.1 million. Frome already had a cohesive group, while Birmingham has had to take a step back and try to replicate that. “Democracy is about building communities and relationships between people”, says Sangha. 

People Power Brum has four candidates so far but has also mobilised people and built a good team (web development, PR expert, marketing person etc) - a “big achievement” - to take them beyond the May election.

If people vote directly on issues, might it lead to more schisms and more populism? These are a few items from the last British Social Attitudes Survey:

53% support the government being able to detain people indefinitely without putting them on trial.

78% of Britons believe that those needing medical treatment due to alcohol and drug abuse, including smoking, should be asked to pay for treatment, at least sometimes.

Only 40% agree that the use of mobile phones while driving should be banned.

Add to this that it is only three years ago that support for the death penalty dropped below 50% and, regardless of one’s politics, it’s clear there are some major issues on which the country is strongly divided and not particularly well informed.

I didn’t ask Sangha for his opinion on any of these points and he didn’t give it. What he said was “mob rule is something to be fearful of” and may produce decisions of “high legitimacy but low quality”. However, “liquid democracy is an emergent culture” and that if people feel that they will be heard, it might persuade them “to grapple with the issues”. He warns not “to stick to the idea that people aren’t interested or are not to be trusted. People care.” 

He adds that the examples I list are “in the context of a lack of debate. Here [in the UK] there is parliament and the pub and no space in between for proper debate”. He has taken people to council meetings and they’ve been shocked at the combination of the archaic and the playground.

Sangha concedes that elements of liquid democracy may alienate older or less tech-savvy people, though he counters; “you’d be surprised at the number of old people who are millennials in spirit”. Nevertheless, as part of efforts to develop democratic culture and foster debate, he gives equal importance to the offline world, which includes ‘people’s parliament’ events in which people can propose and discuss ideas. Online, Democracy Earth will include a debating component in Sovereign, its open source, blockchain-based application. 

Even with modest electoral success, the idea is that all this leads to more engagement, hopefully reaching a critical mass where councillors would attend people’s parliament events or at least have to take note of votes.

On the subject of technology, Sangha adds that Democracy Earth is building for the future. If liquid democracy comes, it will take years, during which time our lives will become even more deeply enmeshed in the digital world. By the time it comes to be, there will be fewer tech-resistant people. 

Sangha is thoughtful, eloquent and quietly passionate. This project has taken him on a “fantastic journey”, giving him an opportunity to learn more about his own city and community.

He states that “change is inevitable” and that it is the how and when, that are uncertain. I don’t doubt that this is so. I retain some doubts about liquid democracy but if People Power Brum scores well in May, it could and really should lead to some fascinating and hopeful experiments in a live environment.

Andrew Clarke can be followed on Twitter at: @aclarkex1