Time for Something New?

Over the course of the past few months, several very interesting events have changed the course of British politics: the very close No vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum, UKIP winning two defecting MPs in by-elections, and the beginning of a serious debate on devolution around the nation. For the first time in a long time, British politics is becoming interesting again for the general public, with the Digital Democracy Commission having recommended “widening opportunities for genuine participation.”

By Andrew Williams

James Smith giving a talk at the Open Data Institute entitled “Data for democracy – how to stand for parliament with open data” (Photo: Something New)

One man, James Smith, has taken this idea a bit further. Back in June 2014, James announced that he would be standing as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in Horsham with the OpenPolitics Manifesto, a platform that anyone can contribute their policy ideas to.

So why did he do this?

Speaking last year, Mr Smith said he hoped “that we can build a brighter, happier, more collaborative, more equal society for everyone, enabled by the best aspects of our technology.” Although he admitted that this view is utopian, Mr Smith opined that it is “better to have an idea of where you want to get to [rather] than just stumbling from crisis to crisis without an end goal in mind.”

The OpenPolitics Manifesto is based on the principles of open-source governance, defined by Wikipedia as “a political philosophy which advocates the application of the philosophies of the open-source and open-content movements to democratic principles to enable any interested citizen to add to the creation of policy, as with a wiki document. Legislation is democratically opened to the general citizenry, employing their collective wisdom to benefit the decision-making process and improve democracy.

Open source governance is still very much in its infancy as a political philosophy, having only developed around 10 years ago in Canada. It is gaining traction however, and the California Assembly plans on introducing it to create legislation next month.
It wasn’t until October 2014 that James Smith announced that he would be standing for Something New, a new political party based on the OpenPolitics principles. James works as a developer for the Open Data Institute, and is an organiser for Cleanweb UK. So it makes sense that he is standing on open source principles. 

James is joined by Paul Robinson, a Councillor on Godalming Town Council. Paul has been a Godalming Town Councillor since May 2011, and works as Director of Seedpod, a company selling organic plant seeds. He sat on Godalming Town Council for the Conservative Party until 1st October 2014, when he defected to Something New. Paul will be standing in South West Surrey for Something New in the 2015 General Election.

Why should you look out for them?

According to their website, “Something New is a political party dedicated to a vision of a better future for everyone in the UK”. That’s a good start, and a good basis of every decision every political party should make. If a decision or a policy does not benefit anyone, or make the future of Britain a better place to be, then why do it?

The party logo of Something New.
(Photo: Something New)
Something New have six main values for government. They believe government should be:

If you put this all together, Something New believe that government should be transparent and constantly evolving. It should have policy based on sound evidence, able to make long-term decisions, dedicated to creating a sustainable society and deliver foreign policies that openly reflect our values. 

That’s a big ask, but not impossible. It’s ideal. As James Smith wrote back when he announced he would run for Parliament in June, it is “better to have an idea of where you want to get to than just stumbling from crisis to crisis without an end goal in mind.” This long-term thinking is refreshing in a society where politicians are constantly accused of “short-termism.”

But, one of the most fascinating and important aspects of Something New and the image they are presenting, is their manifesto. Something New are employing an entirely new technique for creating their manifesto, what they are calling an “open source” manifesto where any member of the public can contribute a policy, as long is it is in-line with Something New’s values. 

The OpenPolitics Manifesto, as it is known, can be found at www.openpolitics.org.uk. Some of the already standing policies include a written British constitution, a “None of the Above” option and banning unelected Lords from taking roles in government. The manifesto is, or at least they hope, revolutionary enough to attract people to have an interest in the new political party that hopes to make some sort of impact at the next General Election.

To further understand the course that Something New is trying to pursue, I decided to ask James Smith a few choice questions about himself, his aspirations, and his party.

Had you heard about open-source governance before starting Something New?

I had come across the idea, yes. I’d read a few things about it online, and was familiar with the idea of direct democracy and so on. However, it was normally people writing about it; what I hadn’t seen was anyone really trying it, and certainly not anyone trying to work out a practical way to make it happen. So, we started with the tools to hand, and started forming policy on GitHub. It will change and evolve, but change is an essential part of it!

If you had to form a coalition with a mainstream political party, which one would it be?

We’re probably going to have to get used to coalitions in the UK, so this is a great question. I’d say that parties that go into coalition have to share their core values, otherwise it’s very dangerous for them. That’s exactly what we’re seeing with the Lib Dems now; they’re perceived to have given up on their values by going into coalition with the Conservatives. That’s necessary in coalition, but you shouldn’t just be forming coalitions to get power; values are essential. Having said that, the parties with the least compatible values currently are the Conservatives (and their fringe offshoot, UKIP). The Labour leadership have unfortunately abandoned the social justice values that they used to have, and that we would share; the Lib Dems have shown they’re willing to abandon theirs too, but those two are probably the closest “major” ones. I think there are a lot of people within those parties who would agree with what we’re standing for, but don’t feel it’s expressed through their leadership. Policy-wise, the Greens are the closest to us though, with a few philosophical differences.

Do you think Parliament needs more IT professionals, as well as professionals in other fields?

Definitely; I think career politicians need to be consigned to the past. We need a wide variety of experience and expertise in parliament, not just PPEs. I don’t think we necessarily need an undue weight of IT professionals, but we do need people with experience of what technology can do, and what the opportunities are, so that our leaders aren’t looking at the greatest revolution since the steam engine as a threat.

Do you hope that more candidates, such as Independents, will adopt the OpenPolitics manifesto?

Absolutely, and we want more and more people to contribute their ideas. I also hope that it splits in two along some line of incompatibility(!), so that there are more and more political movements forming their policy in a truly open way. If other parties take the method of policy creation, we win. If people adopt our actual policy ideas, we win. There’s really no way to lose in an open world, other than to just disappear without trace, but we’re trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Who or what has most influenced your political views?

Wow, what a question. I think the core of my political views are optimism, empathy, and fairness, and those are things that have been shaped as much by my life and work experience than anything else. I think the open source movement, and the way it works, has a lot to add to the way we govern, so that’s probably the biggest philosophical influence. The event that politicised me though, was I suppose the Iraq War, at which point it became obvious to me that we were being lied to, that our leaders were willing to ruin other people’s lives for no decent reason. Since then I’ve got just more and more involved in how the world works, and less and less willing to let it just carry on without trying to fix it.
If you were elected as MP for Horsham, what is the first thing you would do?

Stare vacantly in amazement, I think, at least if it happens this time round!

For a serious answer though, I think I’ll have to find a way to take some cues from my voters about what I should focus on, although tempering that with my own interests and expertise (we are representatives, after all). I think that many broken things in our system come down to the fact that our democracy isn’t working well enough. If we can improve that, we can make better decisions for the long term. That and the immediate existential threat of climate change are the two things that really need dealing with, so I think my own preference would be to throw myself into those areas. They also both underpin big issues locally, so I wouldn’t be forgetting about my voters in doing so, I don’t think!


How do you intend to inform the voters of the platform you are standing on, and do you not think that your campaign might be too ambitious?

So, we need to get the message out through all the usual channels, of course; online coverage, newspaper articles, that sort of thing, and also through traditional candidate things like leafleting. One of the really important things we need to fund-raise for is the get a leaflet through every door, for instance. But, we can also use more modern approaches like creating shareable content for social media like videos, meme pictures, and so on. If I come up with a decent BuzzFeed “listicle”, that would be a good start.

As for the second part, I don’t think there’s such a thing as too ambitious. The secret to life is realising that nobody else knows what they’re doing either, and so you might as well have a go! As long as we cause some discussion, raise the important issues, and show people that democracy can be alive and well if we want it to be, then we win. And though we might not win the actual vote this time, we’ll be back, building for the future. It’s a long game, and this is just the first round.

So, Something New – a new political party represented by non-politicians. Will this potentially revolutionary political party be enough to win votes? Or will the voters want more than just an OpenPolitics Manifesto? How many voters are willing to accept the change? And will Something New’s message get lost in the many different new political parties that are standing, from the Pirate Party to the Whigs? Perhaps, but only time will tell.

Realistically, retaining their deposits would be a fantastic aim for this green political party. Maybe by 2025, people will have loosened up to the idea of deciding their own legislation, rather than having it dictated by lackeys in Westminster. But at the moment, I believe there is a general enmity towards change which is unlikely to help Something New in their campaign.
But there’s not just Something New. Other parties are beginning to grasp the increased call for digital engagement with democracy, so parties such as The Whig Party and the National Health Action Party using digital tools not only to engage people with their political message, but politics in general, to counter the endemic disenfranchisement that there currently is. Hopefully these tools will be taken up by more mainstream political parties for the same purpose.
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