The Future of Direct Democracy

By Matthew Gass

A potential referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU is taking a central role in the next general election. Therefore, it seems worthwhile taking a look at the role of referenda and direct democracy in British politics. This is especially true in the context of the recent votes on AV and Scottish Independence.

Historically it has been a limited one. In his ‘Speech to the Electors of Bristol’ Edmund Burke once said “A representative owes the People not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion.” By and large this has been the convention and a referendum is used sparingly, and only on issues of fundamental constitutional change.

The AV referendum was the first UK wide referendum since the 1975 ballot on membership of the European Union. This referendum certainly fit this description and a further referendum would too, given the major constitutional changes which have taken place under the various treaties since then.

Recent votes on devolution to the nations and regions of the UK fit the bill too. AV is more questionable; it is a matter of opinion whether a change in the voting system is a fundamental constitutional issue. The question itself was catapulted to the forefront by the Liberal Democrats as part of the Coalition Agreement. It had been offered by the Labour Party without a referendum in coalition negotiations with the Liberal Democrats following the 2010 hung parliament; although given the large splits in the Parliamentary Labour Party during the AV campaign it is unclear whether this could have been delivered.

If it is easy to see why referenda and other forms of direct democracy are popular talking points for politicians, it is even easier to see why they often seem to disappoint in practice. There is very little risk involved in talking about giving more power to voters. In a climate of mistrust in politics it offers a refreshing alterative that has the potential to make policy more reflective of what the public really wants. However this often becomes part of a cynical attempt to attempt to relieve politicians of their decision making responsibilities and prevent them from making unpopular but necessary decisions. In the long term this approach only creates a negative feedback loop which deepens the mistrust of politicians in this country.

Referenda on wide ranging issues have been a common part of American politics for some time through ‘ballot initiatives’. There have been positive cases in their history, where they have allowed the voting public to overrule a state legislature which has failed to act on an issue either through disinterest or the influence of powerful interests, as was the initial intention. However it has been more common in recent years to see the measures used either naively or cynically.

Voters in some American states have implemented measures protecting spending on certain areas of the budget such as education – a noble enough sentiment – but which meant that other areas, such as prisons, get gutted when savings need to be made. In California this has led to mass early releases of prisoners due to overcrowding, caused in no small part by the State’s ‘three strikes’ law; the result of an earlier ballot initiative.

No doubt these issues are often mishandled by representatives too, but the expansion of ‘rule by referendum’ goes too far in reducing complex and interlinked policies into simple ‘yes or no’ questions. This approach does not reflect the realities of governing and the unintended consequences can be devastating. For example ballot initiatives on controversial ‘wedge issues’ such as gay marriage and abortion have been exploited to fire up base voters and get them to the polls and influence the outcome of other races. Without assurances that they could not be used in a similar way, we should be wary of adopting them in this country.

That is not to say there are not clear flaws in the current model that need to be addressed. The historic ‘manifesto model’, where a government goes to the people to enact a specific set of policies, and often resigned to force a new general election when it felt a change of course was necessary, seems outdated. This is particularly true in a fast changing world where coalitions and fixed term parliaments have the potential to become the norm.

In the increasingly convoluted sausage factory of legislating and governing people are feeling ever more isolated from the decisions being made about their lives and the people making those decisions. Direct democracy can give them a route through the system that voting for a representative does not provide. The huge turnout for the Scottish Independence referendum shows people will get involved when they feel their decision is of real consequence. The question is how this spirit can be tapped without undermining the benefits of a representative democracy.

The best steps to resolving this problem, though, don’t come from a constitutional overhaul but by making better use of the tools already at our disposal. Giving more powers to constituents to pick their own representatives through US-style open primaries, and enabling primary challenges to sitting MPs, would go a long way to ensuring that Members are more responsive to the views of their constituencies. This should be strengthened by further allowing constituents to recall their MP, not just if they are found guilty of “serious wrongdoing” (sentenced to more than 12 months in jail, or banned from the Commons for more than 21 days) as would be the case under watered down government plans. Having the courage to give party members a real say in policy platforms would encourage flagging membership. Once a party is in government more attention should be paid to ensuring the public is properly consulted and kept informed of the proposals affecting them, starting with an expansion of the Coalition’s e-Petitions.

It is common today to say that politics is broken. It’s unclear when this occurred, but it implies that there was a time when it wasn’t. At that time we were still living under this constitution, with its unique ability to change and adapt to new circumstances. Just because politics may be broken, it doesn’t mean the constitution is and the conventions that are part of it are. Trying to opportunistically ‘fix’ what they think is wrong in the name of restoring faith in politics will only drive a further wedge between Westminster and the public.

Burke concluded his address by saying “Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to the end of my life: a flatterer you do not wish for.” In a world of growing connectivity we can expect our representatives to be closer and more attentive friends than ever before. If they don’t live up to this we can and should demand better. Trying to take them out of the equation altogether though could present a fundamental risk to the British model of democracy which has defended liberty and the rule of law for centuries. As we continue to explore this path we must ensure we don’t end up undermining the very thing we are seeking to protect.

Matt is a former director of Parliament Street and founder of The Unwritten Project where this article also appears.

Follow at @MattGass and @UnwrittenPRJ

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