A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Referenda? Good.

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on July 19, 2010 at 12:53 pm

By Stephen Wan

I’m looking forward to next year’s referendum on electoral reform (if and when it happens, granted the act passes with a parliamentary majority). I happen to think referenda, and direct democracy in general, is a good thing. Not always perhaps, but most of the time. I am dismayed at times by people who argue against referenda, since their arguments strike me as elitist, with an underlying assumption that people don’t know what’s good for them, or that they are blind sheep easily swayed by the dark forces of the media. I happen to believe people aren’t as unintelligent or naive as they’re willing as the A.R.E. (anti-referendum elite) make out. I will therefore be arguing for why a referenda in general, and particularly the referendum on AV, is a good thing.

Firstly, I’d like to point out the ever-decreasing influence of the media. In general, people no longer blindly accept a newspapers’ stance or view of things – at best, they get to set the agenda, and tell people ‘what’ to think about. An excellent blog piece by Stumbling and Mumbling highlights the discrephrency between who the media supported, and who the public eventually voted for. Whilst not conclusive (a truly definitive piece of evidence would need a survey of the % of readers of their voting intentions before and after a newspaper backs a party), it does indicate the likes of Murdoch may not be as influential as they would like.

Secondly, I think it is worth taking a rather liberal assumption in the rationality and open-mindedness of most people to debate. Not everyone is a bigot (eh Gordon?), and most people are willing to look at the other side of an argument before coming to a reasoned conclusion. Its our belief in humans as rational actors that influences our economic thought (people as utility-maximisers). Why not consider the same in political thought?

Thirdly, the passage down a route saying people don’t know what is good for them, and thereby have dictated to them how they should be ruled, is a scary route to take, reminding me of Plato’s Republic’s “guardians”, an elite upper class who are unchallengeable and rule by virtue of their superior position, both morally and intellectually. Whilst a meritocrat myself (in obvious cases such as medicine, law, policing etc.), I fail to see how one group of people have an obvious advantage over others in terms of what is ‘good’ or ‘right’ for the country. Any suggestion that it is better for Parliament themselves to dictate how the people are ruled, (as Danny Alexander apparently wanted during the Lib/Lab talks after the last election), follows this same train of logic, which reaches a worrying conclusion.

Fourthly, I’d point to the classic education and political participation advantages of referendums. What direct democracy allows people to do is to become engaged in politics, and have an opportunity to learn more about how our electoral system works (and better yet, a say in how it is done), leading to personal self-betterment and an engagement in politics that is needed now more than ever following the decrease of trust in Parliament and elected politicians in general (take a look at the witch hunt with Zac Goldsmith for example). Why anyone would want to keep politics a field reserved solely for the professional politicians is a mystery to me.

Of course, there is a role for representative democracy in general, to tackle the more mundane issues that require specific technical understanding (food safety regulations), or more complex issues that are too sensitive for the general public (security). I won’t claim to know the dividing line between the two, but I do feel that constitutional changes like electoral systems, devolution and (when/if it comes) the abolition of the monarchy do come within the purview of policies to be decided by general referenda. If one seriously takes the idea that the people are not to be trusted when it comes to deciding issues like the electoral system, one wonders how the electorate are to be trusted even with electing our politicians – are they also not subject to ‘media influence’ every general election as well?

I’d like my final point to be one on legitimacy – a change in the way this country is governed and how it elects its people can only have authority if the vast majority of the electorate decide. We need this referendum if we want to change the electoral system, (or to put on hold the idea of changing the electoral system for a generation or so), in a way that very few people can find lacking in sovereignty. Ultimate power lies in the general will of the people, and therefore only they, not the MPs, can choose which system they are ruled under.

Before I end, I’d like to take a quick dig at my all-time least favourite politician, Alex Salmond, who appears to be treating the electorate as idiots. This is, of course, on the issue of the date of the proposed referendum, the 5th of May, which falls in line with the Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh elections to their respective assemblies. According to Salmond:

“These elections are of profound importance to our citizens and I believe they have the right to make their electoral choices for the respective devolved chambers without the distraction of a parallel referendum campaign on the UK voting system”.

Unfortunately, Salmond seems to think voters are incapable of holding multiple thoughts in their heads at the same time. What exactly does Salmond mean by a distraction? That a change in the electoral system is an unwanted nuisance, that might mean Salmond gets less time on TV strutting his pompous self around thinking he’s the big man (I do seem to recall him trying something similar during the general election). Also, although I happen to believe that democracy is priceless and worth any cost, there are apparently some monetary advantages to having it on the same day (to the tune of £17million).

Anyway, that aside, overall I approve of the position of the government on the issue of the referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system, which I think is the right thing to do, and that people who seek to deny the electorate a chance to vote on changing the voting system need some pretty serious arguments to back them up, ones I have yet to see. As for whether I will be voting for or against AV is another matter, one I’m going to have to think about for a bit longer. Nonetheless, I’m glad of the possibility that I’m going to have a say in it at all.

  1. Personally, I’d prefer we reserve referenda as an exceptional device. Ideal for big issues where within the parties opinion is divided (Europe, Constitutional Change etc.)…. but whilst I’m sympathetic to your argument in abstract where it has been put into practice in reality – such as California – I’m really not sure they benefit, nor do they have better politics than us…

    • I’ll make two points quickly.

      Firstly, at risk of sounding like a moral relativist, in what sense is their politics better (or worse) than ours? In the sense that the people have a greater say in bringing about popular legislation through plebiscites, the Californian system is superior. In terms of perhaps quality of legislation, in terms of their consideration of social and economic impacts, (Proposition 13 for example, which limited Property Taxation, probably had several negative impacts later on) perhaps our system is better. Agreed though, I’d rather not have a system like California’s.

      Which brings me onto my second, more pedantic point, that the Californian system involves Initiatives, a system whereby if enough citizen’s sign a petition they can trigger a plebiscite, which I would distinguish from referenda. Referenda are put forward to the people by the executive, approved by the legislature, ensuring there isn’t a flood of popular but bad policies. A system where referenda are used more frequently, in particular regard to constitutional changes, does not need to be anything like the Californian system.

      Interestingly though, you touched upon one issue that I do rather dislike referenda for, in that when a party’s opinion is divided, referenda can be a tool used by politicians to buck responsibility from them onto the electorate, and thereby not be accountable for any bad consequences that follow.

  2. I think, while referenda are generally a good thing with major issues, Alex Salmond (and how rare an occassion this is!) has a point. There are many conflicting issues in the devloved areas, and politicians are notorious for confusing important issues with smaller ones. I would not say, as Salmond does, that the vote for the devolved representatives is more important, rather the vote on the system that decides the important reps is more important. For what is actuall a small sum of £17 million, it might clarify the debate further if it were held separately. While I believe people can hold more than one thought in their head, I would question whether they would have time to do the necessary thinking on two disconnected issues at the same time.

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