Why local and national referendums are a really bad idea


3:09 pm - December 13th 2010

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contribution by Paul Evans

In the not too-distant, we are going to be offered a referendum to decide which voting system we prefer in the UK and Northern Ireland. This is the equivalent of being offered a trial-by-combat to decide who should be awarded a peace prize.

Referendums have very little by way of respectability in terms of making voting fair. Nor are they widely seen as a means of forming good policies. Yet they have gradually slipped into the British constitution in recent years without much by way of discussion.

The Tories are now promising to promote referendums on local planning issues and on whether councils have elected mayors to trump the decisions of elected Councils. Here’s a brief trot through some of the reasons why this should be resisted:

* Referendums are often a framing exercise. We often don’t want either of the options we’re being asked to adopt, preferring one that isn’t on the ballot. Governments decide what the question is going to be anyway, and if they don’t like the answer that they get back, it can always become a never-end-um (see Ireland and the Lisbon Treaty)

* Referendums are often used to deal with the difficult questions that political parties daren’t address during elections. They allow politicians to park awkward or divisive questions when they’d be better offering joined-up answers. They provide a way of letting the political class off the hook.

* They drive out the deliberative element in policymaking. The referendum question is an appeal to reflexes rather than an attempt to get a thoughtful response from the public.

* They hand enormous powers to newspaper proprietors and people with the finances to take one side of the argument. It also hands the reins of government over to unelected and well-heeled pressure groups.

* Strong personalities, or celebrities whose popularity in no way derives from their suitability to make big decisions often have an undue bearing upon the outcome. It is more important to have people with convening power on your team than to have good arguments.

* As De Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill pointed out, they lead to a tyranny of the majority. The Swiss came very close recently to allowing every citizenship application to be put to a popular vote.

* Time and time again, the public don’t answer the question they’ve been asked. They use one question to send an unrelated message to an unpopular government.

* Referendums privilege the weight of opinion (in numbers) over the weight of arguments.

* By making policy questions explicit, as Cass Sunstein illustrates at length, youpolarise the arguments instead of promoting a rich debate and useful complex legislative responses.

* People who don’t have the capacity to engage in the debate on a given issue are effectively disenfranchised – especially when the referendum makes decisions that could be taken by elected representatives who would deliberate on everyone’s behalf and defend their decisions at subsequent elections. The low-paid, people who work long hours, people with enough problems of their own, people who don’t have the confidence to express their views or the opportunity to discuss them become unrepresented

* In referendums, power is exercised without responsibility. No-one is under any pressure to obey The General Will or to ensure that a policy is actually in the long-term public interest

* Doubt and equivocation are a good thing. Instinctive certainty often isn’t. As Darwin put it, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.“ Doubters and equivocators are more likely to abstain in referendums, and – following the logic of the Dunning-Kruger effect, that’s a bad thing

* A related point: These fanatics will always vote. People who have doubts or equivocation on a subject are more likely to abstain. A smaller-number of people who feel strongly one way can effectively oppress a larger number of people who generally lean in another direction but don’t feel that strongly on the subject.

* California – an object lesson in the sublime idiocy of direct democracy

The first point above (framing exercise) is very well illustrated by the subjects that are chosen. We seem to have sleepwalked into a situation where ‘constitutional change’ (in a country that doesn’t have a written constitution, ffs!) should be subject to a popular vote.

So really dry bits of constitutional law that the public profess to not really understand should be voted on by millions, but the big issues that get everyone agitated (tuition fees, animal rights, bailing out banks etc) should not be voted on in this way.

Should this bother us? Personally, I’d argue that it’s a much bigger question than any other issue on the table at the moment. So much hot air gets expended on the question of sovereignty, yet what bigger question can we ask but on the quality and fairness of our democracy?

It is the ‘direct’ quality of democracy in a wider sense that we shouldn’t overlook in the diagnosis of Ireland’s ‘infantilised’ politics; Big questions are shunted into plebiscites and elected representatives regard themselves as local delegates at the auction table of public finances.

Referendums are actually the thin-end of the bigger questions: Is politics becoming more populist? Is this endangering democracy itself? Personally, I’d answer yes to both questions and produce (as evidence) a system of finances where elected regulators were overpowered by billionaires pressure groups.

The tragedy is that our political class – including the bulk of my own Labour Party – are now so steeped in dumb populism and ignorant of these arguments that they’re largely blind to the dangers of direct democracy.


cross-posted from Slugger O’Toole

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Reader comments


Switzerland appears to be an exceptionally well-run country.

Shorter OP: the little people might not vote the right way, dammit!

“Time and time again, the public don’t answer the question they’ve been asked. They use one question to send an unrelated message to an unpopular government”

I found your post interesting, but this point isn’t necessarily the case. Mads Qvortrup is an academic who studies referendums and disputes this point (you can read his book here: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ZbXseWgXElEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Dr+Mads+Qvortrup&source=bl&ots=_nlZJHYhtN&sig=zKOURhY9Rtv-QMyVr5WOLlnr5X4&hl=en&ei=pjgGTf2kHcbzsgbjy5T-CQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CCQQ6AEwAjgK#v=onepage&q&f=false)

So what evidence is there for this?

Shoter CJCJCJ:

“I’m too thick to actually address some of the concerns made by the OP, so I’ve made a straw man”

When it comes down to it, people who oppose direct democracy think the public are ignorant bigots to be saved from their own opinions by an enlightened political class.
The lack of direct democracy means that the political parties don’t really have an incentive for explaining what they’re doing and then wonder why people get the wrong end of the stick.
Genuine citizen’s initiatives (not just state driven referenda -which are more to do with getting government’s out of a political hole than involving people in the debate) gives the ownership of the process to the people. It means they have to raise a defined proportion of the electorate on a petition within a set time period, the question has to be within the competence of the authority being mandated and must be constitutional.
If you still have a problem with them perhaps we should take a vote on it?

1 cjcjcjcjcjcjc

A number of issues with this…….

1) the UK isn’t Switzerland;
2) the whole point of the Swiss experience in direct democracy is that it hasn’t been a roaring success story….;
3) bear in mind that the Swiss you consider such a glowing example didn’t give women the right to vote until anywhere between 1971 and 1989, depending on canton;
4) it’s unlikely that Swiss “success” at being exceptionally well governed (even assuming one accepts this is true) is solely or even chiefly attributable to their use of referenda

cjcjc only comes here to make stupid comments these days because he generally seems to lack the intellectual capacity to address anything these days.

Andrew Boff: When it comes down to it, people who oppose direct democracy think the public are ignorant bigots to be saved from their own opinions by an enlightened political class.

I see you ignore the points made above on how it also causes legislative paralysis and bad decisions.

I’m not against all referendums, but you could at least try and address some of the criticisms?

I don’t understand the disenfranchised argument. The low-paid ….people who don’t have the confidence to express their views or the opportunity to discuss them can still vote in the referendum can’t they? And exactly how franchised are these people in the existing system? Do you really think the current system involves politicians arguing tirelessly on behalf of people like that? How do politicians know what these people want if the people themselves don’t? How do these people know which politicians to vote for?

Whatever you answer, if you can believe elected politicians are capable of knowing what’s in these people’s best interest and acting on their behalf, why can’t you believe referendum voters can be similarly empathetic and altruistic?

California is the knockdown argument imho. Once something is “the will of the people” it becomes sacrosanct and too hard to reverse.

The UK AFAIK has only had one national referendum before.

That was in 1975, when the purpose was explained as a vote on staying in what was then the EEC, but in reality was a political device to enable Harold Wilson to hold together an increasingly fractious Labour Party.

Looking at the way in which parts of the Coalition are behaving, the thought enters that there could be future referenda which have a similar basis to the 1975 one.

Luis,

I’m not arguing that representative democracy is perfect. Just a whole lot better.

I agree that – in some cases – elected politicians don’t represent social groups that don’t vote or lobby them on particular issues. But not in all cases. And there are large swathes of legislation where MPs do seek to protect ‘unregistered opinions’.

I’m not defending the populist mode that representative democracy has slipped into in recent years – a strategy for politicians to reverse this would be a longer more awkward post to write (though it’s not un-writeable by a long chalk).

This all part of the right wings agenda to create lot of little northern Irelands all over the public services where minorities opt themselves out of the majority democratic system, ring fenced themselves into a majority and create permanent tory rule.

Many years ago a bunch of right wingers got together in California and decided to hold a ballot on whether the state could raise taxes without the support of 75% of the people. This idiocy passed and now we have ludicrous situation that to cut spending only requires 51 % of the vote but to put up taxes requires 75%. Off course, as usual in right wing land this was spun as a win for the little people. However with only 26% needed to block any tax rises the rich had pulled off the perfect coo. California is now bankrupt and the politicians can do nothing about it.

None of this is new. We had Gummers law which allowed the rich to opt out of the planning system, and build wherever they pleased. Beware more tory snake oil.

6 Sunny

Quite so. I suspect the debate about the use of referenda will feed in nicely to the bigger society/localism line being spouted by the Tories and social liberals. It’s a similar (if potentially more threatening and damaging) line of argument to the mantra about “choice” being such a good thing in education and the provision of health services.

Anyone who is not in favour of unbridled choice / marketisation / localism / bigger society etc is presented as trying to deny honest working folk their say, and of course of being part of the “enlightened politcal class” which controls the world. It’s all a load of old codswallop of course….. most ordinary people aren’t any keener to elect mayors, police authorities, planning officers, judges, dog wardens etc than they were clamouring for “choice” of hospitals or schools.

[deleted]

Terribly sorry, but that is what the OP boils down to.

Sally, do try to stop swearing.
It’s neither big nor clever.

Some intriguing points. However…

Referendums are often a framing exercise. We often don’t want either of the options we’re being asked to adopt, preferring one that isn’t on the ballot.

They hand enormous powers to newspaper proprietors and people with the finances to take one side of the argument…

Referendums privilege the weight of opinion (in numbers) over the weight of arguments…

In referendums, power is exercised without responsibility. No-one is under any pressure to obey The General Will or to ensure that a policy is actually in the long-term public interest…

These all apply to what we’ve got! That’s not an argument for referendums, of course, but if they’re really bad things it’s time to get gloomy.

I hate html.

“It’s neither big nor clever”

Well seeing as you know nothing about either that is rich.

If you love Switzerland back your bags. You won’t be missed.

17. Luis Enrique

Paul,

I appreciate that. I just wasn’t sure that ‘disenfranchisement’ deserves a place on this list of arguments against. It might be that these people you are worried feel more enfranchised with referenda. Or just that they are not significantly less enfranchised.

I’m sympathetic to your arguments, if concerned by objections of the nature of cjcjc’s. I think it’s hard to completely shrug off that accusation of elitism. Many of your objections apply to democracy per se. You write that referenda allow politicians to duck difficult questions; one might alternatively argue that difficult questions are precisely those that ought to be taken directly to the people.

@16 – This constant trollings getting tiring and offensive, perhaps you should put more effort into your opinion on the subject rather than blindly offending people.

Some good points but I don’t see how most of them apply to referenda more than to democracy in general, (and we all know the old saw on that).

As for Sally, we all know that swearing is both big and clever, why else would she do it?

It has *become* a convention in the UK that constitutional changes are made subject to a referendum.

The most obvious recent ones being to do with devolution.
(Though not “national” and only taking place in Scotland, Wales and NI – if you include the Good Friday referendum – perhaps England should have been consulted too…?

I can’t think of more complex issues than these, yet it is surely right to consult the governed on *how* and *by whom* they are governed?

In comparison to these issues, the issues on which referenda are now being proposed are quite limited and straightforward.

A referendum is a perfectly legitimate mechanism for addressing issues which effect everyone, equally. Constitutional change is one example but most issues don’t effect people equally: gay marriage, for instance, means a great deal for those who want it but doesn’t directly effect those who disapprove, so fuck ’em.

Tje tyranny of the masses is the belief that everyone’s opinion matters equally, even on matters which don’t concern them.

“gay marriage, for instance, means a great deal for those who want it but doesn’t directly effect those who disapprove, so fuck ‘em.”

Exactly.

And who decides what we will have referendums on? Who guards the guards?

20 cjcjcjcjcjcjcjcjc

I might have known you’d be one of those spouting the “why weren’t we consulted” line about devolution!

Why on earth would it have been right to consult English voters about Scottish or Welsh devolution? By all means ask the English voters if they’d like an English parliament, or the people of the NE if they want a regional assmbly…but why would it be right for the people of Lancashire to vote e.g. in the vote for “devolution” in Yorkshire?

24. Torquil MacNeil

“Why on earth would it have been right to consult English voters about Scottish or Welsh devolution?”

Because it concerns English voters, that’s why. If the vote had been on Scotland leaving he union, I would agree with you, but it wasn’t.

25. Torquil MacNeil

I can’t see any real arguments about referendums here. The article highlights some technical difficulties but nothing that cannot be dealt with. The main thrust which seems to be that the people cannot be trusted to govern more wisely than the ruling class is just a disguised call for some sort of oligarchy, and I don’ think the record of the oligarchs is much to write home about. This would all be more convincing if California was the only or a rare example of governmental incompetence, but it really isn’t.

“Terribly sorry, but that is what the OP boils down to.”

It really isn’t.

Lets use an example. It is one of the basics of survey design that you do not ask leading questions (unless you are trying to get the results to make you look good). Why? because leading questions cause some people to answer in a different manner.

Similarly in referenda the wording of the question is fought over and usually decided by impartial people. Now suppose this wasn’t the case for the AV referendum next year. The question asked is: “AV: Do you want the UK to switch to a fairer voting system” with yes/no boxes.

Suppose then Matthew Sinclair points out the obvious flaws in this wording of the question – Are you really going to reply to him with the line “shorter Matthew: people are too stupid to work out this is a referendum on AV”

Yet the argument against using leading questions really does rely on the assumption that a significant amount of people are going to be easily swayed by one to effect the result. Which is a longer way of saying too many people are thick for leading questions to be an insignificant factor.

“Because it concerns English voters, that’s why.”

In what sense?

24

The votes in various other parliamentary constituencies have an impact on me…but it doesn’t mean I should expect to be able to vote in them when I don’t live there.

Assuming that English voters had been given some say in the devolution referendum, and had voted against whilst the Scots had voted for… your solution would have been what exactly?

“Who guards the guards?”

Whoever it is, not you!

Galen101010101010101010 (see – it’s really rather silly) – because there were continuing implications for England too.

30. Torquil MacNeil

But Planeshift, as you point out, it is quite possible word referendum questions fairly and reasonably, so that is just a technical problem, not a principled objection.

You also missed the word “perhaps” in what I wrote.

I don’t have a strong view.

Independence for London Zone One – now that’s another matter!

29

And your point is what exactly..?

That these unspecified “implications” should have given the English a veto on devolution for sctoland or Wales?

33. Torquil MacNeil

“Assuming that English voters had been given some say in the devolution referendum, and had voted against whilst the Scots had voted for… your solution would have been what exactly?”

I don’t know, some political issues are difficult, but it seems to me reasonable that citizens should vote on major constitutional changes. The argument that the people will not always vote in the right way or intelligently enough or in such a way as will make life easiest for policy makers, is completely unpersuasive to my mind.

Yes.

English MP’s had a vote, did they not?

@20 It hasn’t become convention in the slightest – if constitutional changes required referenda, we’d have had one on Lords reform, the Treaty of Nice, the alterations to the Parliament Act, the Treaty of Lisbon, the establishment of a Supreme Court, Cameron’s plans for fixed-term parliaments, and countless other bits and bobs over the last decade or so.

And in any case, to argue that the British constitution (with all its delights) now includes a role for referenda is to go against the one constant in the British constitution for these last several hundred years – the supremacy of parliament.

Referenda by their very nature override the supremacy of parliament, and are therefore unconstitutional in themselves.

(Short version: Simplistic interpretations of the British constitution can be used to support just about any viewpoint – and it is *always* more complex than that.)

36. Torquil MacNeil

“Referenda by their very nature override the supremacy of parliament, and are therefore unconstitutional in themselves.”

No they don’t, they express the will of Parliament if they have to be ordered by it.

“Yes.

English MP’s had a vote, did they not?”

On the legislation to devolve they did, but part of the argument in favour of devolution was precisely to end the situation of english MP’s (or…lets be accurate – the conservative party) dictating policy in scotland and wales.

The problem is it didn’t go far enough and reversed the situation due to devolution’s failure to include regional or national government for England. Which remains the biggest issue, and one that needs to be resolved asap.

Indeed.

Referenda have to be sanctioned by Parliament first.

The Treaty of Lisbon, you say?
But we were told that didn’t affect anything…!!

🙂

33 Torquil

The citizens did vote… those resident in Scotland. I don’t see how you feel denying devolution, or for that matter independence should they so chose, on the say so of English voters would be a “good thing”?

I think it was tried with Ireland..and it didn’t really work too well in the end did it?

@36 Read the full comment, especially the bit in brackets at the end.

@38 It didn’t, in practical terms. In legal terms, however, it altered previous treaties that *did* make significant constitutional changes.

But that’s an irrelevant sidetrack designed to avoid accepting that you’re wrong about referenda having an established position in the UK constitution by reopening dead arguments.

Is not the question here whether parliament is compotent and delegated to actually decide on an important matter. I’ll bring up the generally avoided so far issue of European treaties as an example here: often the proposals mentioned are not actually known at an election, so parties and individual politicians cannot have a clear position on them (other than in general) but they clearly involve changing the locus of decision making from one parliament to another. Now you can claim that our elected representatives have the right to do this, but that claim would also say that our elected representatives have the right to transfer parlimentary powers to an unelected dictator of Europe (this is not a strawman, but rather an example of something the same process could, not might, do). Clearly therefore there is an argument about that.

Another classical example is local government. For local government to have a function, it has to be a community. If there is no feeling of community, or a stronger attachment to another level of community, then local government is less likely to succeed (see the late and unlamented West Midlands authority for a classical example). So surely the best idea is to ensure that changes to local government are approved by the people concerned.

Any argument against referenda (please note, this is the correct nominative plural for referendum; you never see anyone saying datums do you…) is purely and simply anti-democratic, in that it considers the elite (the elected – the two words are significantly similiar aren’t they?) better prepared to make decisions than those directly affected, the demos (people). After all, if your best argument is California, can I adduce Greece or Italy as good arguments against Democracy? Just because something doesn’t work well in one place does not mean it is flawed – it is the system, the interest groups, the level of education and many other factors that determine whether something works or not.

The idea that (major) constitutional change now comes with a referendum is a bit of a myth. In the Labour years, the major constitutional changes were the end of the hereditary peers (and the dominance of life peers) in the Lords, the creation of the Supreme Court and removal of law lords from the Lords and devolution. Only devolution came with referenda. The creation of an elected element to the Lords was also being pursued via parliamentary rather than referendum-based means. In terms of power going up, a referendum was offered on the EU Constitution but not on Nice, Amsterdam or Lisbon.

Of course, the changes to the Lords didn’t make a massive change in the way the political system works but they were, nonetheless, constitutional changes.

I’m not sure why this myth has grown – for example, I read it in Tony Wright’s book, ‘British Politics: A Very Short Introduction’ so I’m not sure that people with an agenda particularly are spreading it.

While I’m always suspicious of people objecting to referenda for broadly the same reasons as cjcjcj, I’d like to pick up on this objection in particular:

“They drive out the deliberative element in policymaking. The referendum question is an appeal to reflexes rather than an attempt to get a thoughtful response from the public.”

This is incorrect. Policymaking starts from a principle and its implementation into a particular set of circumstances. A referendum will supply you with a principle; the implementation follows from that. Local referenda will partially move tax levels out of the current policy making process and put them into the domain of principle. You may view taxation as part of an overall policy platform rather than a principle external to it, but that’s a philosophical objection rather than a practical one.

You’ve still got California, thought.

Watchman,

The best argument isn’t California at all. Scroll up – there are plenty more.

Elected representatives have a perfect right to stand in an election saying they will put the price of fish up, and then cut the prices once they’re in office. It’s not an attractive right to exercise and they may pay a price at the next ballot. But the idea that representatives have a ‘mandate’ for anything is a simplification, and one that writers such as Burke, Mill and just about every other theorist of representative democracy has warned against.

On the question of referenda/referendum, the OED disagrees with you:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Referenda#Terminology

I’m quite looking forward to the referendum in Wales next year which will hopefully make us another step closer to divorcing Tory England.

You’re right.

How on earth can we ever trust the numpties that make up the UK electorate with any meaningful decision to be decided by referendum.

They chose Matt Cardle ahead of Rebecca……………

pager, to give them credit though, they didn’t chose Wand Erection.

45 – given that Welsh Toryism appears to be a growing force (something acknowledged by left-wing commentators on politicalbetting) I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

given that Welsh Toryism appears to be a growing force (something acknowledged by left-wing commentators on politicalbetting) I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

That is because so many English people have moved to Wales. Torieness is an English disease.

“Referendums are often used to deal with the difficult questions that political parties daren’t address during elections. They allow politicians to park awkward or divisive questions when they’d be better offering joined-up answers. They provide a way of letting the political class off the hook”

Or you could say it gets actually decisions made on difficult issues. Politicians are so scared of making decisions these days we end up with all kinds of non-solutions to the problems of our time. At least referendums would get those decision made, and with popular support the government wouldn’t have to be so scared of the implementation.

51. Chaise Guevara

@ 50 Mark M

“Or you could say it gets actually decisions made on difficult issues. Politicians are so scared of making decisions these days we end up with all kinds of non-solutions to the problems of our time. At least referendums would get those decision made, and with popular support the government wouldn’t have to be so scared of the implementation.”

The thing is, politicians have to deal directly with the fact that policies have consequences. So if, for example, they get elected on a popularist platform of drastically cutting taxes, they know they’re in danger of feeling the backlash when public services fall apart (mutatis mutandis if they get in by promising to drastically improve services).

As the general public are not directly accountable in that way, they’re free to support policies they like without weighing the implications. In reality, some will consider the consequences and some won’t. But if we had an election on every political issue, even assuming a high turnout, I suspect you’d end up with a mandate to devolve power to local healthcare organisations while putting a stop to postcode lotteries.

If you organise the referendum to make sure that doesn’t happen, you’re back to the problem of one person being able to frame the question to suit their agenda.

52. Chaise Guevara

*51

To be clear, the public obviously DO have to suffer the consequences of bad decisions, but unlike a politician they are unlikely to ruin their career by voting the wrong way.

I agree with the last comment you will not ruin your career will you.

While I think we have a lot of work to do improving our democracy I must agree that the use of referendums is a poor idea.

I am particularly annoyed by Fat Eric’s proposals for local government, whereby a small minority can cause a referendum over “excessive” local government tax increases. Even at the District Council level this would cost tens of thousands of pounds and effectively gives a few “libertarian” twits the power to veto council policy. I do not consider such actions to be an improvement in any way, though dullards like cjcjc might.

It’s notable that Parliament stands to be further reduced by tory reforms (eg reduction in number of MPs) while the idea of referendums is floated as an improvement in democracy. Together these are difficult challenges to counter under current circumstances. We need to argue for Parliament, against referendums and against excessive Executive power if we want to improve democracy, but Parliament’s reputation is in tatters.

Referendums are nothing but a tyranny of the obsessed unless the result achieves a majority of those eligible to vote. Why not have a system where we elect a representative and if we do not like their decisions we kick them out and elect another?

@48 – You’re not wrong there. Thanks to tory Plaid people moving back to Conservatives. Fair play to the tories, they are putting up half decent candidates. More than can be said for Labour in my area – they are all rowing who will be allowed to go up for it.

Chaise (@51) – ta for that. I thought I’d included your point in my list but it seems to have got lost in the edit at some point. It’s not dissimilar to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument is it?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

Luis/Paul – I think you can make a reasonable argument for the importance of machine politicians in helping The Disenfranchised, in the sense that we’re using it here.

A politician in a deprived area who works tirelessly to bring money and jobs to his constituents and screw everything else, and who gets their vote on the basis of that implicit bargain, is likely to be far better for them than trying to direct anything according to ideology…

59. Chaise Guevara

@ 57 Paul

“Chaise (@51) – ta for that. I thought I’d included your point in my list but it seems to have got lost in the edit at some point. It’s not dissimilar to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument is it? ”

I hadn’t come across that before. Interesting. Could just as well be called “why climate change is so hard to prevent”.

To be honest, while I think the stated aim of democracy is very important, in practical terms I often think it’s less useful than the accountability and tendency towards moderation that you get with elected officials. You could say that referendums average out public opinion by mode while parliament is more likely to use the median.

I love referenda debates on left wing blogs. The left wing view always sounds so close to an objection to democracy in general.

@52 but if the public decides, they have to live with the consequences of whatever decision is made. Politicians, for the most part, don’t. Pretty much all they have to worry about is their career.

And this is the problem – as much as we have a democracy, the best way for a politician to further his career is to do what his/her whips tell them. Be a good little lap dog, and you will be rewarded with a safe seat from which the public practically cannot vote you out (Hazel Blears in Salford & Eccles is a pretty good example).

Call me idealist, but I’d rather decisions were being made by people who had to actually live with the consequences of them than people who’s sole concern is how to further their political career.

* They hand enormous powers to newspaper proprietors and people with the finances to take one side of the argument. It also hands the reins of government over to unelected and well-heeled pressure groups.

* Strong personalities, or celebrities whose popularity in no way derives from their suitability to make big decisions often have an undue bearing upon the outcome. It is more important to have people with convening power on your team than to have good arguments.

An excellent article in my opinion. Referendums are nothing more than a convenient tool of democracy for inept governments and useless local authorities. Local referendums will prove my point that voting in local elections is pointless.

To all the “clever” folk saying that arguments against referenda could also be used against democracy:

Well, dur…

Of course they could. In exactly the same way that arguments in favour of free markets or small government could be used to support anarchy.

But to do so would be stupid.

To extrapolate an opposition to democracy as a whole from an aversion to one particular form of it is to be willfully fatuous – I may as well claim that the Tory party is opposed to democracy because it’s going to campaign against voting reform.

In fact, this whole line of argument only goes to underline the point that when it comes to the artificial binary choices of a referendum, arguments are going to end up boiled down to populist bullshit with no real bearing on the issues.

“That is because so many English people have moved to Wales. Torieness is an English disease.”

Sally, this is just bollocks and if I may say so typical of the english commentary on wales that pretty much ignores everything that goes on here and imposes an ideological explanation on everything (see the numeorus ill informed comments on commuting that pretty much ignored the geography of south wales). If anything, its been the lib dems who benefited from english immigration, as a few old timers in Plaid Cymru still blame Simon Thomas losing Ceredigion on english students in aberystwyth being too thick to realise Plaid were also against the Iraq war. They are wrong of course, just as you are wrong about the success of the welsh conservatives being down to english people moving into wales.

Its more the case that there are several reasons behind the welsh conservatives doing well, many of which can be summarised in two words; Nick Bourne. Basically he has done an excellent job in rebuilding his party, and has done so by being a constructive opposition, turning the conservatives into a pro-devolution party who are willing to make the assembly work. He also distanced himself from the london tories, and developed a distinctive welsh flavour of conservativism. Outside of that, one of the successes of devolution has been the development of a welsh business and professional class – in particular in cardiff. (note; nothing to do with english immigration this – merely that now that we don’t have major employers in many areas of wales, there has been a slow and growing development of small businesses).

Added to this is the fact many of the welsh tory MPs have been local people who have developed a local reputation and personal support (some of them even speak welsh….). Contrasted with parachuted new labour candidates and you can begin to see why the welsh conservatives brought themselves back from the dead.

But lets not go too far; the centre ground of welsh politics remains firmly to the left of the centre ground of southern england – we are still talking about a significantly different peak of the curve really. The recent success of the conservatives here is more to do with it becomming a distinctive local conservativism than a general shift in favour of free market politics, and it’s this that makes further devolution necessary (and the creation of devolved government in england)

65. Chaise Guevara

@ 60 Praguetory

“I love referenda debates on left wing blogs. The left wing view always sounds so close to an objection to democracy in general.”

Ah. You see, that’s what’ll happen if you don’t engage with the issues and judge the article by its title.

Re: All of this ‘typical elitist fear of us pwoles’ type comments from the bloggertarian trolls that lurk here:

Referendums are the most dysfunctional and ineffective way of getting more participation in popular decisionmaking. So why do right-wing libertarians advocate these crude plebiscites? Anyone who wants *more* effective and inclusive participation would come back with a defence of, say, participatory budgeting. Or citizens juries. Or co-design and co-creation. Or worker co-ops. Or consumer co-ops. Or mutual finance. Or peer-to-peer models.

All of that would illustrate an interest in breaking the monopoly of those awful elites (btw, isn’t it quaint that some people *still* imagine elected politicians are the ‘elites’?).

Referendum are preferred simply because they’re a sure road to a world of gated communities and tea-party populism.

“why do right-wing libertarians advocate these crude plebiscites?”

I don’t think they do. They advocate them on issues they think they would win such as europe (in fairness, most people only advocate them for issues where they think they would win).

I think an additional problem you haven’t mentioned is essentially how do you interpret the result. For example take the AV referendum. If the vote is yes, does that mean “yes to AV” or “Yes, we want to change the system, and anything is better than FPTP, but if you had asked us, we may have chosen a different replacemen”. If the vote is no, does that mean “No, AV is crap. Put a better system in place and we may choose that one”, or “No, FPTP is wonderful”.

Similarly, imagine one on EU membership. Does a vote of yes mean “yes, the EU is wonderful, carry on the way you are, and give more powers to brussels”, or “yes, on the whole we think it’s a good thing, but we don’t want more powers transfered and have concerns over some aspects of it”?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why local and national referendums are a really bad idea http://bit.ly/h6vmZW

  2. paulstpancras

    RT @libcon: Why local and national referendums are a really bad idea http://bit.ly/h6vmZW

  3. Thomas O Smith

    RT @libcon Why local and national referendums are a really bad idea http://bit.ly/h6vmZW <because they take power from Elites? #libertarian

  4. Paul Evans

    My Slugger piece on referendums has been cross-posted on @libcon – here: http://bit.ly/h6vmZW

  5. Martin Gowans

    RT @libcon: Why local and national referendums are a really bad idea http://bit.ly/h6vmZW

  6. Greg Sheppard

    Good points mainly. Also rise and rise of m rimmer RT @libcon Why local and national referendums are a really bad idea http://bit.ly/h6vmZW

  7. Paul Jakma

    Interesting piece by Paul Evans in LibCon on downsides of referendums: http://bit.ly/dUIb2E

  8. Spir.Sotiropoulou

    RT @libcon: Why local and national referendums are a really bad idea http://bit.ly/h6vmZW

  9. Martell Thornton

    Why local and national referendums are a really bad idea | Liberal …: California is now bankrupt and the polit… http://bit.ly/fmHIE7

  10. “In a democracy, the majority is to be respected, but not tyranny of the majority” « Dr Ko Ko Gyi’s Blog

    […] Why local and national referendums are a really bad idea (liberalconspiracy.org) […]

  11. Chris Wallace

    @OllyNeville Here's a good summary – http://t.co/uOVfREG. Groups running campaigns can lie and mislead, as the AV campaign showed.

  12. The problem with e-petitions (and fuel price mechanisms)… « Slugger O'Toole

    […] Paul has noted of referenda elsewhere they are also framing exercises which exclude important […]





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