mnmlist: Say ‘No!’ to Referenda

The conventional wisdom holds that when change of constitutional significance is being proposed then that change must be put to a referendum. Indeed, some have argued that this has become a constitutional convention. What could be more democratic, the conventional wisdom runs, than for the people to decide on important matters. The Labour Party seems particularly keen to accept this argument. All the referendums that have taken place at a national or regional level have taken place during periods of Labour government. Today, Labour is arguing that the government’s plans for House of Lords reform should be put to to a referendum, and there is informed speculation that Labour will include an ‘in-out’ referendum on our EU membership in its next manifesto.

I argue that the conventional wisdom is wrong, anti-democratic, and dangerous for progressive politics by putting power in the hands of reactionary forces.

To begin at the beginning, we might ask just how old this constitutional convention is for, surely, such a settled view must have some age to it. Well, indeed it does, and it turns out that it is just about approaching middle age. The first national referendum in this country took place on 5 June 1975 and so this particular constitutional convention has yet to see its fortieth birthday. Hardly magna carta or the Glorious Revolution then, is it?

It should also be noted that the referendum itself was not the consequence of some great flowering of democratic principle. Rather, Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister found the device useful as a way of defusing the splits which existed in his cabinet on Britain’s membership of the EEC as it then was. So, somehow, a tactical device to keep the Labour Party together has morphed into a constitutional convention.

OK, so even if this ‘convention’ came about by chance, it is surely more democratic to put important constitutional questions to the people as a whole. I argue that is not the case for four reasons.

First, what is so special about constitutional questions that require a referendum? We have had plenty of constitutional change without referendums. Extension of the franchise, limiting the powers of the Lords, the creation of life peers and several Europe related treaties all happened without referendums. Such questions of institutional reform, by and by, do not excite the public interest and are rarely the issues that voters report as important to them. If part of the justification for referenda is that they are more democratic then, surely, the case for putting issues that voters say are important to them to a referendum is stronger. So we could, therefore, have held referenda on the Iraq war and on the present government’s economic policy and NHS reform plans rather than a minor tweak to the voting system or a small change to the composition of the House of Lords to which the reaction of voters is a general ‘Meh.’ Interestingly, one change of constitutional importance – the reduction in the size of the House of Commons passed by the present government – was not put to a referendum. Some conventions, it seems, have get out clauses.

Second, once put to a referendum, an issue tends to become regarded as ‘settled’ and unlikely to figure on the political agenda for a considerable period of time. To take the AV referendum as an example, surely only the most enthusiastic supporter of PR after consuming more than the Chief Medical Officer’s recommended weekly alcohol limit in a single session, thinks that PR is getting back on the agenda for at least a couple of parliaments.

And yet PR wasn’t even an option in that referendum. The choice was AV or first past the post. A committed, but naive, supporter of PR could in all conscience vote against AV because it is not a proportional system. Yet the result has been assumed to be a rejection of all electoral reform not just the one that was on the ballot. We can be certain that the same would happen with Lords reform. If I want a 100% elected second chamber elected every five years then, surely, I must vote against the government’s plan for 15 year terms and 80% elected proposal. But I know that if the referendum is lost then Lords reform too, is off the agenda.

So a referendum is undemocratic in part because the option on the ballot is taken as a proxy for all other possible alternatives for reform. Reject one, and all are rejected even where there is support for reform.

Third, most voters tend not to be that interested in the issues – EU membership apart – that are put to referendum. Levels of knowledge about the issue also tends to be low. A referendum may be democratic in a Rousseau-inspired utopia where, as a rational, enlightened people we seek honestly to establish the General Will, but in our society most people do not understand complex constitutional questions and care about them even less. That leaves the decision makers as the fanatics on both sides. Alternatively, people use the referendum, ostensibly on issue X, to ‘send a message’ about a wholly unrelated issue whether that be as an opinion poll on the government as a whole or to smack the Liberals for being beastly on tuition fees. In short, many people do not vote on the basis of the question on the ballot. How then can the result claim democratic legitimacy?

Finally, a referendum gives power to the unelected media barons to use their power to get their reactionary way and to usurp that of we the people as constituted in parliament. Lined up either with or against them are the pressure groups. In a referendum it is money that talks. Although there are limits on how much each side can spend, printing costs of national newspapers aren’t included. Which side they support therefore gets a huge advantage.

Allied to this is the sad fact that negative campaigning using falsehood, half-truths and distortions works. Whatever the merits of a particular case, the two miseries of cost and fear can usually be mobilised to defeat hope and reason. The AV referendum nationally and the recent local referendum in Nottingham on the idea of an elected mayor can hardly be said to be poster boys for a democratic ideal.

It is better, surely, that we reject the notion that has steadily gained ground in recent years that parliament is separate from the people, acts against the people and does things to the people and, instead, remember that parliament is we the people in institutional form properly and democratically constituted from among us and is both us, and accountable to us. When parliament acts it is we too who act. Let us put our trust in ourselves in parliament and not in Mr Murdoch in Wapping.

Dr. Adam Spencer (Vice Chair, Nottinghamshire Fabian Society)

Image: Voters (Håkan Dahlström) / CC BY 2.0