A no vote for referendums

Welcome back to the referendum season! Any mention of Europe and constitution in the same sentence produces an immediate knee jerk demand for a referendum. "We can't let these MPs decide for us. We must take power into our own hands. This is a fundamental constitutional issue. British sovereignty is at stake." The referendum has all the appearance of democracy but very little of its reality. The arguments for it don't stand up to cross examination.

Historically the referendum has been the tool of the demagogue. Both the Napoleons, Hitler and de Gaulle all used the referendum and the plebiscite to gain the support of the public over the heads of elected parliamentarians. When they believed that the legislature would not support a key policy, they put the issue directly to the public. And they usually won.

Prime Ministers also use referendums to paper over splits in their parties. In 1975 Harold Wilson was faced with an unbridgeable division in the Labour party over Europe. The government recognised that it was impossible to push through any distinct policy on Europe but Wilson was under severe pressure to act. The result - a referendum in which over two-thirds of those who voted, but only just over two in five of the electorate, voted to stay in the European Economic Community. It solved Wilson's problem but did little to enhance the concept of "direct democracy."

That 1975 referendum on Europe demonstrated all the problems of referendums. The government chose the question, the government chose the timing and the government spent the money. All are significant in manipulating the result. The question has to be simple, however complex the issue, and is never neutral. In 1975 the question put was "Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community?" Opinion poll research afterwards suggested that this gave the government an 8.6% advantage over a question as to whether or not the UK should "come out" of the EEC. Such are the benefits of the positive over the negative!

The timing was, of course, chosen to be the most advantageous for the government. How could it have been otherwise when many of the voters at a referendum are voting on party lines or on the government's performance? To lose a referendum inevitably harms the government party's later electoral chances. For this reason also it is hardly surprising that vast sums of government money are expended to achieve the desired result. Faced with this in 1975, the opponents of European union cried "foul", finding it difficult to understand why a big pre-referendum poll lead for the antis became a large majority for the pros.

Furthermore it did not resolve the European issue. On the contrary, far from accepting that this vote had settled the fundamental issue of EEC membership and its consequences, the Eurosceptics continue to clamour for votes on each successive stage of European unity. One referendum inevitably gives rise to demands for others.

Or take the referendums over devolution to Scotland and Wales. The 1979 attempt failed, not because Scots who voted were against devolution - they voted 52% to 48% in favour - but because fewer than 40% of the electorate had voted in favour! A clause requiring this threshold had been inserted in the Bill by George Cunningham, a Scot who was then a Labour MP in London. The pro-devolution vote at the 1997 referendums would have overcome the 40% barrier in Scotland, but not in Wales. Such votes have a further artificiality: why should non Scots or non Welsh citizens living in those countries have a vote on devolution whereas Scots and Welsh in England or elsewhere did not?

Every referendum damages the crucial concept of parliamentary democracy. A key part of the art of politics is how to enact unpopular measures which are necessary for the well being of the public. The whole concept of the mandate exists to enable those elected to have time to prove the validity of their judgement. Difficult decisions can be made early on in a five year parliament in the expectation that they will be seen to be justified when the time comes to renew that mandate. Once the voters can have recourse to the referendum, seen at its worst in California where it can be forced by obtaining petition signatures equivalent to 5% of the total vote, it becomes virtually impossible to take crucial decisions that require time to show their value.

When we vote we, in effect, authorise an individual to deputise for us, and to take decisions for us, for a set period of time - a maximum of five years in the UK. In some countries, including France and Russia, their elected representatives are actually called "Deputies" rather than Members of Parliament, in order to keep this idea in the minds of both the governors and the governed. It is important to enhance the concept rather than undermine it.

We need better politics and politicians, and we will not get them by diminishing their role and their responsibility. Even more, we need a greater emphasis on the philosophies that underpin political parties so that the voter has a much better idea of how his or her MP will approach the issues than concern them and which may well arrive before the next election. It will take a bit more effort on the part of the electors and the elected but it will be well worth it - and it will reduce the demand for the false democracy of the referendum.

1 April 2004