Where I think about whether referenda are ever a good idea…

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This afternoon in parliament MPs will be debating whether to offer the British people a referendum on our future in the European Union. There’s minimal chance of the pro-referendum group winning the vote, and if they did it wouldn’t necessarily be binding on the current government, so the debate itself is only really interesting to political nerds of the highest order, who can work themselves into a state of geek-frenzy debating whether the number of votes against the party line should be viewed by the respective leaders as an irrelevance, an irritant or an actual embarrassment.

The whole debate does raise a bigger question though. Are referenda themselves a good idea? Referenda – a single vote on a single issue – can in many ways be seen as the purest form of democracy. There’s a decision to be made. People vote. The majority view wins the day. Everyone has a chance to have a say, and everyone’s vote is weighted equally.

But I have some reservations. The UK is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. We have opted for a system whereby we all go out on an appointed day and pick people to represent us. We then get periodic opportunities to get back together and pick someone new, just in case the first one turned out to be a useless, unimaginative, expenses-fiddling, faceless party drone. To switch between one form of democracy and another seems problematic, and it seems problematic for reasons. Those reasons are fourfold.

1. MPs get to avoid responsibility

And this is probably the main thing that drives governments to have referenda in the first instance. It’s not that they genuinely can’t decide. It’s that deciding is difficult and any decision will be unpopular with someone. A referendum means that Prime Minsters and cabinets don’t have to be responsible for the decision. In 1975 Harold Wilson supported continued UK EEC membership, but much of his cabinet and his wider party disagreed. The referendum saved them from having to make a decision, allowed Wilson to placate his anti-European colleagues and also strengthen his own position by demonstrating public support for his stance. Britain was already in the EEC, so nothing was actually changed by the exercise. Similiarly with this year’s AV referendum, David Cameron needed to form a coalition, but knew that electoral reform was a dealbreaker for both sides. Agreeing to a referendum parks the issue over there somewhere, where it’s no-one’s actual responsibility.

2. The public don’t have to take responsibility

There are a few constants in political opinion. Generally we would like better quality services at lower costs. If you ran a referendum on the question “Would you like to pay less tax?” the answer would be a clear “Oh yes!” Similarly if you asked “Would you like to wait less time for a hospital appointment/be able to send your kids to a better school/have your bins emptied every twenty minutes?” the answer would also be “Yes.” If you’re a member of the public your ideas and wants do not have to be consistent. If you’re the government you have to make the sums add up. If you want to offer more in one area, you need to either spend more across the board or spend less on something else. Voting in a referendum, simpy putting a tick in a box for YES or NO on a single  issue, you don’t have to worry about the knock-on effects. That potentially makes for really bad policy.

3. What question do you ask?

The current debate about an EU-referendum gives us a really good example of this problem. The proposal is for a three question referendum with options to: a) Stay in the EU as we are at present, b) withdraw from the EU or c) renegotiate our settlement with Europe. It’s hard to know where to start with the wrongness of that approach. Firstly, if it’s a three option referendum it’s perfectly possible that no option will see a majority, in which case you’ve really not moved forward. Secondly, what do the options mean – if you don’t really want to be part of a formal political union but do see some advantages to a broad free trade agreement, do you vote b) or c)? If you are actually a big fan of the whole united Europe concept and would like to see more integration and greater political control from the centre, then logically you should vote c), as at no point is a specified what the aim of a renegotiation would be. To hold a referendum the issue has to be stripped down to ideally two choices – it has to be black or white, no complexity, no debate, no qualifications or amendments. Again, I would suggest, over simplifying makes bad policy.

4. Where’s the scrutiny?

Parliamentary democracy is built on scrutiny. It’s the less sexy, more workmanlike element of being an MP. It’s all the select committee processes and debates on multiple amendments to bills, which is designed to mean that by the time laws are passed the majority of the inconsistencies and practical difficulties have been identified and amendments made to strengthen the bill. Referenda take out the potential for scrutiny. The issue has been pared down to a simple Yes or No and all the complications and debate is stripped away. Simplicity wins over accuracy.

So there are my four reasons that I’m deeply dubious about the usefulness of referenda in a Parliamentary democracy. Sorry it wasn’t particularly amusing. I promise I shall try to find something funny for my next post, and knock all these political musings on the head. I can’t imagine they’re doing anyone any good.

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3 thoughts on “Where I think about whether referenda are ever a good idea…

    John said:
    October 24, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    I propose a budget referendum where the government asks everyone how much should be spent on military, education, health, welfare, community, infrastructure, loan repayments and ‘other’. Everyone can put in a percentage in each box and the gov take the average.

    Referendum in my eyes is only useful where there isn’t a yes or no answer. If there is a yes or no answer the government will only call it if they know they’ll get the result they want – so it’s pointless. Just an illusion of free will. If it is more open to different results I think it is at least democratic.

    Sorry I know nothing about politics but wanted to comment as I thought it was an interesting blog post 😎

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      alisonmay responded:
      October 24, 2011 at 3:45 pm

      Glad you found it interesting!

      I actually think you propose an interesting idea. When you move away from the single question referendum, I think direct democracy can be useful, but you have to find ways of making people think about the implications of their choices, and ensuring that people have enough information to make informed choices. So long as you could make the ‘informing the voters’ side of the equation work, your suggestion could throw up some interesting results and give people a greater sense of responsibility for their society/community.

      In allocating parts of local authority budgets, participatory budgeting is very much in vogue at the moment in the UK. There’s more about that here:http://www.participatorybudgeting.org.uk/ but the essential idea is that the community where money is to be spent participates in decided how money is spent. Most good models for participatory budgeting require people to order or score multiple options rather than a simple yes/no, which is moving closer to your idea and away from the over-simplified traditional referendum.

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    In which I think about Europe | alisonmay said:
    May 22, 2013 at 8:36 am

    […] I’m not generally in favour of referenda (as I explained all the way back here). It’s a wariness linked to my general slight unease with the whole democracy thing. […]

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