Debating Referendums


Have I seen this picture somewhere before?

Last week we wrote a piece decrying the Government’s ludicrous idea of giving local residents the power to call referenda but then not make the result of that referendum binding. As mentioned, this is sort of the equivalent of giving people money to go out and buy as many cakes as they want but then not letting them eat any of them.

Flippin ridiculous!

However, the twitter response to our post was not about the idiocy of the Government’s response but actually about referenda themselves. One of our favourite critics, Paul Evans was particularly exorcised, signing off with one of my favourite debate enders ever:

Direct Democracy is just poison.

It was sort of hard to know what to say to that really; so I bottled out and pledged to spend a bit of my weekend mulling why exactly I was defending referendums and whether the plural or referendum was referendums or referenda. (Paul got me on that one too!)

Before I continue I should urge you to read Paul’s piece on why Direct Democracy is a really bad idea. It’s available here and lays out, in more detail than I’d ever manage, the reasons that referendums are not a good idea.

Rather than refute each of Paul’s points, which would be pretty dull and often not possible due to the quality of some of his arguments, I decided to try and develop a coherent vision of when and why referendums might be a good thing. It was a lot more tricky than I originally thought.

We should not get caught up on the principle of the issue but it is worth saying that it is profoundly democratic to let people have an un-weighted one person one vote on an issue that directly affects them.

As Paul points out the problem here is that the way we set up referendums in this country. In general we usually set them up for a limited number of questions and usually one where all nuance is stripped out of the debate. The referendum regarding the voting system is a recent and prime example.

However, just because we mis-used a referendum to decide our electoral system does not mean the whole system is bad; or does it?

So, why might referendums be a good idea in local government? In my view it is for exactly that reason; the sheer localness of the decision making. The problem with a lot of referendums is that they rely on people voting on something which does not have a direct impact on them and yet which they might have an opinion on. In other words, people will vote but don’t really care what they are voting about but because the outcome of these decisions does not have a DIRECT impact on them. In these circumstances why would direct democracy be appropriate?

Think back to referendums held in this country and think about how much they directly impacted on your life? Joining the EU? Devolution in Scotland and Wales? Voting system? As Paul would probably say; these are totally arbitrary decisions and more importantly they are not issues the directly impact people in their daily lives. The same applies to referendums held over council tax levels; where the issue is simply too abstract to be of any value and any debate that underpins this discussion is then lost.

However, think of the sort of issues that really affect your day to day life; who runs the community centre in your village; what local highways money should be spent on; whether a planning application in a discrete area should go ahead etc. Or you could go further and allow a discrete group of service users to vote on the way their service is designed or provided.

Here, direct democracy is entirely appropriate. If we’re going to allow community groups to take over council assets surely we need to be certain that the rest of the population consents to this happening? And if we’re going to spend a limited amount of money on roads (or indeed any other capital project) why not let the population decide how it should be spent?

The problem is that all of these situations rely on identifying a discrete group of people to vote and a discrete issue that we identify as affecting them directly. In some small villages this is possible and even on some council estates but try doing that in inner city Birmingham!

Personally, I doubt that we would ever be in a position to use direct democracy responsibly, although I do think it could be a valuable part of democratic tool-kit, but overall perhaps Paul was right and I should learn to think first before starting a debate on twitter.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at:welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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4 Comments on “Debating Referendums”

  1. localgov Says:

    I have to say, starting a debate is never the wrong thing to do; it’s refusing to see the other points of view properly, regardless of whether or not one agrees with them, that’s wrong.

    Clearly, you don’t fall into that trap here!


  2. A couple of things. Firstly, I think you’re being over-apologetic here – I take the point that offering a referendum and then not making it binding just further discredits an already wretched way of making decisions.

    Secondly, let me add a bit of nuance to that ‘direct democracy = poison’ line (it was twitter, after all – it doesn’t do nuance).

    More participation in decisionmaking can only be a good thing. Co-design, advisory participatory budgeting, the crowdsourcing of intelligence or judgement by a range of means. A more conversational polity where issues are debated effectively according to enlightenment standards is essential to any good governance (something that media reform will help more than any referendum). After all, ‘voting’ and ‘democracy’ are not the same thing (though they’re often conflated).

    We already gauge public opinion in an informal way with opinion polling and focus grouping – usually a more accurate guide to public opinion than a vote in which only a small number of people participate with no way of weighting their vote for strength of feeling.

    There’s a wealth of public research into attitudes to particular issues and calling a public vote on things often gives us a less accurate snapshot.

    On the ‘voting on planning issues’, I’d suggest that ‘imbyism’ would change the landscape in a genuinely revolutionary and democratic way – a lot more than any direct vote can.

    http://blog.localdemocracy.org.uk/2010/09/02/imbyism/

    I could go on (again) at length about why direct unweighed ballots actually reflect the General Will less accurately than elected councillors who will need to face re-election, but being a lefty, I’ll confine myself to one key point:

    Think about where the demands for direct democacy it come from? Anti-EU. Douglas Carswell. The tea-party in the US. Switzerland. It’s all about giving more power to the people who already have a degree of participation in government. Single mothers working a nightshift and caring for an elderly relative are a good deal less likely to vote than, say, Jimmy.

    There’s a huge class bias in participation. It’s largely a middle class activity. People come out to express views more when they own property or feel strongly about it. The class-bias that is already show in voter-turnout is amplified in referendums. The outcomes are usually reactionary and it supports a less collective view of the state – one where our taxes are a subscription that we expect to receive value-for-money from in a way that is commensurate with – say – gym membership.

    Referendums are often a way of trumping redistributive politics.


  3. […] We Love Local Government A blog looking sideways at life in local government « Debating Referendums […]

  4. LG Worker Says:

    “A discrite group of service users” – Would they be like Councillors?


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