Why referendums should be banned

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.

There is little evidence that referendums make a vote 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 discussion of these shortcomings. It’s an odd change for a constitutionally conservative place to have accepted.

It is only during the last twenty years or so that they have ceased to be seen as a dangerous continental invention – the tools of demagogues. Germany has wisely vetoed the use of such ballots having seen how the Nazis made such a creative use of them.

So much has changed. 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 (not all) 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 dare not 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, you polarise 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. As Larry Elliot put it a while ago in reference to puny attempts to rein the finance sector in….

“…the exiguous nature of current reform proposals is explained by the institutional capture of governments by the investment banks, the world’s most powerful lobbying groups.”

More than any other legislation that the Con/Dems are putting before us today, these moves to normalise referendums are the most far-reaching, pernicious and regressive. 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.

(update: I’ve just realised I neglected to credit Anthony of  The Democratic Society for some comments and pointers he gave me writing this).

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