Why referendums should be banned

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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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  • Reader

    Paul – most of your objections to the referendum work just as well as arguments against elections. Don’t you trust the electorate?

  • http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com Paul Evans

    I’m happy to offer at least as many arguments in defence of representative democracy.

  • Turgon

    Paul

    Whatever the merits of this piece (and it has much merit) can I point out this line: “This is the equivalent of being offered a trial-by-combat to decide who should be awarded a peace prize.”

    I think it is brilliant: opne of the best turns of phrase I have seen on slugger. I will undoubtedly steal it.

  • Johnny Boy

    Good post Paul, the elecorate are the fatal flaw of democracy, but I think Churchill commented “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”

  • andnowwhat

    Very True Johnny. Examples range from Dubbya to the present coalition in the UK to the scary prosect of St Sarah (Palin) becoming president.

    There was an interesting article recently by Rod Liddle regarding the publics opinions as per questionaires on toics such as the death penalty. I cannot remember the precise topics of hand but I do remember the gist of it which was, as I am sure you can anticipate, a rather sad reflection on society and no way to govern any nation.

    As for the referendum topic. Well, the republic showed hoe you do it. You make a proposal and when they turn it down, you propose it again. The important thing is to fill the media, the second time around, with nonsense that suggest those who reject the proposal are a bunch of inward looking, ignorant, xenophobic backwoods people.

  • http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com Paul Evans

    Turgon,

    *blush*

    Johnny,

    Agreed – I’m ridiculously keen on *representative* democracy. The thing is, direct democracy lacks a lot of the essential features of a democracy. If you look at the enlightenment writers who saw democracy as an untried experiment, their bottom line (particularly in Burke’s case) was ‘representative democracy is OK, but direct democracy will lead to a tyranny of idiots and representative democracy looks like it has a tendency to evolve into direct democracy’ (paraphrasing, obviously).

    Whatever the other arguments for democracy, if it leads to government that isn’t as fair or competent as a despotic alternative, we’d probably all prefer despotism. Indeed, the Russian experiment of ‘democracy’ in the 1990s made that point very well.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “greater powers in blocking developments often imposed by local planning authorities without regard to the feelings of communities”

    A few years ago a developer submitted plans A and B for housing developments on a heritage site in Portballintrae between Beach Road and the foreshore. The planning service said no and A and B were submitted separately to PACNI. After sustained public lobbying PACNI agreed to a joint inquiry. The developer brought in one of England’s top planning QCs, the Planning Service brought in a QC with no experience in planning issues, so I’m told, and the local residents group (PRA) had its QC; it was a bit of a mismatch. Planning Service put up very little fight, indeed it had difficulty deciding who would answer questions posed by the other QCs. PRA, through dogged persistence, persuaded the PACNI Commissioner to reject the appeals.

    The developer then submitted a modified version of A and this was passed by the Planning Service and acquiesced to by Coleraine Borough Council. The latter two appeared to have paid little heed to the PACNI report. Within the past few days another part of the heritage site has been bulldozed.

    There currently appears to be a disconnect between the Planning Service and PACNI and this works to the disadvantage of a local community group with limited financial resources.

  • http://nicentreright.wordpress.com/ Seymour Major

    Paul,

    You have just unwittingly advocated abolition of section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This proposal could yet go down as the most brilliant gambit of unionism. You lock Northern Ireland into the UK in perpetuity under the pretext that a referendum is bad for democracy.

    All right, I am only joking.

    I actually agree with a lot of the points made but like Reader, I can a wider debate emerging about the extent of the powers that a Government should be allowed to have. In many respects, you could argue that democracy has been a failure and that certain government powers should be curtailed which might only be used with a referendum or (say) 75% of the votes of both houses of Parliament. One power which might be curtailed is a restriction on how much a Government is allowed to borrow.

    Unfortunately, the electorate is not sufficiently sophisticated to take account of National balance sheets. Show an economic graph to the average voter and you will bore the ballot paper out of their hand.

    Look at the history of Government borrowing since the war and a picture of irresponsibility emerges. When the economy is growing strongly, the Government should be generating a surplus of exchequer receipts and paying back National debt. There is no doubt that some Governments (not all) have been guilty of squandering and overspending. .

    It needs to be said that some Conservative Administrations (eg 1970-74) have acted irresponsibily. I say that in the hope that this observation is treated as non-partisan. If it is not, the point will sadly be lost.

  • http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com Paul Evans

    Seymour,

    In all seriousness, I decided not to frame this post in terms of ‘partition should be subject to a referendum’ but I’m sort-of glad that it’s come up.

    Partition is, IMHO, an issue that should permanently be on the table and subject to The General Will. If the people of Ireland want the border removed, it should go. For now, let’s not even nitpick about what that sentence means – I’m just saying that partition should be subject to a democratic decision (to my mind, an extremely small-r republican viewpoint!)

    I just don’t think that a referendum will tell you what the people of Ireland want for the reasons I’ve outlined here.

    This is not to say that there isn’t a form of plebiscite that couldn’t answer this question. Participatory budgeting, for instance, takes ‘consultation’ to new levels. At the moment, politicians use focus groups privately and cynically to shape their offerings and there are other concepts such as ‘citizens juries’.

    There’s a very interesting study that could be written entitled ‘how could the people of Ireland be asked about partition in a way that is fair and inclusive’. I’d accept that ‘representative democracy’ will always leave the suspicion that issues are being ducked and that other ways should be sought. But the idea that a 50%+1 vote to remove/keep the border on a given day will provide a workable answer that everyone will accept….. it doesn’t bear thinking about.

  • Johnny Boy

    I think there is an argument that going to the country less would encourage better fiscal management by the government. Decisions that put the breaks on growth in boom times are needed but they are not vote winners, and there is always an election around the corner.

  • iniref

    Some of your antipathy is directed towards “authority plebiscites”, referenda imposed “from above”. Often these have been abused and in general do little to improve the quality of governance and democracy. See for instance the UK referendum about Europe (1975) or the (non-) referendum an the EU constitution.

    Most serious advocates of direct democracy do not recommend “authority plebiscites” but propose to blend some citizen-led procedures with the prevailing system of parties, parliaments and councils. As a way to govern ourselves, just having a vote once every five or so years is not very effective. Many public issues, some major, are omitted from election campaigns and manifestos. When new events and circumstances crop up, the “demos”, the electorate should — many argue — possess the ability to intervene effectively in public policy both at local and state levels. The citizens’ proposition enables good ideas to be debated and go to referendum; the veto-referendum allows bad or unwanted government policy to be blocked.

    See more about citizen-led democracy at http://www.iniref.org/

  • http://modies.blogspot.com Shuggy

    Could expand on a couple of points you’ve touched on here:

    I think there’s one or two countries where there is a mechanism for the legislature to generate referendums but usually it is the prerogative of the government and they only hold them when they think they can win them.

    Even when they think they can win them and don’t, they go back and ask again in a sightly different form until they get the answer they want., as was the case with Ireland and the EU.

    They are a populist tool used by executives to manufacture consent. Arguably Loius Napoleon III was the prototype here. Without getting into the thesis that Bonapartism was the precusor to fascism, it’s perhaps worth remarking that the German constitution bans referendums for a reason.

  • PJ Maybe

    Perhaps we should put this contention to a vote?

  • Alias

    The elected political class are the best illustration possible of why the people cannot be trusted to make good decisions in the national interest and also the best illustration possible of why the political class cannot be trusted to make those decisions either.

    That will remain the case until the public are properly educated about what functions elected officials are required to perform and what qualities are required to perform those functions.

    Sadly the public seem determined to undermine democracy by unrelentingly elected unmitigated muppets to public office.

  • joeCanuck

    The question asked is of utmost importance so whoever gets to write it has a huge advantage.
    Are you in favour of motherhood and apple pie?

  • http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com Paul Evans

    Alias,

    I’d still rank elected representatives as being better at decision making than the more direct route. Not perfect, but better.

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    I’ve lived through the odd referendum. I’m trying to recall one in which either the proposition was not skewed, or the debate thereon straight.

    In the UK referendums cannot be constitutionally binding (if only because there is no written constitution): what is the point of asking, if there is no obligation to abide by the decision?

    Nor are they necessarily “popular”: the latest in England, for the London mayor (Heaven help us: look at what we got) and the GLA, attracted just a 34% turn-out. Even when the powers-that-be resorted to a postal referendum for the North-East devolution, only 48% voted (and were 78% against, which scuppered any re-run elsewhere).

    “Local option” to close the pubs anyone? “Bring back hanging and flogging”?

    Can of worms stuff, indeed.

  • Greenflag

    @ alias ,

    ‘Sadly the public seem determined to undermine democracy by unrelentingly elected unmitigated muppets to public office.’

    We better elect a new people then ?

    The problem is not referenda per se but what issues should merit a referendum . Countries with a written constitution have an easier time of it-the issues are decided for them.

    Would the UK have joined the EEC had they had a referendum ?

    Would the Republic have had a one party state /government like NI (1920 to 1972) had De Valera’s FPTP proposal not been defeated in 1959 and 1968 ? .

    A referendum in NI on the border issue with a 75% turn out could be won/lost by those favouring/ a UI or Union – 51% to 49% with 38% of the total electorate vote .

    On the other hand if it was determined that an 80% minimum voter turnout was required to validate any referendum result then unionists could simply stay at home and not bother to vote and the status quo would never change .

    Referenda have been used in the Republic to bolster ‘conservative forces’ in Irish society .

    The fear of referenda is based on the fear of the ‘mob’ i.e Malcolm’s ‘bring back hanging and flogging’ and associated cans of worms .

    There is that consideration and it may be that referenda are more suited to smaller democracies than larger . But I for one am grateful for the fact that the ‘people’ even many FF people decided back in 1959 and 1968 that our electoral system worked better with PR than without .

    I’ll be the first to admit though that given the travails of the past few years that the system needs reform so that the Dail can attract some real world ‘expertise’ other than that found in the law library or in school . Single constituencies may be the place to start with STV and with each party having a list of ‘experts’ whose election would be based on the party percentage vote ranking .

    It’s a huge issue and no doubt any such reform will be fought tooth and nail by whichever incumbents are favoured by the status quo.

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    Greenflag @ 2:32 pm:,/b>

    Would the UK have joined the EEC had they had a referendum?

    5th June 1975: 65% turnout, 67% in favour. The only areas to vote “No” were the Northern and Western Isles (despite the rantings of the Rev Paisley).

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    Sorry for shouting (and the missing “<").

  • Alias

    Paul, if you don’t believe in referendums then you don’t believe in constitutions either. Since constitutions are designed to protect the people from the state, it follows that you don’t believe that people should be protected from the state. You don’t believe in rights of any class other than those that are granted by the state.

    Further, you give ownership of the people to the state so you don’t believe in republics either. For example, Ireland’s constitution holds that the people own the state and not vice versa. That is the reverse of other EU member states which have a statist position and wherein the government own the powers of the state and the country itself and can duly give away to third parties that which they own without the consent of the people.

    As the Irish Supreme Court put it accordance with Article 5 of the Constitution: “The State’s organs cannot contract to exercise in a particular procedure their policy-making roles or in any way to fetter powers bestowed unfettered by the Constitution. They are the guardians of these powers – not the disposers of them.”

    The government own nothing: “They are the guardians of these powers – not the disposers of them.” Therefore the government have no authority to give away or amend other people’s rights, heritage, or property.

  • Alias

    Incidentally, a constitution that can be unilaterally amended by the state is a meaningless document. The point of a constitution is that only the people can amend it via a referendum. That is how it protects the people from the state.

    So Cameron’s referendum proposal is worthless since the British constitution can be amended by the state. Under Dicey’s Doctrine, all laws made by parliament can be repealed by parliament, and so any Act that gives effect to a referendum on derogating further sovereign powers to the EU doesn’t not grant ownership of that sovereignty to the people from parliament.

  • Greenflag

    @malcolm redfellow

    Oops thanks for the correction MR and yes I deserve the ‘shouting at’ I’m trying now desperately to figure our why I have no memory of that important day .:( Maybe I’ve contracted Irish Alzheimer’s where you forget everything except a grudge ;? on the other hand I have some memory of every election (general) in these islands since 1969 .

    Weird –

    Of course 67% of 65% is 43% – so a minority of Britons voted the UK into the EEC . 57% either voted NO or did’nt care one way or the other .

    A little research reveals that the UK entered the EEC the same time as Denmark and Ireland and the later referendum was held after ‘renegotiations ‘ of conditions in Dublin and was by way of a ‘reconfirmation ‘ of the Commons/Lords votes.

    For those who might also need a memory recap of the UK’s only referendum in it’s constitutional history here’s a short summary of the Pros and Anti’s of the time

    The “Yes” campaign was supported by Prime Minister Harold Wilson and most of the cabinet, including the three most senior ministers other than Wilson: Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, the Foreign Secretary and Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary. The government officially endorsed the “Yes” campaign. It was also supported by the majority of the Conservative Party, including its newly-elected leader Margaret Thatcher, the Liberal Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party.

    And the No’s

    Tony Benn, Secretary of State for Industry, was the most senior figure in the No campaign. The “No” campaign included the left wing of the Labour Party, including cabinet ministers such as Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle. Some Labour “No” supporters were on the right wing of the party, such as cabinet minister Eric Varley. The campaign also included many Labour backbenchers; upon the division on a pro-EEC White Paper about the renegotiation, 148 Labour MPs opposed their own government’s measure, whereas only 138 supported it and 32 abstained.[2] Some members of the Conservative Party also supported the “No” campaign, although there were far fewer Eurosceptic figures in the Parliamentary Conservative Party in 1975 than there would be during future debates on Europe, such as the accession to the Maastricht Treaty. Most of the Ulster Unionist Party opposed the question, most prominently the former Conservative minister Enoch Powell, who was the second most prominent anti-Marketeer in the campaign.Other parties supporting the “No” campaign included the Democratic Unionist Party, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and parties outside Parliament including the National Front and the Communist Party of Great Britain.

    I suppose when you have Tony Benn and half the Labour Party + some far right Tories + the UUP + SNP +PC +DUP +NF + Communists + Enoch Powell – leading the charge against the EEC -that in itself was probably one of the best reasons for voting Yes ?

    Probably explains why no referenda have been held since ?

    ps
    I see Northern Ireland managed a YES vote by 20,000 out of 500,000 cast (52% Yes) -so obviously some unionists must have voted YES. The Republic voted 80% YES with only Labour and SF opposing . Immediately after the referendum Labour dropped it’s opposition .

    Probably

  • Greenflag

    @alias.

    ‘The point of a constitution is that only the people can amend it via a referendum. That is how it protects the people from the state.’

    True .

    Now if there only some means of protecting the people from gangsta bankers , dodgy property developers, crony politicians and war mongering neo cons :(?

  • Alias

    The Irish were protected from those in their Constitution. Sadly, however, they never read it and so never valued it. allowing a shyster political class to give their sovereignty away to a supranational regime that is in the pocket of “gansta bankers” and those who inflate the value of the assets that enrich banks and wh are wholly dependent on banks to finance them, i.e. property developers.

  • Valenciano

    @Greenflag, one of the three Unionist parties, Vanguard, campaigned for a yes vote in the 1975 referendum.

    @shuggy, it’s not always the legislature’s decision. Latvia for example has a mechanism for the electorate (or interest groups) to trigger referenda. 10,000 voters out of 1.5 million need to sign notarised referendum proposals. Those are then verified. If that first threshold is met then the state needs to provide facilities in every town and region for further signatures to be gathered. If in a set time period they exceed the second threshold (10% of the registered electorate) then the proposals are submitted to parliament. If parliament rejects them, a referendum is held. The threshold for the referendum to be passed is a majority of voters and a turnout of at least 50%. Only 7 referenda have been held in 20 years and only one (joining the EU) has passed.

  • Padav

    Can’t disagree with the basic thrust of this analysis but in the end we get the democracy we deserve?

    For me the best way to improve this general state of affairs is to foster an environment that will lead to increased public engagement – the most obvious manifestation of such engagement in political discourse is a valid ballot paper, duly placed in the ballot box – if people generally feel they have influence over the function of the democratic political process I believe such engagement will flower quite naturally – it’s not a quick fix solution I’ll readily admit but sustainable solutions never are?

    Of course, what I’m alluding to here is the UK’s arcane voting method for Westminster elections, which allied with the highly centralised and relatively opaque nature of its institutional architecture, best illustrated by our uncodified Constitution, creates an potentially toxic cocktail of ambivalent and openly cynical citizens.

    I’m a firm advocate of the Single Transferable Vote, which utilised in conjunction with relatively small constituency boundaries (say equivalent to no less than 3 but no more than 5 current single MP Westminster seats) would provide a relatively benign landscape in which a strong degree of locality (the fabled constituency link) would be maintained, introduce real choice (for voters) on the ballot paper, strongly motivate successful candidates to perform (greater accountability?) once elected to office and finally inject a healthy dose of proportionality (through use of multi-member seats) and thus fairness into the overall result.

    Unfortunately the UK doesn’t do radical overnight change of this type so I suppose we must approach such transformation one step at a time, which is where next May’s referendum on AV comes into the equation. By convention, matters of constitutional import should be subject to referendum, precisely because they carry potential to profoundly change our democratic framework, at least that’s the theory?

    Doubtless the Conservatives are quietly congratulating themselves over the manner in which their LibDem partners have conveniently installed themselves as the pantomime villains, taking the blame for every negative aspect of government policy output and gaining no credit for anything positive – the worst of all possible worlds for Clegg & Co!

    Whether this will translate into a massive shift in public opinion against voting reform remains to be seen. Ironically the very same demographic most adversely impacted by the tuition fees farrago (students and young people) are the very same group most enthusiastically supporting the permanent demise of First Past the Post. On the minus side they’re also the least likely to actually turn up at the ballot box next May – this is the challenge facing the YES campaign as it gears up for the forthcoming plebiscite.

    Is the referendum winnable – yes, I think it probably still is but only if the YES campaign is successful in exposing the merits of this vital issue to a wide enough audience – the NO campaign have everything to gain from burying debate in a confusing slurry of misinformation and outright subterfuge – it’s up to the YES campaign to get out there and make as big a noise as possible – if that sounds suspiciously like a lowest common denominator strategy, who am I to argue if it delivers the right result?

  • iniref

    The Localism Bill introduced this week contains some cautious moves towards citizen-led democracy. Some positive features are:

    Citizens will be able to demand and obtain a referendum on any local issue “economic, social or environmental”. One in twenty members of an electorate must endorse the referendum proposal.

    All levels of local government are to be involved, e.g. the Greater London Area, cities, towns, counties and districts.

    Electronic collection of endorsements can be used.
    —————
    A critique of citizens’ democracy in the Localism Bill may be found here: Localism Bill and Direct Democracy: Comments please and also at our blog

  • Dewi

    On Latvia it’s the turnout provision that’s strange.
    A 2008 Pensions reform referendum had 96% approval but only 38% turnout…I’m not sure that that’s fair.

  • Dewi

    I meant not fair that the referendum failed.

  • iniref

    Dewi wrote:

    “On Latvia it’s the turnout provision that’s strange.
    A 2008 Pensions reform referendum had 96% approval but only 38% turnout…I’m not sure that that’s fair.”

    You are right. A high participation hurdle can be a problem in at least two ways. Firstly, it may be unrealistic because turnout for recent (candidate) elections has been even lower. Secondly, the hurdle can allow a strong minority to “sabotage” a referendum proposal by calling for their supporters to boycott the ballot. This has happened often in Italy where the clear will of a large majority has been blocked. There, for the national law-repeal referendum (abrogative), a fifty percent turnout is required.

  • joeCanuck

    First Past the Post combined with low turnout can result in a government in Canada being voted in to power by 25% of the electorate. I’m sure the UK is somewhat similar. Interestingly, in Australia compulsory voting is enforced for elections but not referenda.
    But I think that people who don’t vote are, in general, saying that they don’t care about the result and are happy to let the rest of you decide.

  • Valenciano

    @Dewi I don’t think 50% is really that bad. Turnout at General Elections here is generally around the 65-70% mark. There was actually a lot of talk in the local press at the time of the last referendum (held in early August) that people were more bothered in sunning themselves at the beach than actually improving the democracy and therefore deserved what they got.

    @JoeCanuck, strictly speaking I think it’s attendance at the polling station that’s compulsory in Oz? Once there you can spoil your ballot/choose not to vote though most having got that far vote anyway.

  • joeCanuck

    Valenciano,

    Mere attendance being all that is required is a common misperception.
    You must put a ballot into the box. Although technically and legally, you are obliged to vote for a candidate, many people do leave their ballot papers unmarked.

  • http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com Paul Evans

    @padav I’m quite sceptical about any voting system that gives increased powers to political parties. I think that the ‘fair’ voting system is something of a chimera – you make it fair in one way and other parts of the game realign themselves.

    I’d suggest that democratic reform needs to take an understanding of what a good democracy is as a starting point – how can we get politicians who deliberate wisely and well, in the interests of society as a whole and in a form that the public can relate to.

    A ‘very nice to have’ is politicians who have the humility and skill to involve the widest section of the population in their deliberations – not being sat-upon by the most active citizens or the ones with an interest or axe to grind.

    Anything that allows the public to have a direct input whereby weight of argument trumps weight of numbers, or where ‘wisdom of crowd’ type judgements can be shown to be qualitatively better than the ‘expertise’ (!) of politicians is also a fine thing to aspire to.

    I’m not convinced that STV is necessarily better than First Past the Post in that respect – indeed I’m not sure that the voting system itself is the biggest thing that needs reforming.

    Like anything else, it’s a game: How do we incentivise politicians to do the right thing. To my mind, the voting system is the *product* of that question, not a starting point on it (I’ll add that I’m almost completely agnostic on voting systems – the only strong view I have on the matter is that we shouldn’t inherit it, but should decide it ourselves – a republican view, I suppose).

  • Padav

    @Paul Evans: “indeed I’m not sure that the voting system itself is the biggest thing that needs reforming”

    I’d have to fundamentally with your conclusion on that point – and the fact that this single issue rallies our elected representatives to the barricades like no other rather gives the game away?

    @Paul Evans: “the only strong view I have on the matter is that we shouldn’t inherit it, but should decide it ourselves”

    Well isn’t that precisely where we find ourselves with First Past the Post – a legacy of Parliamentary traditions now well past its sell by date and isn’t the whole rationale supporting referendums in general that we (the people) make the decision ourselves?

  • Padav

    sorry that should read “fundamentally disagree”

  • http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com Paul Evans

    “…the fact that this single issue rallies our elected representatives to the barricades like no other rather gives the game away?”

    I’m not sure that this is evidence. You can oppose the right thing for the wrong reason. The problem with voting reform is that there is never a compelling reason to advance any particular prescription. As far as I can see, *every* proportional voting system increases the power of political parties, incentivises those parties to adopt simplistic populist positions and forces politicians to be more obedient to them.

    The reason that politicians object is not because they are unhappy about simplistic compliance or populism but because they see each particular form of PR being favoured purely on the grounds that it will give the party that favours it a leg-up at the *next* election.

    PR also is expected to bring about realignments in political parties – the idea that it makes voting more proportional is very debateable. All you get is a proportional reflection of which party leader we prefer bundled in with permanent coalition government. It doesn’t reflect anything else very proportionally….

  • Padav

    Paul Evans: “I’m not sure that this is evidence. You can oppose the right thing for the wrong reason.”

    Well it’s pretty obvious to me why the majority of those in both the Labour and Conservative parties are opposing change away from FPTP and that’s because it damages their narrow tribal interests, ie. the likelihood of less of them in the Commons and more for their political rivals! Now that’s definitely what I call opposing the right thing for the wrong reason!

    Paul Evans: “The problem with voting reform is that there is never a compelling reason to advance any particular prescription. As far as I can see, *every* proportional voting system increases the power of political parties, incentivises those parties to adopt simplistic populist positions and forces politicians to be more obedient to them.”

    Really – I’m going to assume you do have some knowledge of voting systems and the merits (or lack of) in favour/against any of them?

    STV (in the relatively small constituencies I’ve referred to) works specifically against party interests and tips the balance of power/influence much further in favour of the only person that should matter in any election – THE VOTER!

    Why does STV do this when other proportional systems don’t – quite simply because STV doesn’t make use of top up lists – the list of candidates on the ballot paper remains open so individual voters can exercise judgement both within and across party lines – it’s their choice to endorse/censure individual candidates at will – this factor alone has the consequence of obliging candidates to pay much more attention to their electorates and a lot less heed to party managers offering to further their political careers< if only they'd behave themselves?

    One of the major criticisms aimed at STV is that elected MPs end up spending far too much of their time attending to the hopes/desires/aspirations of their constituents (because they know that is more likely to lead to re-election next time round) rather than the business of National government – now I'm not really sure if this is a flaw but perhaps it is but I'm sure it's one (relatively minor) issue voters would be prepared to put up with?

    Of course the other major brickbat levelled at STV is that's it's complex but this particular negative routinely emanates from one of the usual suspects, who just happens to have a vested interest in making damn sure STV never even gets on to the mainstream agenda!

    The advent of AV will establish the notion of preference voting; 1,2,3 in the mindset of ordinary citizens. Once that hurdle is negotiated the debate can turn to more cerebral topics, such as the debate between single vs multi-member representation – bolt multi-member boundaries on to AV (and we already have multi-member representation at local govt level across much of the UK anyway, it's just that we elect in thirds for England & Wales to maintain the charade of FPTP) and hey presto – you have STV!

  • Padav

    I forgot to add one overriding caveat

    There is no such thing as a perfect voting system – but some are less imperfect than others!

  • http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com Paul Evans

    Padav,

    Two points in reply:

    1. I’ve not really included STV as a ‘proportional’ system – I’m fairly agnostic on it as a preferable method to FPTP and I quite like the way that candidates are invited to make personal overtures to people who wouldn’t normally vote for their party. I think it *can* lead to a tendency towards *too* much consensus though – I’m not sure that we’d have as many outspoken MPs (though they get thinner on the ground all the time).

    2. “…one of the major criticisms aimed at STV is that elected MPs end up spending far too much of their time attending to the hopes/desires/aspirations of their constituents”

    I probably have more of a problem with this than you do.

  • Padav

    Paul

    I’m surprised you haven’t flagged up STV as proportional in nature because, depending upon the extent of multi-member constituencies used (the larger the number of representatives per constituency the greater the degree of proportionality it imports), it certainly delivers on this front.

    The Electoral Reform Society conducted some detailed research based on the voting patterns exhibited during the 2010 general election, enhanced with additional sampling to demonstrate preferential tendencies amongst voters.

    Under STV it was predicted that the election would have provided a Parliament with;

    • 247 Conservative MPs (36.1% / 38%)
    • 206 Labour MPs (29% / 31.7%)
    • 162 Lib Dem MPs (23% / 24.9%)
    • 35 Others MPs (11.9% / 5.4%)

    Figures in brackets show (actual %of votes under FPTP/ %of seats predicted under STV)
    http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/blog/?p=36

    So whilst still not a wholly accurate reflection of the votes cast, a lot closer that either AV or FPTP. The minor parties still appear to lose out under this forecast result but it is only a prediction based to some extent on existing voting patterns – I think we both understand that the voting system itself profoundly shapes voting behaviour – I believe it’s likely that minor party candidates and/or independents would fare much better under STV than we might believe – STV empowers voters to express their political preference in both an ideological and individual fashion – in other words it is both party and candidate driven simultaneously.