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Referendums should be limited to constitutional issues, argues Stuart Weir. We need to strengthen parliament, not weaken it further with popular-sounding initiatives such as these

February 2, 2010
4 min read

The suggestion that referendums could be introduced more widely to involve people more closely in politics is a beguiling one. It is one of the ideas for direct democracy advanced in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal to try to revive our discredited representative democracy. It is being given fresh currency by the House of Lords constitution committee, which is now taking evidence on the place of referendums in the UK.

I have been discussing the evidence that Democratic Audit should give to the committee with our core team of Stuart Wilks-Heeg, our director, David Beetham and Andrew Blick. We have decided unanimously that the use of referendums is likely to do far more damage than good and would ultimately give yet more power to central government and corporate interests, both of which are already too powerful.

Our view is that referendums are neither sound nor appropriate instruments of governance and decision making in a nation like the UK that does not possess a written constitution. Other countries that regularly use referendums do so within the context of a fully-codified constitution that defines their place and role. To import them into British politics without this framework would be yet another example of the piecemeal change that has left us with a confused and unresolved constitutional mess. More to the point, they would be open to abuse.

I appreciate that there are attractions in the way referendums are used abroad – but there are also drawbacks. In California, for example, the experience of referendums tends to show the power of a) money and b) intense rather than weak interests. Both, incidentally, were on display in the recent Greater Manchester referendum vote against a congestion charge, given that opinion polls had shown a narrow but consistent majority in favour.

There is a place for citizen initiatives, of course, but they should be developed as a means for putting issues on the parliamentary agenda rather than bypassing it. More accessible and effective arrangements for petitioning parliament and other representative bodies would be preferable to advancing the place of referendums in our governing arrangements. We need a clear distinction between what is a proper subject for the people to decide in a representative democracy, and what for parliament, and work to preserve the integrity of both.

All this does leave us with a dilemma. Governments can decide upon referendums as and when they see fit and they are increasingly used to settle constitutional or, at least, territorial issues. And in principle, it is right that constitutional issues should be settled by the people in a referendum rather than by a single parliament, especially one led by a single party in power. So their use has a certain, if spurious, legitimacy in such cases.

These cases are piling up for the near future. Gordon Brown has committed Labour to a referendum giving people a choice between the existing electoral system for elections to parliament and the alternative vote – but ruling out proportional systems. The Conservatives are committed to a bill requiring referendums on European matters and possibly local referendums on council tax changes. There is also talk of Conservative moves to reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons. And finally, there is the immense issue of reform of the House of Lords.

All these potential decisions raise profound democratic issues and illustrate starkly the partisan and opportunist motives that lurk behind the grand sentiments that party leaders espouse. They ought all to be governed by clear procedural rules, to be preceded by deliberative public participation, and, certainly, not to be determined by an unrepresentative single party government that may wish to use them to accomplish partisan objectives.

So, reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that it should be the norm that constitutional issues require the consent of the people through a referendum.

At the very least, reformers should make two demands. First, the inefficient arrangements for voting registration should be drastically reformed so that the electoral roll does not exclude significant minorities. Second, we should urge the committee to propose a new convention laying out clear rules that the House of Lords, curiously often the last refuge for constitutional propriety, should take it upon itself to act as a watchdog against abuses.

Overall, we should not allow debates about uses of referendums to obscure the point about their necessity in the context of a written constitution that recognises the ultimate sovereignty of the people.

This does not mean that we should not pursue whatever democratic changes in our political arrangements are possible this side of a written constitution. In particular, we need to concentrate on strengthening parliament against the executive – not on encouraging popular-sounding initiatives that will only undermine its diminished authority still further.

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