Thursday, 16 December 2010

The trouble with referendums.

What with my normal posting you might think I'd be all for as many referendums as we could handle, surely it's the ultimate form of democracy? But actually, referendums are far from perfect, and can often end up being far less democratic than you may think.

The big one coming up in the next year is the vote on the change to our voting system, from the archaic First-Past-the-Post to the Alternative Vote. Whilst I think it can be argued that this is a worthwhile referendum to be had, there are plenty of other occasions where it would be much more appropriate to have a vote in parliament as opposed to a national referendum.

A brilliant example of the problems with constant referenda can be found in California, a state rich in resources, but in massive trouble economically. The state that houses Silicon Valley and Hollywood recently had to start handing out IOU's, and in no small part because of the problems in untempered direct democracy. Anyone with enough signatures can put forward a proposition in California, and need only a simple majority of those bothered to vote to get it passed. Because it would be difficult to imagine anyone wanting to be taxed more or given less from the state they now have a state of affairs that is totally unsustainable, they've wanted low taxes to cover expansive public services.

But it's not so much the idea of direct democracy that's the problem, but the way it can be perverted by special interest groups. Rich individuals, companies and others with a particular axe to grind can pay volunteers to get in the required signatures and then use massive advertising campaigns to bring in the votes. However much people like to think they are independently minded, no-one is immune to the effects of advertising, that's just a psychological fact.

Rather than having governance of the people by the people, you have governance of the people for the benefit of those with enough cash to buy one side of the argument.

But that's not enough of a reason to criticise referenda, after all, no-one is proposing that kind of direct democracy here. However, some of the problems are still present, particularly the role of special interest groups in perverting the argument to their own aims. Far too much power lies in the hands of those with the money to pay for extravagant advertising campaigns and in the hands of media barons with an easy route to influence their huge readerships. Rather than power lying in the hands of elected officials it's handed over to unelected heads of pressure groups with no accountability.

Too often we aren't even voting on what we think. To use the AV referendum as an example, the No campaign claims to not only have the backing of those who support FPTP, but also those who want proportional representation. The question is framed in such a way that we aren't given the full range of options, and so you get a kind of perverse tactical voting. You can guarantee that if the No campaign wins, they won't be proposing a new referendum on whether to change to PR instead of FPTP, they will claim it as a victory for the status quo and say the matter of voting reform has been put to bed.

It's important to draw a line between democracy and simple minded populist governance. The opinion with the greatest number of supporters isn't always the right one. What should be encouraged is open and fair debate, based on facts rather than emotional screeching as so beautifully demonstrated by a whole plethora of Daily Mail articles. If, after an open and fair debate, the majority still supports a certain standpoint then that should be upheld, but referenda often don't allow that fair debate to take place. Nor, I would suggest, does the current set-up of our parliament.

A democracy that gives in to dumb populism in the face of reason loses its credibilty, and loses sight of its most important facet, government of the people by the people.

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