Are referendums good or bad?


by Rumbold
22nd September, 2007 at 12:58 pm    

Disgruntled at Gordon’s Brown’s failure to hold a referendum on the new EU treaty/constitution, residents of a small village in Dorset took matters into their own hands and voted on the question of whether or not to hold a referendum. The pro-referendum party won overwhelmingly, and now the village of East Stoke in Dorset is committed to holding a referendum.

This was no idle publicity stunt, but rather a proper vote based on a (previously) little-known clause in the 1972 Local Government Act: that a district council is obliged to hold a poll if 10 or more local people vote for it. Other villages are now looking into this and are planning to hold their own polls.

It is great that people are getting involved in local democracy, and I do think that there should be a referendum on the constitution, as the Labour party promised it in their manifesto on which they were elected. Any talk of there being significant differences between the ‘constitution’ and the ‘treaty’ is just plain wrong.

However, I am more sceptical about the value of referendums in general. Representative democracy is heavily criticised by all sides, but the problem with referendums is that once you have one, how many more should you have? Should they only be on constitutional matters, or on war, or on immigration, and so on? If a party is elected on the back of a referendum-promising manifesto, that is one thing; but I prefer to recognise that complex issues cannot be distilled down to a yes or no vote. Do they have a place though? 


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  1. Are referendums good or bad? - Info Truth.info

    [...] Original post by Rumbold [...]




  1. ZinZin — on 22nd September, 2007 at 1:58 pm  

    Rumbold this is you saying that the plebs should not have any say over important issues; leave it to the intellectuals/mandarins. Sorry Rumbold in a democracy you have to trust the people even if they get it wrong.

    A referendum question may be a yes or no, but that is what a vote in parliament is a yes or no vote. The debate before the vote in a referendum would certainly increase the volume of debate as the value of a vote on any issue increases its value. In comparison to the first past the vote parliamentary democracy that we have in which a small percentage of voters can swing the vote.

    Trust the people.

  2. Sunny — on 22nd September, 2007 at 2:02 pm  

    Could we look at the Swiss example maybe? They hold a lot of referdums don’t they?

  3. GG — on 22nd September, 2007 at 5:26 pm  

    Anybody know if there is similar legislation in Scotland?

  4. Nav — on 22nd September, 2007 at 7:16 pm  

    I concur to a large extent, Rumbold.

    Fostering inclusivity is a problem in any representative democracy: as a young person surrounded by largely disaffected yoofs I feel it imperative that elected officials take note of the sentiments of ordinary voters- falling turn-out is testament to the fact that British politics has in the past been the preserve of a select, active minority.

    It’s unfair, ZinZin, to assume that not backing referendums on every single policy issue is simply a ploy to hold the little guy over the barrel: you rob elected politicians of any sense of a mandate to effectively serve those who voted for them if the power to make decisions on the behalf of constituents is constrained. Let’s not kid ourselves that the great British public aren’t as well informed as you would hope: giving the power to dictate the outcome of such an important issue to a public that can’t make informed decisions that aren’t based on fears stoked by fervent Eurosceptics isn’t ideal. Not that those who would vigorously back a ‘No’ vote don’t have the right to their opinions or are necessarily in the wrong, mind.

    Having said that; yes, Labour did promise a referendum on the issue of a Europe-wide constitution and yes, the new “treaty” is just a rose by any another name so it would only be right that Gordon Brown fulfils this pledge.

  5. Rumbold — on 22nd September, 2007 at 7:23 pm  

    ZinZin:

    “Rumbold this is you saying that the plebs should not have any say over important issues; leave it to the intellectuals/mandarins. Sorry Rumbold in a democracy you have to trust the people even if they get it wrong.”

    I was not saying that at all. My question was whether this is the best way to run a democracy. In Parliament you have amendments and scrutiny of the legislation, which you would not get really with referendums. Also, parliamentary legislation is not as all-encompassing as a referendum. I am fully supportive of the ‘will of the people’, but there is a reason that most people argue that direct democracy is too blunt a tool.

    If we were to consider immigration as a topic for a referendum, as some would like to, how should the question be phrased? If the vote went against immigration, should all immigrants be deported? If it went in their favour, what should be the limits? How much scope would Parliament have to shape the subsequent legislation? How many questions should there be on each referendum, and how long should each question be? Who decides what the questions will be? Is the vote invalidated if the turnout is low? What happens then?

    Sunny:

    The Swiss do hold a lot of referendums, but I am not sure that their society functions any better than ours.

    GG:

    “Anybody know if there is similar legislation in Scotland?”

    I do not know, unless the 1972 act also covers Scotland.

  6. Rumbold — on 22nd September, 2007 at 7:49 pm  

    Nev:

    “Fostering inclusivity is a problem in any representative democracy: as a young person surrounded by largely disaffected yoofs I feel it imperative that elected officials take note of the sentiments of ordinary voters- falling turn-out is testament to the fact that British politics has in the past been the preserve of a select, active minority.”

    I agree with that.

    Sunny:

    On Switzerland, from Wikipedia:

    “By calling a federal referendum a group of citizens may challenge a law that has been passed by Parliament, if they can gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days. If so, a national vote is scheduled where voters decide by a simple majority whether to accept or reject the law. Eight cantons together can also call a referendum on a federal law.

    Similarly, the federal constitutional initiative allows citizens to put a constitutional amendment to a national vote, if they can get 100,000 voters to sign the proposed amendment within 18 months.
    Parliament can complement the proposed amendment with a counter-proposal, with voters having to indicate a preference on the ballot in case both proposals are accepted. Constitutional amendments, whether introduced by initiative or in Parliament, must be accepted by a double majority of both the national popular vote and a majority of the cantonal popular votes.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Switzerland#Direct_democracy

  7. douglas clark — on 22nd September, 2007 at 10:39 pm  

    Err,

    Rumbold.

    Err. Y’know what is wrong? At least what I think is wrong?

    We are hell of a lazy. We are willing to have our political lives conducted for us, mostly. We make the assumption that our elected representatives will get it right, most of the time.

    What gets our hump is when they completely ignore us when something seems contrary to who we think we are. The war against Iraq, for instance.

    It is then that we see the bones of the State, the naked power that it takes to itself, the frankly open denial of democratic will. It is the state, at times like that that we are it’s subjects. Subjected to whatever it wills.

    Our voice counts as nothing in that sort of democracy. Sure, they’ll let us vote on, say devolution, but when it comes to the nitty gritty of actions, well no, they don’t.

    Given that the Iraq War was a war of choice, rather than a clear and present danger, would it have been beyond the wit of woman to have asked us what we thought? No, it wouldn’t, but it wouldn’t have suited, would it?

  8. Nav — on 23rd September, 2007 at 12:30 am  

    I don’t think it’s a result of idleness to expect our elected representatives to do their jobs, douglas.

    A nice consequence of accountability is that we can simply get rid of politicians who don’t serve our interests come election time.

    The roving consensus of public opinion is a curious thing: the majority of Britons (though under the impression that we could have been attacked by Saddam within the hour) whole-heartedly supported the war pre-invasion. Wild claims surrounding non-existent WMDs notwithstanding, the masses are swayed easily and highly emotive issues are subject to polarising opinion to the extent that logic is thrown out of the window.

  9. Boyo — on 23rd September, 2007 at 9:45 am  

    Napoleon used to use referendums as a tool to legitimise his dictatorship. Yes, they are inherently undemocratic. However, wasn’t “original” Greek democracy simply a succession of referendums?

    The trouble is that these days the body politic (which includes most of the media) has become so detached from “the people” that voters sieze on referendums as the only way to seemingly wrest back some sense of control.

    It was of course cynical for Labour to dangle the carrot of a referendum in the first place (because they had no expectation of offering one, betting the constitution would be knocked on the head before it reached the British people).

    Now of course their cynicism has been exposed in the re-branding of the constitution, despite its rejection by the Frencha and Dutch electorates, and their denial of the promised referendum – which they know they would lose.

    Over the last 20 years or so, our democracy (so expensively and bitterly won, but which lasted barely a century) has shrivelled away. And that’s just how our political class, and all our other betters, want it – after all, who are we to know what is good for us?!

  10. Boyo — on 23rd September, 2007 at 9:48 am  

    Nav, where is your evidence that “the vast majority of Britons” supported the Iraq war? I can’t recall any polls that indicated that. On the contrary, given that 2 million people marched (and of course were utterly ignored – see above) in the largest demonstration in the UK of all time, I would suggest it was quite the contrary.

  11. Rumbold — on 23rd September, 2007 at 11:48 am  

    I believe that people usually no what is best for them and so should be able to conduct their own lives the best way they see fit. My questions about referendums are more practical ones than any ideological opposition to people deciding things for themselves.

    Douglas Clark:

    “We are hell of a lazy. We are willing to have our political lives conducted for us, mostly. We make the assumption that our elected representatives will get it right, most of the time.”

    I agree, but what can be done about it?

  12. Nav — on 23rd September, 2007 at 3:56 pm  

    Boyo, sure there were pronounced protests against the impending invasion but a well organised anti-war movement was the cause: wider public opinion that supported an invasion was roused by a media led to believe that Saddam had WMDs under his command.

    Though, I don’t have any quantitative polls on hand.

  13. douglas clark — on 23rd September, 2007 at 3:59 pm  

    Nav,

    I agree with you about the roving consensus of public opinion, nice turn of phrase that. But I do not recall the British public being in favour of the Iraq war prior to it starting out. As far as I remember most of us were for it if we got a UN mandate and agin it if we didn’t. Which, as it happens was my position too. Which, I think has proven that – on one subject, at least – the populace had a better idea of right and wrong than our elected representatives.

    I happen to think that the government, of whatever hue, sees itself as the nation, which it is clearly not.

  14. douglas clark — on 23rd September, 2007 at 4:16 pm  

    Rumbold,

    I am coming around more and more to the Leon position, at least what I think Leons position is, on this :-)

    In the dim and distant past, say five years ago, there was not the interconnectivity that we have nowadays. If an issue arises now, then there can be a global or local reaction, as appropriate, to it far more quickly than ever before. I am thinking here about the Iraq Interpreters, although there is another potentially libelous event also causing ructions.

    We, ra people, could not have organised as quickly, nor as cogently, without this media. I think that we are seeing the start of a grass roots movement directed specifically at issues where the status quo for the ruling class is likely to be destabilised quite a bit. But we need to see some successes, I think.

  15. Billy — on 23rd September, 2007 at 6:57 pm  

    “Could we look at the Swiss example maybe? They hold a lot of referdums don’t they?”

    And how long did it take them to give women the vote?

  16. Rumbold — on 23rd September, 2007 at 9:20 pm  

    Douglas:

    It sounds like a good idea, but again, I wonder about the practicalities.

  17. TheFriendlyInfidel — on 24th September, 2007 at 2:23 pm  

    Great question … lets have a referendum and ask the public.

    TFI

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