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Localism – democracy and the dangers of referenda

With the Localism Bill to be published imminently there is already talk of it being a “Nimby Charter”; a world where the vote of the majority on a single issue is the only vote that matters, no matter how un-informed or self-interested the electorate might be. The pro-localism lobby are citing the likely introduction of neighbourhood referenda to decide planning and other decisions as being a means of restoring decision-making powers in the people, giving people power to determine the key decisions that affect where they live. Those who advocate the use of referenda argue typically that referenda:

  • restore democracy to the people
  • allow the people to tell the “establishment” to be responsive
  • restore “the people’s will” to the democratic decision-making process

These supposed benefits – which perhaps can be summarised as the seduction of the masses – are falsehoods based upon major misconceptions. The arguments put forward in the case for referenda stem from a series of unfounded assumptions.
The people’s view is all that matters
In a modern and complex society such as those found in the western democracies just who are “the people”? The term implies “all of us” or maybe it is all of us who are not elected to office or maybe the term should also exclude public officials or volunteers or anyone who is capable of making a decision that will impact on “the people”. The fact is there are millions of us from multiple different backgrounds each with different motivations, values and beliefs. Each of us exercises our own judgement in how we wish to participate (or not) in our democratic processes; be it with a club or society or in the mainstream electoral process or just in our daily lives. We vary in the degree to which we choose to stay in ignorance or as to how and when we get information that helps to inform us. How is it possible that such wide variation can be squeezed into a single shoebox labelled “the people”?
For the purposes of mainstream democracy we associate into groups that more readily reflect our own ideas and beliefs, behind leaders that we feel can deliver a vision of a future that we aspire to. That association may only be a X on a ballot paper to entrust our opinion by way of a mandate in another person or group or it may be that we are so passionate in our belief that we participate more actively – or it may be that we are so disillusioned or disinterested that we do not participate at all. Whatever our level of participation, it is our individual choice. In some circumstances we may be so disillusioned that we protest. Such protest may be through a good moan or may be a protest such as has been seen waged by students of late or, in extreme situations we may actually rise up in revolution.
So how can a referendum help democracy given such widespread diversity amongst the plebiscite? To vote “yay or nay” on a single issue cannot be any more than an expression of popularity only slightly more democratic than the awful closed shop voting systems of reality TV. Referenda may, on occasion, have a purpose in sorting out a complete blockage on opinion where opinion is totally polarised between two viewpoints, such as in determining the democratic process itself; devolution or centralised government; first past the post or proportionate representation. But can it be right for popularism to be the fundamental lynchpin of democracy?
Referenda make decisions simple
Since when was life simple or the decisions required for better governance of our lives simple either? If they were so simple we would not need the mass of bureaucracy that goes hand in hand with democracy. Complex issues cannot be simplified just by making the vote one of “for or against” – decisions need to be made from an informed position with an understanding and insight into all of the arguments, the benefits and dis-benefits, who will benefit and who will suffer, what will the consequences of the decision be? Democracy is about weighing up all of the available evidence and making a decision based upon what is in the best interests of key stakeholders. Would slavery have ever been abolished on the back of a “slave owners only” referenda? In addition, making the vote a simple “yay or nay” dumbs down the voters by conning us into thinking any decision is so clear-cut. We elect people to do most of the detailed understanding for us; through scrutiny in committees and reports our elected representatives get into a level of detailed debate, informed by subject matter experts, that the rest of us cannot hope to achieve through a referendum. When it comes to them making a decision it is usually on a basket of measures that provide balance and their decisions are, hopefully (although not always) made based upon an informed judgement.
The view of the masses is the only relevant view
In years gone by we had mob rule, witches were hunted down and burned at the stake; a posse could string up the accused without fair trial, homophobic attacks are still incited by the arguments of he who shouts loudest, regardless of the validity of the argument. Over the years the growth of a civil and fair society has diminished the role of the mob; it can be argued that our democratic processes exist primarily to avoid the rule of the mob. I find myself looking to history again – the birth of our democracy at Runnymede in 1215 was down to the representatives of the masses stating quite unequivocally to the King that his form of legitimised mob-rule was no longer acceptable and that if he wished to stay upon the throne he had to make certain concessions. John needed the patronage of the barons more than anything and recognised the need, albeit begrudgingly, to limit his arbitrary powers. Lord Denning, when head of the judiciary, described it as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”. Everyone wants the decision-making process to be easy but regretfully, an understanding of the complexity of the issues comes with the territory of being empowered to decide upon those issues. The old adage “act in haste, repent at leisure” could very reasonably be extended to cover ill-informed electorates deciding matters via referenda. In a like manner, referenda can suppress public speech and smother pressure groups or lobbyists since only the voice of the majority matters. Minority groups would be left without a say, and potentially even without a hope. In a democracy the views of all are listened to and the needs of all are catered for. By their very nature referenda are the instruments of the will of the majority and eliminate the minority view in their wake.
Referenda give empowerment to the voter
On face value this statement could be accepted as a fact. However, whilst people may vote for a proposition, they will not be accountable for its consequences. Those who vote not to have a new low-cost housing development in their community do not have to address the homelessness problem in the borough; those who don’t want a half way house in their street do not have to concern themselves with reducing repeat offending in the district. Those who axe social services budgets may not see the consequences until it is too late for a victim of abuse or a vulnerable adult. Similarly ad-hoc coalitions can arise where a common enemy is perceived with the outcome being that fear and hate may join together such as happened in the Lisbon Treaty vote in Ireland. There the catholic right (including the press) and the euro-sceptical left-wing minority parties joined forces to vote against the two main political parties, both of whom advocated supporting the treaty. The irony of such events is that the ad hoc coalition need not be bothered with the responsibility of the consequences of such single focus decisions – those elected and in power have to sort that out.
In Summary
Referenda have their place – but I submit it should be a limited place with strong checks and balances against perverse decisions. The risk of unintended consequences cannot be overlooked and must be mitigated against in the forthcoming bill. We cannot be forced down an alley whereby the role of the “nay” voter is made simple merely by the application of strict conservative principles of “if in doubt, say no”. This would leave the pro-change lobby with the untenable task of having a higher burden of proof ; a stricter and more compelling evidence base. Remember, “no campaigns” are here today, gone tomorrow; they evaporate when the vote is won. Those who want change have to stick around, implement it and be accountable for the consequences. If not implemented with these caveats in mind the government risk intensifying the democratic gulf between the “engaged and informed” and the “disenchanted and ignorant”. The role of government is to govern and serve all of us, not just a select few who happen to be able to voice and mobilise their opinion.


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