Referenda Have No Place in Democracies – Liberal Article


Don’t Mix Drinks… Or Democracies – Liberal Article

Britain is defined as being a parliamentary democracy. We elect our MPs and our government to make laws and implement legislation on our behalf according to their election manifestos. But should we be mixing our democracies?

Representative democracy as a system is used across most of the world. Very few opt for a direct democracy where citizens are consulted on every issue, like in Switzerland. Clement Attlee referred to referenda as an “alien device”, associated with 1930s fascism. This alludes to its use by the Nazis to approve the creation of the role of Fuhrer. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to condemn them in those terms. But I don’t think that referenda are a useful tool in conjunction with a system of parliamentary democracy.

We learn not to mix our drinks; don’t drink a bottle of wine when you’ve been on pints all night. Forms of democracy work the same.

As a case study, I will be using the 2016 Referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

This referendum was not called in the interests of the British people. It was called in the interests of the Conservative Party under David Cameron. They were haemorrhaging votes to UKIP led by Farage, as well as to the Eurosceptics in his party who have been present since we entered the EU in 1973. It was intended to quiet the European Research Group and the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker.

Rather than simply explaining why one referendum was a terrible mistake, I’m going to make my case against the use of referenda in this country. My reasons including not being fit for purpose, democracy, legitimacy and logistics.

Firstly, referendums take complex questions as being single issues when they are multi-layered. 33.5 million people voted in the Referendum, and everyone will have had different perceptions of what they were voting for.

Perhaps the key factor was immigration; whether that is because you believed there were too many immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers entering the UK, or you believed the immigration system unfairly favoured those from Europe and the system should be equalised.

Maybe it was down to sovereignty. Perhaps you voted because you felt the EU had taken our national sovereignty through the various treaties and you wished to reclaim it and return it to Westminster. Maybe the EU wasn’t democratic enough. Maybe it has too little accountability or has become too political where it should have only been an economic union. 

Alternatively, perhaps you thought: David Cameron is an Eton-Oxford establishment privileged Bullingdon Boy. He’s campaigning to remain so I’m voting to Leave. A kickback from those who suffered under austerity is often attributed to some element of the Leave Vote.

The EU was also blamed for the suffering in this country when much of the time it was the fault of those who were running this country from London, not from Brussels. The ‘left behind’ of this country had not solely been let down by the EU, but also by their own government. It failed them too.

The Alternative Vote (AV) Referendum was set up to fail. It was purposely over complicated in order to prejudice people against the side campaigning for change. People may have believed that ‘First Past The Post’ is an outdated system that no longer outshines its flaws, but AV was not a viable alternative. The Lib Dems, whose campaign promised this referendum, didn’t even want the Alternative Vote. Instead, they wanted the Single Transferable Vote; the system currently in place in Northern Ireland. If it isn’t even wanted by those who campaign for it, it’s a failure waiting to happen, and a waste of time. 

It’s a political pawn and a price, not a proper democratic exercise. If we were to have a referendum on the death penalty in England then there would have to be multiple rounds. Should we reinstate the death penalty? And what would be an appropriate point where the death penalty would be in place? Life sentence? Sentence over 25 years?

Would this not be a decision better made within government? They would be able to consult with experts in the justice system to explore the viability, the risks and the costs of this potential policy. Surely this is better than asking everyone: the death penalty – yes or no?

We have to consider the balance of forms of democracy. Which has greater legitimacy?

Parliamentary democracy, as a result of the UK’s evolving uncodified constitution, arguably has been in place since the equalisation of the voting age in 1928. Where all citizens over a certain age could vote for their representatives, who will then be held accountable at the next election. Against this, is the perceived “will of the people”; a one-off vote that is unchangeable despite altered circumstances.

If there was another referendum tomorrow, a repeat of the Brexit referendum (not as was campaigned for by People’s Vote, but just a plain do-over), the result would be different. Maybe not enough to swing it, but different. Political moods change but this referendum was binding.

We learn as teenagers not to mix our alcohol. Now we should learn not to mix our forms of democracy.

When they must go against each other, and parliament evidently disagrees with the referendum result, then we end up with the newspaper accusations of traitors and treachery by judges, death threats to MPs and general behaviour that is not fitting to western Parliamentary democracy.

Referenda are a tool to draw a new dividing line across politics which has resulted in the ongoing political deadlock. British Politics was already split down the middle. Left/Right, Conservative/Labour; we already had our dividing lines. The Brexit referendum, and others too, gave us a new divide that hurled us into a hellish deadlock.

Due to the fact that MPs were permitted to campaign against the party line, seeds of discord were sown that are still present. When you have consistent rebellions against the party line and constant infighting over how to implement the result of the referendum, it gridlocks politics for years.

A further issue lies with the concept of tyranny of the majority; where the minority is too small to protect themselves from the vote of the majority. A good example of this was the Swiss referendum on the construction of Minarets on Mosques. It was won 58-42 and the construction of Minarets on mosques was banned. This is a clear example of discrimination against minorities and lack of protections for those who do not have the numbers to win without others sympathetic to their cause.

Representative democracy is better equipped to apply legislation more fairly, and consider those who, if it came to a vote, could not win on their own.

As well as political objections to the use of referenda, it is also important to consider the logistics of holding a referendum. They are expensive and take a minimum of 24 weeks to organise. They also must be publicised, and the public must be adequately informed on the issue. Although, this is rarely the case.

Referenda have notoriously low turnout. The Alternative Vote Referendum only merited a 41% turnout. Technically, only 37% of the UK population voted to Leave.

Referenda also carry a risk of electoral fraud and misleading promises more than standard democratic activities. For example, Remain’s warning of damage to relations with France regarding the Jungle at Calais was barely heeded and did not prove to be a problem.

‘Leave.EU’ based much publicity on the statement that Turkey will be joining the EU; implying the UK would be expected to host enormous numbers of Turkish people seeking a new home. However, Turkey has been attempting to join the EU since the 1980s and its still unlikely to happen anytime soon.Leave.EU’ also broke electoral law by overspending on their campaign and were fined £61,000 for it.

The idea of politically vs. legally binding referendum results also opens the door for all kinds of post-vote wrangling. Nobody plans the process, so we do not know the whens and wherefores of the entire sorry mess.

We didn’t have the Brexit deal prior to the referendum. Had Scotland decided to go independent in 2014, we did not know what that would mean for the British Isles. A hard border? A porous border? Would both remain in the EU? Or would it have been one in and one out? We don’t know. Because in the planning of referenda, no one seems to think ahead enough to say “what if the status quo isn’t maintained?”.

We know that political parties in Westminster are not our saviours. Many of them I would not even trust to babysit a plastic pot plant. But they have more accountability than the result of a referendum does. If we disagree, we vote them out, instead of simply being told that “it’s the will of the people”. It is ultimately a decision that is never able to be checked or consulted on again, even as circumstances change.

So, to conclude, referenda and the way they are structured in the UK do not actively facilitate democracy. It facilitates gridlock. Minorities are not adequately protected. They are logistically sketchy. These are not democratic exercises: they are political pawns. For the vast majority of the time, they do not have a place in British representative democracy. 

Written by Guest Liberal Writer, Emma Hall

Point of Information

Want to remove referenda, shall we put it to a national vote? – A Conservative Response

In all honestly, the article above has confused me greatly. My Liberal colleague says, “Don’t Mix Drinks – Or Democracies”, as is the title, but then also goes on to state “we have to consider the balance of forms of democracy”. Is Emma demanding a single style of democracy? Or a melting pot of the better aspects of different democracies around the world? Who knows.

Overall, I do not disagree with the entire article. In fact, Emma made some very good points about the political deadlock as a result of the Brexit referendum. Although, I believe political deadlock is relative to a specific issue rather than referenda themselves.

With regards to the Brexit 2016 ‘case study’ Emma uses, I think some points made need addressing. First, she claims that the Brexit referendum was called “in the interests of the Conservative party” due to “haemorrhaging votes to UKIP”. What Emma is implying is that there was a growing demand amongst the British population for a vote of EU membership. The Conservatives realised this and after Cameron’s poor attempt with the EU Reform Deal, had to call a vote to satisfy the population. Quite literally democracy in action.

Next, Emma claims that we entered the EU in 1973, we did not. In fact, the EU did not exist in 1973, the EEC (its predecessor) did. There was no referendum in Britain of whether Britain should join the EU (or sign the Maastricht Treaty in 1992).

The 2016 referendum on Brexit was not in fact the Conservative’s just trying to point score and gain votes. It was a greatly overdue democratic process that determined whether British people actually wanted to be a member of an organisation that they never actually agreed to be a part of.

The fact of the matter is, many people had spent their entire lives as part of the EEC and/or EU without having any say in the matter; especially since the only referendum relating to the issue was in 1975 and whether people wanted to remain in the EEC (not the EU).

Emma also claims that UK referenda fail to “protect” the interests of minorities. I disagree with this sentiment. Firstly, the writer does not actually include an example from within the UK. Even if she did, the example given still would not hold up. If you are asking for a nation-wide vote on an issue and the nation decides the outcome, you cannot claim “tyranny of the majority”.

It is the majority of the vote that wins a referendum. In other words, the minority of the vote shall always lose a referendum as that is how voting works. Simply, most (majority of) votes for a decision win. If the majority of a national vote on an issue in their best conscious, and it is not actively harming or discriminating against minorities, then the result is fair.

Being British is not a single race, ethnicity, sexuality etc. It is the common culture all of those who live in the UK (which contains other cultures within it). The claim that the majority of these people are discriminating against anyone through referenda is simply nonsensical. Britain has some of the most holistic, far-reaching and protecting minority rights laws in the world. This is not to the mention that Britain is also subject to international law from the UN.

With regards to the minarets ban on Mosques in Switzerland, I do not believe it was a case of discrimination and this rhetoric is only worsening diversity within Switzerland. The main arguments banning the minarets were cosmetic; essentially how they looked. It is also worth noting that this ban did not break any international laws that protect minorities with regards to discrimination or Islamophobia.

I feel it is irresponsible for Emma to claim that it was objectively discrimination, when in fact that is their opinion. I do not believe the minarets should have been banned. However, the population of Switzerland voted for what is a harmless cosmetic change and it should be respected. Due to the way popular initiatives work in Switzerland, if given enough momentum, the issue could just as easily be voted on again and reversed.

Overall, quite a few of the arguments made with regards to referenda seem flimsy and based on falsehoods. I have a sneaking suspicion that Emma is not in fact in favour of the 2016 Brexit referendum result and is trying to argue it should never have been held due to all the supposed flaws that she attempts to highlight.

Moreover, all the arguments of minority discrimination, being “logistically sketchy”, and not having “a place in British representative democracy”, have just all been tagged on the end. If the writer is in fact a Brexiteer, I do apologise in advance. But by the lack of knowledge with regards to their chosen case study (the EU), I suspect they are a Remainer.

Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Peter Pearce

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Referenda may not “fit”, but it should not be condemned – A Labour Response

Emma makes some very valid points throughout her article that I agree with for the most part. However, I do not think that it is right to ultimately condemn referenda as ineffective or not in line with the UK system.

Emma is correct by asserting that there are many issues that referenda can bring. She touches on the ‘tyranny of the majority’, changing ideas, and making complex issues into a single question.

This does not mean that referenda can never be useful though. Nor does it mean that it does not have a place in a parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary democracy is a representative democracy in the sense that each voter chooses a person that they want to represent and speak for them on the political stage. This is not completely how it works in the UK due to the operation of the party whip, but we still largely have a representative democracy. 

This raises a crucial point. If our representatives can speak for us on issues that are being discussed, what happens when an issue is not being discussed? And what if these representatives do not know the “will of the people”?

Leading up to the 2015 General Election, David Cameron made the promise that he would hold an election on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union. This was partially due to mounting pressure from political parties that were pushing for the UK to leave the EU.

If referenda were not used in the UK, the alternative would perhaps have been a debate held in Parliament. However, this would not have been as effective as holding a referendum. Moreover, perhaps the result of such debate would not have aligned with the “will of the people”.

Before the 2015 election campaign, there were discussions of the UK’s membership of the EU, but never to the scale surrounding the 2016 referendum. The referendum showed that the majority of people in the UK wanted to leave the EU. Therefore, the fact that the topic had not been properly discussed and that no action had been taken before the referendum perfectly demonstrates why referenda can be a useful tool, even in a parliamentary democracy.

This then begs the question, how can our MPs represent us, when they do not know where we stand on certain issues? While this is a completely separate question, the answer demonstrates why we should not condemn the use of referenda, even if they do not “fit” with our democratic system.

Written by Guest Labour Writer, Ollie White

Emma Hall
Guest Liberal Writer
Peter Pearce
Deputy Chief of Conservatives | Website

I am going into my second year at the University of Exeter studying a flexible combined honour in Geography and Politics. My interest in politics and geography stems from an interest in current events and the wider world, with geography being the study of all world processes.

Ollie White
Guest Labour Writer

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