Are referendums 100% good for democracy?

This is a guest blog by Geoff Woodcock, Chair of Unlock Democracy Merseyside & West Cheshire.

A couple of years ago I viewed a lecture about referendums by Peter Kellner. In citing a number of drawbacks, he encouraged me to take a more critical stance about this procedure.

This article is based on a presentation made to the Merseyside and West Cheshire Branch of Unlock Democracy. My explorations have been assisted tremendously by exploring the Report and Evidence contained in the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution Referendums in the United Kingdom (12th Report of Session 2009-10).

In that Report the “claimed” positive features of referendums are that:

  • They enhance the democratic process – a form of “pure democracy” which provides a legitimising mechanism
  • They are a weapon of entrenchment – difficult to reverse a policy
  • They can “settle” an issue
  • They provide a protective device and thus are a safeguard against controversial decisions being taken unless and until public support can be demonstrated
  • They enhance citizen engagement
  • They promote voter education
  • Voters are able to make reasoned judgements
  • They are popular with voters and seen as a fair way of resolving difficult or significant issues
  • They complement representative democracy.

    I feel sure that recent experience will question many of these assertions. Indeed I would contend that many witnesses forecast accurately some of the criticisms currently being expressed.

For example, many witnesses drew the Select Committees attention to negative features that were claimed about referendums. One was that they were a tactical device. Professor David Butler’s view was that referendums in the UK “are only going to happen when the Government of the day wants it or when it would be too embarrassing (because of past promises) to get out of it. Normally they will have a referendum because they think they are going to win it …”. This point was reinforced by Steve Richards who said that “a leader does not dare to hold a referendum unless they are convinced that they are going to win it…” Peter Kellner argued that the decision to hold the 1975 European Communities referendum “was a constitutional outrage… it was wholly to do with holding the Labour Party together”

Some witnesses argued that referendums are dominated by elite groups. The Californian experience of citizens’ initiatives was cited by Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg as an example of how referendums can “effectively be hijacked by organised interests”.

It was contended that referendums can have a damaging effect on minority groups and Caroline Morris warned of “the danger that minority rights may be overridden by populist sentiment”.

Some witnesses argued that referendum campaigns could become dominated by peripheral issues and are often used to express a view on the governing party rather than the issue in question. It was also argued that there was little public appetite for referendums to be used. The recent experience in the UK would seem to contradict this assertion. Though, according to Professor Butler, there had been a rapid decline in turnout in the “European exemplar of direct democracy”, Switzerland.

It was pointed out that a national referendum costs about the same as holding a General Election (in 2010 about £120m) so the use of such resources needs to be considered.

Finally, a number of witnesses thought that referendums undermined, or had the potential to undermine, representative democracy. The appeal of referendums was understandable, argued Dr Wilks-Heeg of Democratic Audit, but that “they must not be seen as a magic bullet. More wide-ranging work would first be necessary to reform the defects of our constitutional arrangements”. Many witnesses were of the view that, if referendums were used, they should be used in relation to constitutional issues -  in particular those of a fundamental nature.  Peter Browning’s Memorandum to the Committee is particularly germane. Indeed I understand that the current German constitution does not permit them: a reaction to the use of this electoral method employed by Hitler.

The report summarises its findings in para 62 as follows: The balance of the evidence that we have heard leads us to the conclusion that there are significant drawbacks to the use of referendums. In particular, we regret the ad hoc manner in which referendums have been used, often as a tactical device, by the government of the day.