Are referendums a good or bad thing?

Whatever happens with Brexit there is one lesson future Prime Ministers might take from the whole thing and that is never to have a referendum about anything again. On the other hand consider this- would it be a good idea to have a lot more of them? The way we have them now in the UK a referendum is at best a snapshot of how people feel at that moment.  With the EU one for example there’s a lot of focus on whether those who voted Leave would now choose Remain but there may equally be traffic in the other direction. If you were able to have a vote each week the result could fluctuate wildly but the point is that such important decisions should not be made on a snapshot. They require far more finesse, analysis and planning than that which is why we’re in the mess we’re in now.  If somehow there was a second referendum on the EU I reckon the Leave vote would be even higher simply because so many people are just fed up with the whole thing!

In the UK we elect politicians- local and national- to carry out a manifesto of policies. I suppose most people don’t take the time to read these properly- even I never read the entire manifesto just the list you always get in the media. This is what they are committing to doing, so if you generally agree with it you vote for their candidate. The idea that the subsequent government then keeps coming back to you and saying “is this ok?” and “what do you reckon about that?” undermines the concept of our elections as they are. It is not using referendums properly.

As for these referendums themselves people vote for all sorts of reasons not always anything much to do with the issue on the paper. There are people who did vote leave for no more than the idea that the EU has too many rules about vegetables. Some people voted Remain because they travel In Europe a lot and don’t want that interrupted by, er, too many rules. I’m not passing judgement on either of these but there is enough anecdotal evidence at least to suggest many who voted either way did so on more of a gut reaction than any consideration of the possibilities either way of continued membership or what might be the ramifications of leaving. What I’m saying is that its too complex an issue to be resolved by one question on a ballot paper and a paucity of actual facts in either of the campaigns. Plus our referendums always seem to be filtered through the prism of party leadership issues which is how Brexit came to be so associated with Theresa May to the extent that people are starting to think it was her idea in the first place!

So the use of occasional referenda allows the government to manipulate the political agenda. If you really are going to put your faith in the mechanism you need to hold them regularly on all kinds of matters. Look at what the government chose for the trio of votes- the voting system itself, Scottish independence and membership of the EU. Then look at what they didn’t have referendums about- Universal Credit, Austerity measures, Environmental policies. Issues you could argue which are equally important to people. It’s almost as if the government are trying to distract us with selected big issues so we don’t notice others! I also think that if you really are going to have referendums there needs to be an official third party –separate from the Yes or No, the Leave or Remain – that offer only facts about the subject and likely outcomes of the result either way. At least that gives people something more realistic on which to base their decision.

There is actually somewhere where this does happen. In Switzerland they have what they call Direct Democracy in which Swiss citizens vote in referendums as many as four times per year on any issue that involves a change to the constitution. These ballots are on both national and local issues and people can cast their vote either by post, paper ballot or e-voting. Two months beforehand eligible voters are given full information about the proposal under consideration alongside arguments for and against allowing them to make a more informed decision. Also the federal government always recommends a position either way and states why though they will abide by the result if it goes the other way.
The Swiss referendum on whether crows should be allowed to eat maps was strongly fought...

There are three types of referendum they use. Mandatory referendums cover all constitutional changes approved by the federal parliament and they need to be passed by a majority of both voters and regions (called cantons). For optional referendums if 50,000 citizens or 8 cantons request it a vote is held on any new or revised law. In the case of citizens they have 100 days to collect the necessary signatures. The result is by a simple majority. There are also what are called Popular Initiatives in which citizens can demand a change to the constitution if within an 18 month period they can gather 100,000 people to back the referendum. If these numbers seem low its because there are only about five and half million voters in the country so it’s a higher proportion than it looks to us. Again a majority of both people and cantons is needed to pass the law. The system is so ingrained in the country’s process that referendum dates are set years in advance long before anyone knows what issues will be on the ballot paper.

Due to our considerably larger electorate such a detailed system might be impractical here but to move to something similar would certainly be a sea change that would make even leaving the EU seem like a small thing by comparison. In Switzerland, direct democracy is part of the regular political process. Our sudden flurry of referendums in recent years has disrupted and delayed politics overshadowing many other issues and trivialising the issue being considered. If we are going to have referendums we need to do so regularly and in a defined process like the Swiss one otherwise you end up with the mess that is Brexit. In which case don’t have them at all.

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