Its a challenge to read about a Parliamentary debate which raises concerns about referenda and their role in democracy when that debate is taking place in the House of Lords which has so many of its own problems when it comes to defining democracy. However many of the active members of the House of Lords are people with substantial credibility even though they are not elected and not accountable even by the slimmest form of process such as a vote every 5 years or so and a selection by a very small number of entirely unaccountable party members. I found it fascinating to read about the Brexit Party complaining about their lack of access to data on voters during the European and Peterborough elections last month given that when I was standing in 2012 for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, that the same characters never once spoke up for the Independent candidates who had the same barrier (and were elected in a third of the places!). However they are correct to suggest that the democratic process is deeply biased in favour of the two big parties and the first past the post system is strongly in their favour.
The Lords debate which took place on Thursday was entitled “Referendums” and was started by Clive Soley who was a Labour MP elected from 1979 until he stepped down in 2015 at the election. He began by asking “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the increased use of referendums on the functioning of representative democracy in the United Kingdom.” and he then went on to say “By and large, referendums do more harm than good. There are, of course, exceptions. If you have a position where maybe you want to reinforce a constitutional change that has been widely discussed and then largely agreed it can make sense” The debate was ended by George Young, who was a Tory MP from 1974 to 2015 and despite the many challenges to the value of the 2016 referendum, Young summarised many of the statements and then did a verbal U turn by stating
“I do not know if any noble Lords listened, as I did, to Lord Sumption’s insightful Reith Lectures on law and the decline of politics. His assessment of the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, is well worth quoting: “A referendum is a device for bypassing the ordinary political process. It takes decision making out of the hands of politicians, whose interest is generally to accommodate the widest possible range of opinion, and places it in the hands of individual electors who have no reason to consider any opinion but their own”. He went on to say that: “A referendum obstructs compromise by producing a result in which 52% of voters feel entitled to speak for the whole nation and 48% don’t matter at all”, and that this was, “the authentic language of totalitarianism”….I believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said, that there is a valid case for referendums on certain issues, for example on self-determination—whether people want to stay under the jurisdiction of this Parliament…More generally, in a representative democracy it is important that citizens are engaged in politics…Referendums can take this engagement with citizens to a higher level. Citizens can directly vote on matters and see that their participation has real policy implications. They can see direct changes on issues that matter to them. Referendums can indicate public support for policy decisions and, if well-managed, can maintain the public’s faith in democracy. If less well-managed, they can have the opposite effect…I note with interest that recent statistics show that public support for referendums has fallen from 76% before the 2016 referendum to 55% now…Many noble Lords have this afternoon displayed their discontent with referendums, and about the one in 2016. There have been accusations of “wrongdoing”, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and that the referendum was “ill-informed” or “irresponsible”. My own view is that there was in fact a case for the EU referendum and I believe the result was valid.”
and then he goes on to do another U turn at the end of his statement by saying
“That committee went on to argue, as many noble Lords have argued this afternoon, that there must be appropriate time for debate and political discourse, and the questions put to the public should be carefully considered. The UCL report suggests, as noble Lords have done, that referendums should be held at the end of the decision-making process, so that eligible voters can choose between developed alternatives. This seems to me a sensible ideal, even if it is not always possible to achieve and certainly did not happen with the EU referendum.”
Along with this set of strange views there was another comment about democracy in the House of Lords by Lord Brooke of Alvethorpe “I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Soley for introducing this debate. It is a great pity we have so little time. One of the reasons for that is that we do not organise business democratically in this House. Maybe others will have the guts to try to turn it over, and maybe we will use a form of referendum to determine what we should be talking about, our priorities, on which days we should speak on them and for how long. If we can do that for ourselves, we should then be prepared to trust the people out there and do it for them”
The irony is that whilst Clive Brooke was a Trade Unionist and therefore understands the nature of democracy within Trade Unions, that he has never been elected as a law maker. However his comment makes a great deal of sense and explains one reason for the title to this blog.