No 458 Posted by fw, April 13, 2012
Direct democracy is meant to transform British politics, giving voters more power. Voters are meant to exercise that power through devices like petitions and referendums. There are also proposals for the recall of MPs by popular vote in between general elections. But will these measures really make a difference? Or is direct democracy a bad idea in principle, exposing representative democracy to populism?
The BBC’s David Grossman investigates. His findings were broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Beyond Westminster — Direct democracy – transforming or undermining our politics? April 7, 2012. The 28-minute broadcast remains available for listening. Click on the linked title to access.
Below is my abridged transcript on the show with added subheadings, links and definitions of unfamiliar terms.
LIST OF TOPICAL SUBHEADINGS — To facilitate scanning of this long post
Coalition Prime Minister David Cameron promises to redesign democracy from the ground up
Announcer – Political leaders are promising more direct democracy. But will this this really bring power to the people? David Grossman investigates.
Grossman – The Conservative manifesto at the last election was titled “An Invitation to Join the Government of Britain.” A bold offer. David Cameron was promising to redesign our democracy from the ground up.
Cameron <previously recorded> – We will begin a massive redistribution of power in our country from the powerful to the powerless. Local control over schools, housing and policing. The right to initiate local and national referenda. More mayors. Fewer quangos*. Open primaries for Parliamentary candidates. (*quango — an organization which is established by a government to consider a subject of public importance, but which is independent from the government).
Two years on, public alienation and disengagement seem stronger than ever
Grossman – The Conservatives were not alone. Labour and the LibDems, too, promised to rewire the political power grid. The MPs expenses and party funding scandals meant clinging to the status quo would have been political suicide. And yet nearly two years on from the last election alienation and disengagement seems stronger than ever. Last week’s by-election in Brantford West* [was] a stinging rebuke to the big parties. Opinion polls suggest all the main party leaders are viewed with something not far short of contempt. The public don’t seem reengaged or empowered. [Brantford West, a long-time Labour stronghold lost to an Independent and the other main parties did poorly].
Grossman: <interviewing citizens> — How does it feel to have all this political power that you got now?
Male respondent – I’ve got?
Grossman – Yeah.
Male respondent – As a pensioner, you mean?
Grossman – As anybody. Apparently power is now ours. The government has sent out power to the people.
Male respondent – I don’t believe it. I think we’re just a small cog in a big machine.
Grossman — What about e-petitions? Do you fancy an e-petition?
Male respondent – If I knew what it was, yeah. (chuckles)
Grossman — The rules of the game have changed. Voters are now in charge. Do you feel powerful?
Two women respondents – No. No.
Grossman – No?
Woman respondent – No. No you don’t. You feel like you’re going to get hurt.
Grossman – Apparently you’re running the country now.
Woman respondent – Are we? Beg to differ.
Britain’s version of direct democracy
Grossman – For this week’s Beyond Westminster, I’m looking at how far the politicians have delivered on their promise to reconnect power to the people. It’s an extensive package of measures from proposed powers to recall MPs to e-petitions that once they get a hundred thousand signatures are eligible for a debate in Parliament, to a whole string of new referendums and elections. But does this really add up to a wholesale and profound power shift?
Opinions about direct democracy in Middlesbrough range from “couldn’t be more excited” to “it’s very skin-deep” and “it’s a bit of an illusion”
Grossman – Middlesbrough is a town eager for politics to help sort out its problems. Its local economy is struggling in the current downturn, piling more difficulties on top of already ingrained joblessness. This has, though, been something of a testing ground for community politics. They voted to have a directly-elected mayor. And community activists like June Goodchild couldn’t be more excited by the new politics on offer. In fact, she’d like direct democracy to go much further.
Goodchild – I’d never done anything in my life regarding community or anything. I saw a car burn on a bonfire and I thought “No”, I’m not going to live like this. No way am I going to live like this. And I’ve bought my house. And I came over here. It was the library. I went in. I said “What can we do to do a petition?” I got 700 signatures off this estate to have a camera.
Grossman – Make the case for direct democracy or people taking charge of their own lives. How liberating is it and how effective is it as a way of getting things changed and done?
Goodchild – Absolutely. You feel so good. You go on a high. When something’s happened, such as this place when it got done, I couldn’t sleep for three weeks with excitement.
Grossman – And petitions? Petitioning Westminster? Petitioning Parliament? Is that something you’d do?
Goodchild – Course I would. If I thought it was going to help anyone I would definitely.
Grossman – So the fact that you could, essentially, get a hundred thousand signatures on an e-petition you could get a debate in Parliament.
Goodchild – I’d love to. I’d like to tell them what it’s like to live on a hundred quid a week. Absolutely, yeah. He’d [MP] pay a hundred pound for a meal, a Conservative minister. I have to live on that for a week. Hundred pound a week! It’s absolutely ridiculous.
Grossman – As well as keeping an eye on what they have for lunch, extra helpings of direct democracy serve up some big challenges for the politicians. Middlesbrough had one of the first directly-elected mayors, former senior police officer, Ray Mallon who ran as an independent. Ten other cities in England will be voting in May on whether to have mayors. And in November people in England and Wales will be voting to elect police commissioners. And Middlesbrough, like all English local authorities, would have had to have had a referendum if it had wanted to raise its council tax above three and a half percent. Here, like in any remarkable number of local authorities, they decided to come in just under the limit.
Middlesbrough’s deputy mayor, David Budd of the Labour Party, has doubts about all this direct democracy, including the recent proposal that voters could have a petition to recall their MP between elections — in effect, sacking them and triggering a by-election. He thinks it’s worrying as is the government’s enthusiasm for e-petitions.
Budd – While I see petitions have some value, I think the very cynical view is it’s a very skin-deep idea of democracy – that if they’re left to local authorities, local areas have a bit more say about what happens there that would be much more valuable way rather than centralizing things. It might have value but getting a hundred thousand signatures to get something debated in Parliament, is that really an improvement in democracy?
Grossman — What about the recall of MPs as a principle, as a process? Do you think that would be something useful?
Budd – In theory, it sounds fine. The difficulty will be how that could work. It could be on a specific local issue that people were extremely angry about. But then is the MP there to state what they think is best or what the electorate thinks is best? That’s always been a problem hasn’t it? We might get MPs who were just a little bit more careful about certain things and, you know, were even less likely to come up with something which was difficult but right.
Grossman – The local councillor around here is Sajaad Khan of the Labour Party. He would like to be an MP but he might struggle to get selected given his views on the limits of direct democracy. You won’t hear many keen-to-please would-be MPs saying people power is really a bit of an illusion.
Khan – I think it’s great to let the people feel like they’ve got some control over democracy. I think it’s great that they can go on their smartphones and computer and click a button and on the other side a civil servant will suddenly download this to his relevant minister and say right, a hundred thousand people are saying that the minimum wage should go up. A hundred thousand people a year saying that we should have a statue of someone in the town hall. But it’s not going to happen. It’s like the word ‘vision’ really means ‘mirage’. It’s just the illusion is given for you to think as a member of the public that you have any right in the first place. In reality it is a simple system – post your vote at the polling station. People don’t want to change that.
Leader of the House of Commons cites evidence that people have embraced e-petitions but a committee report suggests otherwise
Grossman – In the past if you wanted to get your MP to listen to your opinion you had two choices: you could write to them or you could come here. This is the magnificent central mall of the House of Commons. Over there just to my right is the desk where two people are waiting patiently for members of the public to turn up and ask to see their MP. The MP would then be summoned and they’d come and talk to their constituent. It has to be said they’re not doing very much at all today. They’ve sat there patiently chatting to each other because all the people in here seem to be tourists come to see the sights. I’ve come, though, to meet one of the top parliamentarians, the Leader of the House, Sir George Young, to find out how he thinks this new era of direct democracy is going.
Grossman – e-petitions? How is that going do you think? I mean have the public embraced it?
Young – Well three and a half million people have embraced it because that’s the number who signed the petitions. And I think it is a very easy way of contacting your Member of Parliament and helping to shape the debate here. So I think a large number of people have engaged. But also it has begun to shape the agenda here in Parliament and that it is influencing the sort of subjects that we debate, in that nearly all the e-petitions that went through the hundred thousand have been debated in one form or another. And I hope those who signed the petitions then follow the debates, saw what MPs were saying and saw the government’s response. And I hope that they felt that in a way they had begun to engage in the Parliamentary system in a way that perhaps they hadn’t before because they had never written to their MP, they hadn’t been to see their MP, but here was a way of engaging with Parliament.
Grossman – People will use it I suppose if they feel that it not only gets things talked about but things get done or things change. Can you point to anything that’s been done since e-petitions came in that it has been done because of an e-petition that wouldn’t have been done without it?
Young – Well I think there are two good examples. One was the e-petition about Hillsborough calling on the government to release certain documents. Those documents were released and we had one of the vest debates in this Parliament on that e-petition. And then we had another e-petition on fuel prices just before the statement by the Chancellor in November. And in January fuel prices were frozen. So I think you can point to those two incidents where there was a change.
Grossman – And yet the Procedure Select Committee in their recent report suggested that these e-petitions might have been a bit oversold, that the public were led to believe perhaps that they had more of an influence, more of an impact, and more of a compulsion on MPs than they in fact do.
Young – Well the media may be to some extent responsible for giving that impression. The government have always been absolutely clear that if a petition reaches a hundred thousand it is eligible for a debate – that’s what it says on the front page of the website. It may be that the media or other people have given an impression that it’s automatic.
Can direct democracy really contribute to a coherent program for government?
Grossman – Do you think that MPs and people who want to run governments are in a very difficult position these days in that it’s so easy to consult the public on a series of issues but the public’s decisions on all of those issues don’t necessary make sense or add up to a coherent program for government? For example, you could say I don’t want higher taxes, I don’t want cuts in the health service, I don’t want cuts in the schools’ budget but I want to tackle the deficit. In a series of four different referendums you could have all of those answers and yet leave the politicians with no kind of instruction with what to do.
Young – Well that’s why we don’t have what some countries have which is referendums on all the issues that you just mentioned. You have a general election and you vote for one party or the other who then implements their program, and if at the end of the time you don’t like what they’ve done then you vote in the other lot. But you do at least get a coherent program for government based on how people voted in the general election.
Referendums are intrinsic to Swiss democracy and popular in the US. Is Britain’s coalition government trending in that direction?
Grossman – The world Sir George is talking about is rather outdated in that the current government’s policies are not based on a single party manifesto but a coalition agreement negotiated after the election. No one voted for precisely what we got. In that sense we’ve become a bit closer to some other European democracies where coalition government is common. Dr. Paolo Dardanelli is an expert on Swiss politics at the University of Kent and Dr. Alan Renwick at the University of Reading has been an expert witness before a Commons committee looking at possible changes like the recall of MPs. Paolo Dardanelli began by explaining why referendums are so intrinsic to Swiss democracy.
Dardanelli – Certainly the experience with Switzerland is that direct democracy has made the system more responsive to the population than is probably the case elsewhere. The other aspect with Switzerland in terms of the party system is very fragmented. You have a number of different parties divided in terms of ideology and religion, in terms of language, so finding sort of a unified platform that could have a majority across the country is not easy and that’s why direct democracy is an important element in that system.
Grossman – Alan Renwick from the University of Reading, we don’t just have to look at Europe do we? There are other examples from elsewhere in the world. I mean the famous example of direct democracy where they’re constantly being asked things and they have all sorts of powers over their elected officials is in the United States and various states in the United States. What informs us there about how we could or maybe should proceed?
Renwick – Many states in the Unites States use not just referendums but also a range of different instruments of direct democracy. That includes initiatives where voters have the right to put an issue to the vote rather than having the politicians decide what the issue is going to be. And this also includes the notion of recall of elected representatives. So that rather than just having to wait for the regular elections to come along before we can decide who are representatives are going to be, in many American states voters can actually recall their elected representatives early and have a fresh election. And of course that is something that the current government in the UK is also proposing.
How much power would people really have in the British government’s proposed process to allow for recall of elected representatives?
Grossman – What sort of process do they envisage and how does that compare with what we see elsewhere in the world?
Renwick – The British government proposes that if an MP has been found guilty of serious wrongdoing then it would be possible for voters to start gathering signatures for a petition. And if at least ten percent of voters in a local constituency sign this petition then there will basically be an early by-election. And the government has decided that there are two sorts of circumstances than can trigger this recall process. One is if an MP is jailed. And the other is if the MP is found guilty of wrongdoing by a committee of MPs.
Grossman – Some critics will say that that process which you have outlined is designed to give the impression of true recall where the public are in control, but, actually, when you examine it it’s the MPs who are still in control.
Renwick – I think that’s a very good criticism. And I think it is really untenable to have MPs deciding on whether an MP has been found guilty of wrongdoing.
Grossman – Paolo, could you tell us… in Switzerland, for example, do MPs always do what the public want them to?
Dardanelli – Well, no. That’s why referendums are used. There have been a number of occasions in which the elites were sort of fairly unanimous in recommending a particular course of action and people actually voted, you know, in a different way.
Grossman – We had recently the example of the minarets didn’t we?
Dardanelli – Yes. The issue technically was about the construction of the new minarets. As it stands at the moment you are not allowed to build new minarets.
Grossman – That’s come from the public, not something that by and large the political elite wanted?
Dardanelli – No.
Opponents of direct democracy are concerned about where it could lead
Grossman – Alan, do you think that is what fundamentally some of the architects of the system we’re seeing developed in Britain are afraid of. That that kind of issue will gain purchase through this kind of mechanism?
Renwick – Yes. There are several concerns that are expressed by those who oppose direct democracy in the UK. One is that if we had direct democracy, at least according to the opinion polls, we would be out of the EU, we would have a rerun of the death penalty, we would have publicity of pedophiles’ names and addresses. We would have all these sorts of issues on which of course many people may say we should have these things. But a lot of the opponents of direct democracy are concerned about these kinds of developments.
“There is desire from the people to have more of a say on public policy and public decisions”
Grossman – So Paolo do think then that we are becoming more like the Swiss?
Dardanelli – The difference is still very significant. But certainly I think there is a development in that direction in the sense there is desire from the people to have more of a say on public policy and public decisions. In a sense we are going at least in the same direction if not catching up with Switzerland.
e-petition calling for referendum on EU membership led to MP resignations and resentment
Grossman – Our democracy here has already changed. Last year an e-petition calling for a referendum on the EU membership was picked for a Parliamentary debate. The government whipped its MPs to vote against the motion leading to resignations and resentment from MPs like the Conservative Adam Holloway.
Holloway <previously recorded> — I’m not now prepared to go back on my word to my constituents. And I’m really staggered that loyal people like me have actually been put in this position. If Britain’s future as an independent country is not a proper matter for a referendum, Madame Deputy Speaker, then I have absolutely no idea what is.
President of polling organization thinks direct democracy referendums are “crude” and “superficially appealing”
Grossman – To get a sort of progress report on the new democracy being built we brought together Peter Kellner, President of the polling organization YouGov, who’s skeptical of the changes, Matthew Elliott of the pressure group The Taxpayers’ Alliance, who can’t get enough people power and Nan Sloane, director of the Centre for Women and Democracy in Leeds who thinks that what’s being offered is rather superficial. I began by asking Peter Kellner why he’s opposed to more direct democracy when his own polling shows so clearly the gulf between the governed and the governing.
Kellner – Direct democracy referendums seems superficially appealing — put the voters in the drivers’ seat, the public take the decisions. My problem is that on most day-to-day issues, on spending, on public services, decisions that Parliaments make are trade-offs, are subtle, they require negotiation. Referendums are very crude. And politics in my view ought to be flexible. So with the possible exception of constitutional issues, where I think there’s a slightly different argument for most things to do with day-to-day politics that affect peoples’ lives, I think Parliament should take the decisions not direct democracy.
Grossman – Matthew Elliott from The Taxpayers’ Alliance, you would disagree with a lot of that. But how far should we be governed by direct democracy rather than a representative democracy?
Head of a taxpayers’ alliance in favour of “more direct democracy” to reflect what people are actually interested in and to give them a say in the process
Elliott – We’re very much in favour of more direct democracy and more use of referenda. So, for example, I think the idea that you should have a referendum locally if people want a big council tax rise to be brought in, I think that’s a great idea. And we’ve seen as well with the e-petitions that have gone on how…actually some of the issues that have come up like the fuel tax campaign, like the idea of an EU referendum – these are issues that people are actually really interested in. And when those debates then happen in the House of Commons they’re actually very newsworthy and they watched.
Grossman – But isn’t this open to abuse? After all groups like yours would be able to motivate and mobilize large numbers of people to day they don’t want fuel tax rises and they don’t want tax rises. The whole thing though doesn’t make any sense from a point of view of somebody trying to implement that as a program for government.
Elliott – It’s interesting. Before the e-petitions came in people said oh, what you’ll see straight away is a motion for the death penalty. There has been a petition on the death penalty. It hasn’t got that many signatures. I’m all for giving people a say. If we really want to get people engaged in Parliament again we need to be talking about issues that they’re interested in.
Grossman – Nan Sloane in Leeds, do you detect a popular appetite for this? Is there a new politics being created in this country free of the control of the political parties?
Director of a women’s centre thinks the “new politics” has failed to address the real issue about what has gone wrong with our democracy and what sort of democracy we want
Sloane – I think there is a new politics being created but I don’t think it’s necessarily free of the control of political parties. And I don’t think it’s necessarily because the public are banging on the door demanding referendums. We know that something has gone wrong with our democracy and people are snatching at bits and pieces in order to try and fix it. And what we’re not doing is having a whole conversation about what sort of democracy do we want in the twenty-first century. I would also say that some of the things that are being proposed are not exactly what they seem. The e-petitions are exactly what they say they are – petitions. They don’t necessarily result in any action. I think people signing petitions expecting something other than a debate in Parliament, which hardly anybody sees.
Grossman – When we went to Middlesbrough I did detect a certain amount of cynicism about this. What they thought was by and large it was the political parties manipulating it to make it seem like power was coming to them. Is that your reading of it?
Sloane – I think there are two things happening. One is that the political parties are looking at other mechanisms and saying well what can we make work for us. But I think the other thing is that people do genuinely want to develop a new style of democracy but they’re just not sure how to go about doing that. We’re tinkering with the car rather than sorting the basic problems.
Will direct democracy transform MPs from “representatives” to “delegates” and if so, is there anything wrong with that?
Grossman – Let’s move on to one of those specific bits of the car if you like. Peter Kellner, recall of MPs, it’s been promised by pretty much all the parties in one form or another. We’ve now got some proposals on the table. Why shouldn’t we have a mechanism between elections to reflect popular anger with malfeasance by a particular MP or other?
Kellner – I think the problem, David, is to define precisely when you allowed it and when you didn’t. Now maybe some people would say if an MP is regarded as politically unpopular there should be a means of getting rid of them. But if you go down that route then you don’t have five-year Parliaments, you have Parliaments that last for a year or eighteen months. I think it just makes politics unworkable in Britain if you don’t have a degree of stability between general elections.
Grossman — Matthew Elliott from The Taxpayers’ Alliance, is there not a danger of turning MPs from representatives where they employ their judgment not just their industry, in the famous words of Edmund Burke, into just delegates who are just there to do what the people want, in which case why not get rid of MPs altogether and have a kind of Swiss style democracy that just relies on the public to make every single decision?
Elliott – I think there’s a lot of evidence to say that people see their MPs as being more of a delegate if you like than a representative. They want to have some sort of control over them in between elections, and skepticism of recall, the idea that you would have this constant churn of MPs in constant by-elections is misplaced. Where you do have recall like, for example, in the US, it’s actually used comparatively infrequently.
Grossman – Nan Sloane.
Sloane – I think the wider question is that the electorate is disengaged from politics as a whole and disengaged form government as a whole and that we actually need to be looking at something much more fundamental.
“Political parties need to take a much closer look at themselves and think about why people don’t join them”
Grossman – You can’t get everybody involved in a focus group. What would you see as the answer?
Sloane – People do have a view of what they want and they don’t necessarily want to be taking all the decisions themselves. They understand in a country of any kind of size you have to delegate decision making. It’s how and to whom. We can’t have a democracy without political parties. There is no democracy where political parties don’t function and so there is a big question about who and how and what they should be. That’s a conversation which we’ve never had. And I think the political parties need to take a much closer look at themselves and think about why people don’t join them.
Grossman – Nan Sloane and before her Matthew Elliott and Peter Kellner.
END OF ABRIDGED TRANSCRIPT
MY COMMENT — Whatever else you say about British democracy, at least their government is making an effort to give voters more power. Meanwhile, in Canada. the Harper Government appears determined to undermine people power, leaving our parliamentary democracy in tatters.