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AS Politics: direct democracy

Jim Riley

24th October 2011

The debate in the Commons today on Britain’s relations with the EU was, as you are probably aware, prompted by an e-petition.

Jackie Ashley in today’s Guardian writes an excellent piece in support of the e-petition process. It’s definitely one I will be looking to use with my AS students when assessing the pros and cons of direct democracy, and ways to improve the democratic system in the UK.

Here is the link.

I also include a study note below on arguments for and against direct democracy. I know pedants would argue that e-petitions are a form of consultative democracy, but for Edexcel they do fall under the direct democracy umbrella on Unit 1.

Arguments for direct democracy

- The British system of representative government based on parliamentary democracy is limited in the extent that elections are held only every four or five years.  Using direct democracy via a system of referendums would reduce this democratic deficit.  Since 1997 Labour held referendums in each of their first two terms and we could say that the deficit has been reduced.  Regular referendums under a system of direct democracy would thus eradicate this deficit.

- Direct democracy bring government closer to the people at a time when faith in politicians is falling and decision making has become too distant, reducing democracy to an abstract.  Voter turnout during referendums is high when the vote is precipitated by a long and sustained debate about the issue, thus showing that the electorate is keen to engage in the political process when it is felt that their vote matters.  For example, 81% voted in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.

- Direct democracy can be seen as important ways to confer legitimacy upon policy plans, especially if they involve major constitutional change or the introduction of novel ideas.  If Britain were to go into war, a direct consultation with the people would be a far more legitimate means of making the decision than a vote in Parliament where a majority of the MPs represent a party that most of the public did not vote for.

- Referendums can settle an issue that has been on the political agenda for some time.  We saw this when voters in Scotland voted in favour of a Scottish Parliament after years of debate.  The referendum result demonstrated, as one politician put it, ‘The settled will of the Scottish people.’  If there hadn’t been a referendum then the Tories would certainly have made a bigger fuss over the issue.

- Direct democracy has educative benefits.  Research undertaken in Denmark at the time of the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty suggested that ordinary voters knew more about its contents than did Danish MPs.

Arguments against direct democracy

- In a complex society such as the UK’s it should be the elected politicians who make the decisions.  After all, they are the experts, and ordinary voters do not have sufficient knowledge to make accurate judgments about important changes to the law or the way we are governed. George Bernard Shaw summed up this idea when he wrote that ‘Legislation must be made by the quality, not by the mob.’

- There is evidence that referendum results can be skewed by voter ignorance, and as a consequence the vote is not based on a rational analysis of all of the evidence.  Thus we could expect that if a referendum were held on capital punishment at the time of a high profile murder case the public would be unable to step back and consider the issue in the round.

- Who would square the circle of competing and conflicting outcomes of votes?  What if the people voted for lower taxation and at the same time higher public spending?

- Faith in the political system can be undermined by poor turnouts which do not confer legitimacy on proposed changes.  In the referendum on the Welsh Assembly, the combination of a close vote and low turnout meant that only 25.2% of the entire electorate voted in favour.  Many argue that a minimum threshold should accompany such votes, such as the 40% required in the 1979 votes on devolution.

- Some are concerned about the way the outcome of a referendum vote can be influenced, thereby bringing into question the whole system of direct democracy.  For instance, the financial imbalance between any Yes and No campaigns could influence the outcome.  We saw this with the vote in Wales when the Yes campaign was able to outspend the No campaign by 7:1.  And who would set the question to be put to referendum under a system of direct democracy?

- On a related point, some issues are so complex and cannot be reduced to a simple yes/no response.  Further, the question wording may mean that the electorate would not necessarily be given the opportunity to vote for their preferred option, as was the case when the London Assembly and Mayor idea was combined leaving voters unable to reject one without the other.

- Minority interests may well come under threat.  For instance, it is unlikely that the public would have voted in favour of legalising homosexuality.

Jim Riley

Jim co-founded tutor2u alongside his twin brother Geoff! Jim is a well-known Business writer and presenter as well as being one of the UK's leading educational technology entrepreneurs.

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