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Plebiscites for Plebs?

If the UK media can be believed the British public is clamouring for a greater use of referenda. People, they say, crave a direct say in determining the outcome of a debate or to dictate the direction of government action. Two issues dominate this thinking. The first is the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union and the second is the forthcoming vote on Scottish independence.

You may wonder why the media is behaving like this when they know as well as I do that we have a settled mature system of parliamentary democracy where decisions are taken by Parliament and the Government on our behalf. Every citizen is able to vote for their Member of Parliament and if they don’t like the way they have voted they can vote for someone else next time. However the reality is that a growing number of voters feel alienated or perhaps feel distant from the business of government and, God help us, politics!! In such circumstances a single issue referendum can appear attractive.

However, without being too condescending about it, most public issues are quite complex and few members of the public have the knowledge, expertise and in particular the time to get to grips with the pros and cons of arguments. That’s why, in theory, we have MPs appointed as government ministers who specialise in the affairs of a particular government department and who enjoy the support of experts and administrators of all kinds. Most importantly, ministers are accountable to Parliament, and MPs to the public who elected them, and they can be kicked out every five years in elections if we don’t like what they have done in our name. I contend that most people are busy enough with their own lives to be expected to additionally become experts in the pros and cons of, say, a parliamentary bill or a particular Government policy.

In my view referenda are a gift to obsessives and those with an axe to grind. They reduce issues to their bare essentials and ignore the broader consequences. I have no doubt that the death penalty would be brought back if the issue was subjected to a referendum. Would we really want that? Secondly the arguments for and against membership of the EU are extremely complex and in my view are impossible to whittle down to a simple yes or no answer.

There are exceptions of course, but rarely an issue does emerge that merits a referendum and I concede that for the people of Scotland the question of independence is one. However in my experience the media, and in particular certain ‘right wing’ print media, are greatly exaggerating the extent to which the public generally is clamouring for more referenda. Contrary to what they say there is very little evidence to support the assertion that public discourse in the pubs and clubs of the land is dominated by discussion on the need for a referendum on the EU. In fact the limited public surveys completed show that the European issue comes way down the list of subjects being discussed.

I do not consider myself to be an apologist for the status quo and I agree that politics in the UK is not conducted particularly well and certainly not in the interests of ordinary people. However I don’t believe a greater use of referenda is the answer as I fear that they would risk undermining the very principle of parliamentary democracy itself. This would be a perverse outcome when so many nations around the world are currently fighting to overturn unelected regimes in favour of parliamentary democracies.

Instead we should be considering steps to invigorate our parliamentary system to make it more relevant and accountable to the electorate and especially to younger voters, who if Russell Brand is to be believed, have given up on voting. Clearly this task is not helped by the low standing afforded to politicians by the public. There is a lack of trust and confidence in MPs that they can have any meaningful impact on our lives as UK citizens. Additionally many people are cynical and distrustful of all politicians believing them to be all the same and full of self-interest. The expenses debacle and to an extent the Iraq war, were clearly contributory factors.

Without wanting to belittle the strong feelings people have about politicians, I do believe that in most cases this is extremely unfair. It also seems to me that the treatment of politicians by the media is unfair. The persistent ridicule and cynicism directed at politicians is, in my view, destructive of the very principles underpinning our system of parliamentary democracy. Just think of how political news is dealt with. More and more coverage is dominated not by news, not by analysis of what MPs and ministers have said, but by comments and opinions from political pundits who are given a huge percentage of space in publications to pontificate about what they think. It is the analysis and judgements of journalists that are offered high levels of credibility as opposed to the elected representatives that we have put in their positions of ‘power’. Should we listen to these unelected pundits over our elected representatives?

A mistake often made by people is that they expect MPs and Ministers to be experts when they are mostly clearly not and nor should they be. You and I could in theory be elected as an MP. We would need to be good communicators but we wouldn’t need to have expert and detailed knowledge of any particular issues. Remember that the Government employs the Civil Service to support the business of government and to advise and support Ministers in their work to represent us, the public.

Somehow we need the media to completely change the way they cover politics and to devote more attention to the debates that go on in the House of Commons. Unless that forum is recognised as the pre-eminent place where policies and actions are debated it will carry on being seen as distant and irrelevant to the majority of people. MPs need to do much more to actively engage with their electorates. It’s not enough to place an ad in the local newspaper saying they intend to hold a surgery at 7pm on a Saturday evening. Instead they should develop active systems of citizen democracy where issues can be debated and MPs can be involved in debate and discussion with the public. Whereas I still prefer real meetings in real buildings, the potential of social media cannot be overlooked. The key point is that politicians must not be allowed to become remote from their electorate. This is particularly important in constituencies that are considered to be safe from one political party or another. In the absence of these kinds of measures arrogance and self-interest can pollute the minds of even the most diligent of MPs.

In conclusion I argue that instead of more referenda we, the plebs, need better representation in Parliament. We also need a media that aims to enlighten and explain the whole complex process instead of one that seeks to pursue its own ‘political’ projects.

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