Referendums are very harmful to a Representative Democracy. They undermine Parliamentary Sovereignty, allow our politicians to abdicate responsibility for major political decisions, prevent them from exercising their informed judgements, and can be manipulated by Governments. This is to say nothing of the premise of allowing important decisions to be made by an uninformed electorate that can be swayed by the Media Industry at the drop of a hat. And indeed, the worst case scenario of Tyranny by Majority is one that should not be disregarded. Of course, Referenda are not entirely harmful. They are useful tools for ensuring that elected Governments do not overstep their boundaries for Constitutional Reform, and they do have the potential to educate the electorate. Firstly, elections undermine Parliamentary Sovereignty, and indeed the very purpose of politicians.
As the MP for Bath John Patten put it, “They undermine Westminster. What they ensure, as we saw in the last election, is if you have a referendum on an issue politicians during an election campaign say oh we’re not going to talk about that, we don’t need to talk about that, that’s all for the referendum.”. One example of this occurring would be the General Election of 2001, where one hotly contested topic was the prospect of Britain joining the Euro. Many arguments should have been made regarding our relationship to the Single Currency – none were, however.
This is because Gordon Brown indicated a referendum would be held, effectively sweeping the entire issue under the carpet, and it was never seriously considered again. Incidentally, the referendum was never held, and the enormous Constitutional Issue ceased to be a topic of note, at the whim of the Government. This isn’t to say the reverse is not true. Blair’s Government held a referendum in 2004, on the proposition of North-Eastern England devolving to have its own elected assembly.
The Regional Assemblies were a large project for the Labour Government, but the North-East shot it down, with 77.9% of the votes cast showing a no to the plans. Secondly, the premise of asking the unengaged electorate to take these kinds of decisions is fundamentally flawed. Election turnout has plummeted since the 1992 General Election, with barely 60% of the electoral roll turning out in 2001. People are simply disinterested in voting, and this statistic is taken from a General Election, arguably the most important vote a UK citizen can take.
The most recent national referendum in the UK, the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum, achieved less than half of the eligible electorate turning out, while the Police and Crime Commissioner elections received even less – one polling station received no visitors at all on election day. Nationally, the turnout was an abysmal 15%. When there is so little enthusiasm to hold these expensive and time consuming votes, is it worth holding them at all? Clearly, the answer is no. As former US Vice-President Dan Quayle put it, “A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls.” Continually asking them to stop being apathetic will do very little. This is not to say that we couldn’t use Referenda to combat apathy. Taking these opportunities to educate and excite the electorate on Political issues is an excellent one.
However, it’s one we’ve continually not taken, and leaves one sceptical on the prospects of their viability. The electorate are also uninformed, and Governments are capable of exploiting this fact to their own advantage. For instance, the patriotic Europhobic trend that has emerged in recent years has seen UKIP swell in popularity (which often has no real motivation other than a fear of Brussels’ influence) has provided Conservative Prime Minister a chance to champion his parties’ anti-Europe agenda.
By presenting an in/out question to a completely ignorant and misguided electorate, he ensures that he furthers his partisan agenda as opposed to doing what is best for the country – a fundamental weakness in the Referendum system that practically begs politicians to exploit it. It is true, however, that the uninformed can have a much more positive effect on referenda. Studies by Princeton University indicated that the ignorant voter, who prefers Status Quo in any event, will always follow the established system, no matter how lucrative the other option may seem. This results in the ill-informed tempering and limiting the influences of extreme minorities. Using this study, one could argue that uninformed voters are not a bad thing at all, simply a necessary functioning organ of any democracy.
In addition to this, we see mass media’s influence on public voting opinions on every General Election, and referenda are no different. For instance, the infamous Sun headline of 1992 “It was The Sun wot won it” following Labour’s huge defeat at the polls, exemplifies the extent of the problem. Many analysts anticipated a narrow Labour majority, but in actual fact the Conservatives came out with a huge
win. It was no coincidence that the morning of polling day, the Sun headline read “If Neil Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights” referring to incumbent Labour Leader Neil Kinnock.
The article went on to brand him “Worst Prime Minister ever”. With many right-wing newspapers opposed to Britain’s further involvement with the EU, such a result looks likely to happen again in 2017. Lastly, referenda are very capable of having a damaging effect on minority groups. This situation is commonly referred to as Tyranny by Majority, which was summarised by Max Barry as “where the majority of the populace regularly votes to increase its benefits at the expense of various hapless minorities”. We elect representatives to serve in a specific capacity – to represent the populace. In referendums, we only represent ourselves. This leaves minority groups without a voice in political proceedings, with no meaningful way to represent themselves.
Those optimistic about Human Nature could argue that people will do the morally “correct” thing in most cases, and think not of themselves, but the nation. I, however, find little convincing base for that statement. To conclude, referenda are undemocratic; easily manipulated; scarcely turned out for; largely filled with lemming votes and can be used to unintentionally repress minorities. Our politicians are allowed to give up their responsibilities too, and all for the paltry rewards of a somewhat more educated electorate and the novelty of going to the polls. Or not, as the case may be.