Could Government by Referendum Ever Be Made to Work?

Could Government by Referendum Ever Be Made to Work?

If major policies of government were decided by a referendum of the public we wouldn't be bombing Syria, we'd stay in the EU (by our fingernails), Britain would be playing a lead role in the fight against climate change, and The Empire Strikes Back would be officially the greatest Star Wars adventure of all time. Not a bad result for anyone who considers themselves to be of the 'progressive' wing of politics (and true Star Wars fans). Even the death penalty, used as the classic A-Level Politics example for why referendums are supposed to be a bad idea, would still be outlawed if the latest polling is anything to go by.

But, could a government by referendum ever be made to work?

The idea isn't necessarily as farcical as it first seems. The established model of democratic politics (voting for a representative who then makes decisions on our behalf) was conceived in a very different age. It was a time before Uber, Bitcoin, 38 Degrees, and Air BnB, before we had easy contact with politicians via email and twitter and before news broke on social media before it is announced on the BBC. The technology necessary to quickly harness public opinion and give Joe Bloggs the power to create his or her own business, campaign, or enterprise had not been invented.

Politics, so often the last sector to be touched by 'progress', is not entirely being left behind by this trend. Much has been said of the extent to which Angela Merkel has managed to gain the affectionate nickname "Mutti" - Mother of the Nation - by ensuring that her policies respond to the will of the German public. She hasn't achieved this feat by employing her own Mystic Meg, however. She has simply commissioned hundreds of public opinion polls so that when she makes a policy decision or proposal she knows how the public are likely to receive it. Similarly Jeremy Corbyn has introduced a new email system that surveys Labour Party members on their policy positions and has been crowdsourcing his questions for PMQs from the public. Riding the crest of this wave, a new site has also been created - Represent - which gives the public the chance to vote for or against policy statements. The aim is to use this to demonstrate to decision-makers the strength of feeling for or against a particular idea.

Of course, there are a number of obstacles, both logistical and philosophical, that would need to be overcome if a party or government was ever to open up its policies entirely to the public. Firstly, would it be the public who got to vote or just party members? How would the influence of the media be monitored? Would the public be considered to have enough information to make weighty policy decisions? How would the opinions of people who are not tech-savvy or who lack access to the internet be taken into account? Where would the line be drawn on the policies that get a public vote? And finally, how would any contradiction in policy decisions (for example, approving both spending increases and tax cuts) be prevented or ironed out?

These are not easy questions to answer (perhaps they should be put to the public...). But, political systems are always evolving. Westminster maintains an alarming number of historical anachronisms. Some are procedural, many are cultural. Both play upon each other and ensure that our political system is nowhere near as progressive or representative as it should be. Yet, it is still evolving, albeit at a snail's pace. That is how political institutions are formed - piecemeal and by trial and error. Similarly, the questions raised above could eventually be thrashed through, practiced, and debated should any party take the bull by the horns and try to find a new way for creating policy.

This blog is not meant to try and answer those questions but simply to put the case that given the technological revolution we are undergoing, the level of connectivity it is creating, and the sense of empowerment, the way that politics is done will have to respond and some of that change will involve a reshaping and questioning of how policies are formed. Far from being a reason not to try such a system, any concerns over the public's political "illiteracy" should be seen as a huge potential positive from such an experiment - inviting people to see how their ideas can affect political change would surely make them even keener to weigh up those decisions with reliable information to hand. It would show immense trust in people, something sorely lacking in this age of political cynicism, and put the public's values at the forefront of political decision-making. If we learned anything from the recent debates over our response to the refugee crisis it is that the public are often much more compassionate and universalistic in their values than their own government. If it was me, I'd much rather give them the power than a narrow sect of politicians out of touch with the real world.


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