Diana Wallis MEP writes… Time for the Liberal Democrats to let the people in!

It may sound like a strange assertion but our British model of democracy is in danger of becoming, if it is not already, less democratic and accessible than the much-criticised European Union; indeed this would definitely be the case if the Lisbon Reform Treaty came into force.

During the period of the non-debate on the Lisbon Treaty in this country, I was the only one of my Lib Dem colleagues in the European Parliament who constantly held and, perhaps, quietly tried to argue that we too should have had a referendum. People will know that I take that stand as a passionate pro-European and aware of all the dangers – yes, even what happened in Ireland. Every time I tried to explain my view I was greeted with the refrain, almost in unison from my parliamentary colleagues, ‘We’re a parliamentary democracy!’ This was delivered as an answer, an end of the discussion. To my mind this is actually the problem.

‘A closed shop … with a shameful lack of accountability and transparency … Westminster is an inward-looking village detached from the concerns of ordinary people … where most MPs want to gain executive power rather than curtail it.’ We as Liberal Democrats should look out. These are the words of a Tory MP, Douglas Carswell, who is on a crusade with some of his colleagues to introduce more participatory elements of democracy to Westminster.

So where are we in this debate? After last year’s conference, when we debated For the People, By the People, the answer has to be: lagging behind. I made the point then that there was a lot of ‘for’ the people but not very much ‘by’ the people. We seemed to look like a party that, having struggled so hard to get power at various levels, was going to be very reticent about either sharing it or handing it back to people and communities. We have the chance to remedy this and put ourselves nearer the vanguard of the argument again with this year’s Policy Motion, Giving Citizens a Voice in Parliament, which will be debated at conference this Saturday, 13th September, at 2.40 pm.

This motion has it right; setting out the need for a proper and formal system of petitioning at Westminster which actually has a chance of securing some result or policy change from Parliament as opposed to the current sham that is on the Downing Street website. This move, accompanied by citizens bills or initiatives, would go some way to putting voters back in the driving seat, or at the very least allowing them to set the agenda; nothing very terrifying about that. That it has taken us a further year to have a proper debate on participatory or direct democracy shows perhaps shows how deeply wedded even we as a party are to parliamentary democracy.

In a sense, it is hardly surprising for our whole political culture as a country is based on the idea of electing someone else to do the job for you, to make the decisions for you – and then you can grumble and moan about the outcomes. In a sense, I understand completely my parliamentary colleagues’ anathema to direct democracy and referendums; after all, we have no culture of it, so the argument goes, and our electors are therefore not prepared for taking responsibility, of actually making decisions themselves. Yet we should ask ourselves just how patronising does that sound as an argument when juxtaposed with the low esteem in which all elected politicians are held.

Politicians desperately need help from the people they serve in the decision-making process, and direct democracy is the only way to do that in a meaningful manner. It means there is something real to vote for and that each vote will potentially make a difference. Yes, I would have been anxious if we had had a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in this country, but that anxiety would have kept me awake at night and got me out bed each morning to campaign vigorously for a ‘yes’. There would have been an edge such that we do not feel when the debate is confined to a cosy few in Westminster or Brussels. That is the issue, and for a party that believes in education and empowerment we have to be prepared to let the people in – and fully.

After all if the EU is prepared to introduce citizens bills or initiatives at a European level – and, ironically, in the European Parliament we already have a proper and effective system of petitioning – then it is about time Westminster got its act together. There are plenty of good examples out there to draw on, not just Switzerland and the US; indeed in a few weeks time I will be speaking at the ‘World Conference on Direct Democracy’ from which I shall report back. But, in the meantime, let’s hope our conference is prepared to take a small step towards letting in the people.

* Diana Wallis is the Liberal Democrat MEP for Yorkshire & the Humber. She is a Vice-President of the European Parliament and a Board Member of the Institute for Referendums and Initiatives – Europe.

Editor’s note: David Boyle has also written about this motion here on Lib Dem Voice.

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This entry was posted in Conference and Europe / International.


  • >Every time I tried to explain my view I was greeted with the refrain, almost in unison from my parliamentary colleagues, ‘We’re a parliamentary democracy!’

    but sadly not a very good or responsive democracy, nor is the EU particularly democratic.

    It was a serious blunder by the party to offer a referedum on the Constitution but not the treaty. I’m gald at elats one lib dem MEP realised this. Our MEPs are a great bunch but they seem to have gone a bit native. The party should not be happy with the last euro election results and ought to be well prepared with a strategy to do netter next June. Being pro Eu doesn’t mean being uncritical. In fact it ought to give the party greater confidence to make criticisms.

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