Nick Tyrone: At least the general election result has buried the UK’s flirtation with direct democracy


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On his website, writer Nick Tyrone has written a post entitled “Here’s one thing that was definitely positive about the general election result”.

In it, he argues that at least the general election has killed off the UK experiment with direct democracy and led to a resumption of our historical representative democarcy:

One of the things that has infected UK politics since June 2016 has been this clash between direct and representative democracy, with direct democracy often being given the greater nod by both the public and the media. The Leavers began to treat the referendum result as if it was the ultimate democratic event for all time, one that trumps every other election that has ever been and will ever be; Remainers played the same game for the most part, campaigning for a second referendum. It was as if we had changed the entire constitution without anyone being consulted.

This brought with it a clash between what parliament wanted and the referendum result. I have always been clear: if there is ever a clash between direct democracy and representative democracy, representative democracy should always win. Always. I don’t care how precious your referendum is to you, parliament is sovereign in this country. Yet I seemed to be in the minority in thinking this.

Thankfully, that’s all done. The general election result is like King Henry VII marrying Elizabeth of York; it has united the warring factions and ended the conflict. Representative democracy and direct democracy are no long at war with each other and it is hard to see the same crisis happening ever again. No one will ever be stupid enough to call a referendum on something they actually don’t want to happen ever again, surely.

You can read Nick’s full post here.

* Web Magpie, collecting shiny things from the internet (and, yes, we know such a characteristic has no ornithological basis). Magpie photograph by Steve Bittinger, Flickr CCL CCL licence

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17 Comments

  • I hope this is correct but I fear not: demagogues may well have discovered that they have a new and useful tool. I can see a party using a referendum to bring back hanging for example. There are already too many people who think that an MP’s job is simply to parrot the wishes of “the people”.

  • Sopwith Morley 19th Dec '19 - 10:09am

    It has certainly finished any chance of a referendum on anything getting through without a supermajority.

    Forcing devolution on Wales with a tiny 50.3% in favour, on a 50% turnout, effectively giving them devoltion on just 25% of the vote, because all three main parties were gagging for it, will never happen again.

    The LIbDems of course could not with a straight face ever accept the result of a future proportional representation referendum had any democratic legitimacy if the vote was a low as 52-48.

  • Yes and no, setting up a tier of government with minimal powers, is hardly the same as changing a long standing trading arrangement that was originally confirmed by a referendum and if enacted has far reaching economic and political consequences.

  • John Marriott 19th Dec '19 - 11:32am

    Hitler liked plebiscites, so do the Swiss and the Irish; although hopefully not for the same reasons. Plebiscites/referendums have a place; but surely only as a last resort.

    Can we move on, please? All this continuous navel gazing is doin’ my ‘ead in!

  • As usual, the opposite interpretation is also possible. By NOT having a referendum on the Maastricht or Lisbon treaties, we got into this situation where the arrangements by which they were governed were no longer acceptable to a large number of people, possibly a majority.

    If the EU pre-Maastricht or pre-Lisbon still existed and was an option then a party advocating would gain a huge number of votes from parties advocating Leave or advocating the current EU set-up.

    The 2017 election result also should have united the country again but a large number of people elected (particularly from Labour but not exclusively) were willing to junk the promises they’d been elected on.

    The topic of a PR referendum is interesting. Would we say it should go as follows:
    a) referendum on PR, parliament subsequently selects the form of PR and implements it.
    b) parliament selects a form of PR, then a referendum is held on introducing it
    c) a first referendum on PR in principle, then a second referendum choosing between specific forms of PR to introduce
    d) a first referendum on PR in principle , then a second referendum between a specific form of PR or continuing with first past the post.

    You could do the same thing about a referendum to rejoin the EU. Would it be acceptable to have a referendum in principle on rejoining the EU then another one once the details of the deal had been worked out?

    if the answer is no, and also if you would have misgivings about approach d) to a PR referendum then I agree with you, I think we would have even graver misgivings if the need to have the second referendum was only “discovered” after the first one had been won. I hope that can help you to understand why the post 2016 stance on the EU referendum has lost so much goodwill with people on the other side of the argument.

  • Sandra Hammett 19th Dec '19 - 2:18pm

    Nick Tyrone also says he is considering joining Labour to vote for the next leader and also because he thinks the LibDems are a spent force who don’t learn and continue to keep making the same mistakes; who always let down those who have placed trust in them.
    Food for thought.

  • Tobias Sedlmeier 19th Dec '19 - 4:24pm

    Richard S’s comment is well-thought out. His point that denying the electorate a referendum on previous EU Treaty changes (with the consequence that it was easy for leavers to characterise those changes as illegitimate) was part of the reason that the leavers won the 2016 referendum is well made.

    Outside of Northern Ireland, Scotland, central London and university towns, most of the electorate don’t want any form of PR. The LibDem support for PR is easy to characterise as purely self-interested, and to an extent it is. We need to get the electorate used to PR. Pushing for PR for council elections, or a local opinion whereby a council area can hold a referendum on moving to PR (basically replicating the existing arrangements for local mayors) would be a good starting point.

  • The original sin was David Cameron defying the British constitution and suggesting that a referendum could be binding on Parliament. The rest is misery. Don’t expect him to apologise or disappear.

  • Sopwith Morley 19th Dec ’19 – 10:09am
    It has certainly finished any chance of a referendum on anything getting through without a supermajority.

    The Council of Europe has agreed guidelines for conducing referendums to which the UK is (and will remain) a signatory. These prescribe a binary referendum with a simple majority (50%+1).

    ‘European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission): Code of Good Practice on Referendums’:
    https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD(2007)008rev-cor-e

    However, most referendums effectively have an in-built ‘super-majority’ in the form of status quo bias. This is the strong propensity for people to vote for things to remain the same…

    ‘Status Quo Bias in Decision Making’:
    https://ideas.repec.org/a/kap/jrisku/v1y1988i1p7-59.html

    Most real decisions, unlike those of economics texts, have a status quo alternative — that is, doing nothing or maintaining one’s current or previous decision. A series of decision-making experiments shows that individuals disproportionately stick with the status quo. Data on the selections of health plans and retirement programs by faculty members reveal that the status quo bias is substantial in important real decisions.

    ‘The Status Quo Bias in Direct Democracy: Empirical Results for Switzerland, 1981 – 1999’:
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/255596026_The_Status_Quo_Bias_in_Direct_Democracy_Empirical_Results_for_Switzerland_1981_-_1999

    Using data of 142 popular decisions in Switzerland in the eighties and nineties, it is shown that the less citizens feel able to make a decision, the less they will vote in favour of a proposal. However, indirect effects of other proposals which are to be decided on the same weekend might counteract this effect. On the other hand, mobilisation is much more effective against than in favour of a proposal. This at least is clear evidence of a status quo bias in the Swiss political system. But it is open for discussion whether this bias should be evaluated positively or negatively.

  • Tobias Sedlmeier – millions of peoples votes are wasted under the current, unfair system that favours the two main parties generally and the Tories in particular. It is not in the party’s self interest, it is in the country’s interest so EVERYONE’S vote counts, it should not take 865,000 votes to elect a Green MP, 335,000 to elect a Lib Dem MP, yet only 38,000 to elect a Tory MP (let alone 26,000 to elect an SNP MP) – PR should be introduced country wide, yesterday. We have it for the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the Scottish and NI local elections and Stormont, we already had a “starting point” 20 years ago, so the electorate is already “used to it”. The country needs, it NOW.

  • Tobias Sedlmeier 20th Dec '19 - 4:24am

    @JH There are many different forms of PR – most of them less than fully proportional. The form used in NI Assembly elections and Scottish and NI local elections (multiseat STV) is completely different from that used in Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections (additional member system) which in turn is completely different from European Parliament elections (list system). There have been debates here as to whether the additional member system is PR at all and the list system has resulted in less than proportionate results in European Parliament elections (in 2014 LibDems got 6.6% of vote and 1 seat; Labour got 24.4% of vote and 20 seats!).

    The English electorate isn’t used to any form of PR. The turnout in European Parliament elections is about half of what it is in general elections. One votes for a single ballot for a single a party – just as one does in general elections.

    You declaring the current FPTP system unfair and that PR should be introduced countrywide yesterday isn’t going to achieve it. It’s purely conclusionary and completely unpersuasive. What I was outlining is a way to introduce PR gradually through a local option for local authorities, building a constituency for change. That is called bottom-up incrementalism. It USED TO BE how the LibDems achieved change.

  • My opinion is that the most likely outcome of the negotiations with the EU will be the continuation of free trade and other co-operation with most of the rest of Europe.
    The removal of the democratic element will not be there for the population of the U.K. – but after the behaviour we all – and the all includes a large slice of the world – watched on TV news as members performed in the commons.
    What we in the meanwhile need in the U.K. is a written constitution.
    We are highly unlikely to get one.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Dec '19 - 2:07pm

    I don’t see it as either direct or representative democracy; we need a combination. True, we need to improve our processes around direct democracy. They are here to stay, however. Representative democracy is too fuzzy and not sufficiently accountable to work on its own, even with reforms to our voting system.

  • Tobias Sedlmeier – I am aware of the myriad different forms of PR and which are used in the UK. FPTP is unfair, antiquated and well passed its sell by date, PR has been discussed for the UK for over 150 years and for the last 80 by this party, what you suggest will drag it out longer. English voters do not need any time to get used to it, we just need a Royal Commission to decide on which type to use and implement it, or it ll be another 150 years before British people can finally vote for who they want and what they believe in instead of this tactical voting nonsense.

  • The whole idea of needing to get used to your vote actually counting and not being wasted is actually quite funny. Mr Public – “Do I want to vote for the person I really want this time ? . . . no I d rather vote for someone who I dont really want but who I think is better than the person with the most votes again, I need another 5 years to get used to the idea of voting for who I really want”.

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