Opinion: Delivering local citizens’ initiatives

Five years ago, back in the final throws of the Blair government, when Cameron was still hugging hoodies and Ed Miliband was just a twinkle in the unions’ eyes, I worked for an organisation called Our Say.

Our Say campaigned for the introduction of citizens’ initiatives in the UK, referendums that can be instigated by a petition of a certain percentage of citizens in a given area.

The campaign wasn’t active for very long but it received cross party support, primarily from backbenchers. Overall, Conservative MPs more than Liberal Democrats or backbench Labour MPs received it better. In fact the Lib Dems’ own Susan Kramer publicly took exception to the proposal on the Politics Show, and of course the Blair government certainly weren’t big supporters!

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the reputation he has developed since, Douglas Carswell championed the issue in his book with Dan Hannan ‘The Plan’. And the policy was ultimately picked up by the Conservatives in their 2010 manifesto but only applied to local government. As a result the policy went into the coalition agreement and non-binding referenda are now going to be in the Localism Bill.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto was light on direct democracy and two of our Lords were so worried about it that last week they further watered down the provisions by adding several amendments. These amendments would give councils more discretion over whether or not to hold a referendum and make it much more difficult to hold a London-wide referendum.

Whilst these amendments are disappointing for believers in more people power and have drawn criticism from some Conservatives, I still believe that we as Liberal Democrats should embrace and own this policy as part of the broader measures in the Localism Bill to devolve power.

Of course the Bill itself isn’t perfect and there are places where we would go further or pull back, but this at least is a small step towards engaging citizens more directly in decision-making and the liberal in all of us should applaud that.

* See also the post from Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy earlier in the week about local referendums.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Sounds lovely in theory. However, I’m always reminded of:
    “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” – Winston Churchill

  • Tony Greaves 20th Oct '11 - 10:31pm

    For heaven’s sake wake up. These provisions were completely removed from the Localism Bill at Report stage last week as a result of 18 successful amendments in the name of me and our team leader Lord (Graham) Tope. I am delighted to report that the Liberal Democrats removed this expensive and potentially dangerous nonsense from the Bill.

    Tony Greaves

  • Unfortunately this post was originally planned to appear a week earlier and apparently I didn’t do enough due diligence when updating the article to appear when it has. I still think these proposals would have been a great way for local people to engage with local government and I am disappointed that they have been removed by Liberal Democrats in the Lords.

    The progress of how we do democracy in the UK is lagging behind advances in almost every other area of public life and I hope this isn’t the last we will see of these proposals.

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