Should we become a nation of contented losers?

Direct democracy could not merely complement representative democracy, but could save it from its worst excesses. Claims that it leads to ill-considered, rightwing populism are just plain wrong.

The great thing about being a Liberal Democrat is that the party practices what it preaches about democracy. While the Conservative Party made a big deal out of the fact that at its last conference it encouraged people to cast non-binding votes on topical issues and even hosted a version of Dragon’s Den with Ann Widdecombe in the chair, the Lib Dems had a passionate, principled debate on tax (which the Tories rubbished, and then quietly stole a number of key policies from). Labour has debates at its conferences, but they are held in such disdain that the results of them are dismissed even before the votes have been cast.

I would contend that it is this internal democracy that has kept British liberalism alive over the past few decades. It gives us all a stake in the party which in turn buys the party enormous reservoirs of loyalty and goodwill. Even when we as individuals disagree with the direction the party is going down, we are comforted by the fact that it was as a result of a democratic process, and subsequently that it is possible to change.

At a wider level, we are deeply committed to establishing a similar model of participation and democracy in the British political system. The current system is deeply flawed, and the party has done much to highlight the evidence: we are one of the most centralised countries in the world and have an electoral system that ensures that a party with just a third of the vote can secure 60% of the seats in our primary legislative chamber.

Party policy has always been very robust in its approach to constitutional reform. However, if there is a criticism to be made, it is that we tend to instinctively reach for a solution that involves directly elected politicians and lawyers, rather than give the people themselves more of a direct say in government. Too often, our rhetoric about Community Politics has not been matched by our actions. To be fair have existing policy in favour of mild forms of participation such as increased use of citizens’ juries and increased use of (non-binding) referendums, but we have been wary of purer forms of direct democracy.

In my view, that wariness is misplaced and as a member of the party’s Better Governance Policy Working Group, I am personally committed to making the case for Citizens’ Initiatives. What precise form of Citizens’ Initiative is a subject that is very much open to debate – there are dozens of alternative systems being used around the world – but the principle behind them all remains the same and is key in my view to reversing the decline of public confidence in the political system.

Put simply, a Citizens’ Initiative is a system whereby a specific policy proposal is put to a referendum if enough members of the public petition for it. This can be done at a national or a local level, although this article will tend to assume the former unless otherwise stated.

A tool for rightwing populism?

The main concern expressed about Citizen’s Initiatives, generally by politicians, is that they lead to ill-considered, populist, illiberal policies that are not in the national interest. Before looking at this claim in detail, we should first remind ourselves that this is one of the main objections leveled by critics of party politics, and there is significant evidence to attest to this fact. There are of course the oft-cited examples of the Poll Tax and the Dangerous Dogs Act, but more recently we have seen a government that has undermined the very human rights it originally legislated for by introducing a whole raft of authoritarian measures. The nature of the whipping system used in the House of Commons is that our elected representatives tend to be discouraged from scrutinising legislation in too much detail. When the government is, on occasion, defeated, it tends to be as much a result of a miscalculation of the government whips as it is because of strength of feeling.

There has been no populist campaign to introduce ID cards: even though some opinion polls do suggest that the majority of the public are in favour of them, no-one is campaigning for their introduction to counter the work of organisations such as NO2ID or Liberty. The evidence of the past decade is that our political system is very effective at enabling a powerful executive to introduce a whole raft of policy initiatives designed to tackle people’s fears about crime, terrorism and immigration without having to worry about significant scrutiny.

You can bet that if we had a system in place that would force the government to hold a referendum on ID cards, enough people would sign up to it. I would not be so bold as to claim that having a Citizen’s Initiative system would have definitely blocked a singe one of these measures, but I am confident that such a system would have slowed down the Labour Government’s pace of authoritarianism and would have challenged them to justify their claims in far greater detail than they have been required to without it.

But is there any evidence that Citizen’s Initiatives would lead to more rightwing populist policies? There is simply no evidence for this. Matt Qvortrup, the UK’s leading expert on Citizens’ Initiatives, reports outside of the US, the only referendums held on the death penalty have resulted in its abolition. In the US itself, of the 38 states that have the death penalty, just three introduced it after referendum and there is some statistical evidence to suggest that states with a Citizens’ Initiative system are less likely to adopt the policy than those without.

Why would this be, despite the fact that opinion polls the world over suggest there is strong mass support for capital punishment? Well, one of the consequences of an Initiative system is that the public is forced to engage with the issue at hand. My favourite factoid in Matt Qvortrup’s recent Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet is that following the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, a survey found that the average voter in the street was more informed about its content than the non-specialist MPs (

In 2004, Switzerland voted in support of registering same-sex partnerships by 81%. A whole host of State Propositions was held alongside the 2006 mid-term elections. A number of them were on sensitive issues such as stem cell research and environmental policy. Despite the risks involved, New Scientist magazine welcomed the eventual results, which resulted in Missouri voting for therapeutic cloning and a successful ballot in Washington state committing it to produce 15% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Voters in South Dakota rejected a draconian abortion ban.

Would minority rights be threatened by Initiatives? We should rightly be wary of introducing a system that enables the majority to oppress minorities. Yet the evidence suggests that minority rights are no more threatened by Citizens’ Initiatives than they are by representative democracy. In any case, this is a bit of a red herring: the guarantee that minorities are not unfairly treated is entrenched human rights. Of course, any system introduced in the UK should be subject to the Human Rights Act – some of us indeed would like to go further and investigate the possibility of a more entrenched Bill of Rights that protected economic and social rights as well as civil and political ones (a debate for another time perhaps).

A tool for tax cuts?

Related to the claim that Initiatives lead to illiberal, populist measures is the claim that they would also lead to drastic tax cutting measures. The research on this is more mixed: no-one likes paying taxes after all. Qvortrup cites Swiss studies that suggest that direct democracy tends to lead to smaller spending states. However, one of those studies also suggests that output per capita is higher in Swiss cantons with the Initiative than those without. In short, Initiatives do indeed make the political case for high taxation more difficult to make, but a consequence appears to be improved economic performance.

There is a further reason why Liberal Democrats ought to consider this carefully. One of the main proposals coming out of the Better Governance Working Group is an enhanced role of the House of Commons specifically in the scrutiny of money bills. While I strongly support this proposal, the risk of such a move is that it will encourage what is known in the US as ‘pork barreling’, or attaching specific spending pledges for certain areas in return for votes. Initiatives could provide a check on this, in the words of John Matsusaka, by “directing public funds into infrastructure instead of pork barrel projects.”

I don’t write any of this lightly. My own instincts are broadly leftwing in terms of terms of fiscal policy. But the case for taxation has to be made to the public. After 10 years of Gordon Brown’s ‘ta da!’ style budgets where the devil is always in the detail, I can see a very strong argument for encouraging more public scrutiny over spending policy. Calling for greater parliamentary scrutiny is all very well, but while we have a constitutional system in which the executive is embedded in the Commons, there will always be enormous pressure by the whips of the ruling party to force through money bills. Giving the public a check, by allowing them a say on fiscal policy, would be healthy. After all, we would never have had the Poll Tax if the public had been able to block it.

A competitor to representative democracy?

There are two other main objections that need to be dealt with. The first one is that Citizens’ Initiatives could undermine representative democracy; related to that is the claim, which I will come to, that countries will Citizens’ Initiatives have low turnout rates.

The former is a valid complaint that should be seriously considered. I, for one, would not be in favour of a system that was so predisposed towards resolving every major issue by referendum that elected officials came to be seen as an irrelevance. The key is to make Parliament (and local authorities at a lower level) a central part of the Initiative process. Of the 24 US States that have a Citizens’ Initiative system, 9 of them have use an indirect system whereby the legislature scrutinises the proposed measure prior to the vote and is even capable of amending it. I tend to lean towards such a system as it enables elected politicians to respond to Initiatives in a more deliberative, and thus meaningful, manner.

Indeed, in my view a Liberal Democrat system of Citizens’ Initiative would be a far more subtle tool than the simplistic model of holding a referendum if x% of the public demand it. The Power Inquiry proposed a two-stage model, which effectively operated as a petition to the House of Commons in the first instance; only if the petitioners remained unsatisfied – and could raise another batch of signatures – would it result in a referendum.

Citizens already have the right to petition parliament, but at a UK level, the system is archaic and an utter irrelevance. It compares particularly unfavourably to the Scottish Parliament which has an active petitions committee, an online petitioning system which people are free to use (set up years before 10 Downing Street came up with the idea), and has resulted in several specific pieces of legislation. The UK Parliament – as well as local authorities and other devolved assemblies – should look to this as a model.

Having a petitioning system in place would also create a more dynamic system in which an Initiative resulted in a process rather than a specific policy outcome. It is less of an ask to request Parliament to set up a commission to recommend detailed policy changes in a certain area than get it to adopt a specific target which may have unintended consequences. Nevertheless, it is still a very meaningful interaction between the legislature and the citizen.

Turnout & Thresholds

Finally, there is the question of turnout. The poster child for the Citizens’ Initiative movement, Switzerland, had a turnout of just 45% in its last Parliamentary elections, while California, the US State which has the most Initiatives, had a turnout of just 36% in the 2006 mid-term elections. There may well be a case that, where Initiatives become a norm in a political system, voters adopt more of a pick-and-mix approach, choosing which ballots to bother with much more selectively (after all, aside from three line whips, that’s what MPs and Peers do in Parliament).

However, Switzerland and California are extreme examples. Overall, the evidence from the US is much more rosy. On average, States that have Citizens’ Initiatives have a higher turnout than the ones that don’t by 5%. Research by Daniel Smith and Caroline Tolbert found that each additional Initiative increased turnout by an average of 1.2%. They also found increased levels of knowledge, interest and general engagement in politics.

There is clearly a balance to be struck here. The threshold for the number of signatures that need to be collected before an Initiative can advance to a referendum should not be set so low that it becomes easy to establish one. A referendum should be at the heart of a national (or local) debate, not simply another box to tick on polling day. However, it should not be set so high that no-one has any faith that the system can, in reality, initiate anything.

The Swiss model requires 100,000 signatures – less than 2% of the population – to progress and Initiative. By contrast, the New Zealand model – which is widely derided for its toothlessness – requires a petition signed by 10% of the population. The Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe recommends a threshold of no higher than 5% of the population. Given my support for a two-stage process as outlined above, my own preference would be a 2% threshold to move a petition to the legislature and a 5% threshold for the referendum stage.

A Quality of Life Issue

I started this article by talking about how the Liberal Democrats have directly benefited from a culture of democracy (which, incidentally, does indeed include a form of members’ initiative in which any 10 conference representatives can table a motion to our sovereign conference). There is emerging evidence from organisations such as the New Economics Foundation that democratic countries are happier ones. Switzerland emerges at the top of the Life Satisfaction Index (and, for you traditional economists out there, has a very high GDP per capita as well). What’s more, this satisfaction appears to be rooted not so much in the fact that they always get their own way, but out a sense of fairness about the system itself .

This has lead to the Swiss being labled a nation of ‘contented losers’ – happy that they have an opportunity to participate and prepared to accept the result when they lose the argument. Compare that to the intense sense of injustice that large numbers of people feel about Britain’s present system of government. Desirable though it may be, reforming the electoral system and other institutional changes will only have a limited affect on this: people have come to distrust party politics itself, not merely the fact that the ‘wrong’ people are in power. Labour voters, over-represented though they may be in Parliament, are just as discontented as the rest of us.

What we lack is a meaningful dialogue with the political class. There is a sense that politics is something that is done to people rather than done by them. We have become cynical about consultation and other attempts by the political class to engage the public because they are always conducted on the political class’ own terms: the perception is that if a politician asks you a question and you give the ‘wrong’ answer, you are simply ignored.

Put like this, direct democracy is not a competitor of representative democracy but its very salvation. It levels the playing field between ‘them’ and ‘us’. It forces politicians to address issues that they would rather ignore (at the last general election, issues such as Trident, nuclear power, climate change, municipal taxation and pensions were all neutralised to a lesser or greater extent by Labour and the Conservatives) and in turn forces the public to stop simply carping and accept they have a role to play as well.

But for this to be the case, one thing is clear: whatever system of Citizens’ Initiatives we may care to come up with, the final result of any subsequent referendum must be binding. Non-binding referendums are little more than consultations: just as easy to ignore, and just as likely to encourage cynicism about the process. Look at New Zealand where the public voted overwhelmingly (81.47%) in favour of a proposal to reduce the size of its Parliament from 120 to 99 in 1993; 14 years later it has still not been acted upon.


We should be under no illusions about Citizens’ Initiatives. Just as legislatures make bad decisions, the public will do as well. But the evidence does not support the assertion that Citizens’ Initiatives will tend to favour rightwing populism. In any case they should be subject to the same safeguards regarding human rights that Parliamentary legislation is (or should be).

Moreover, the evidence we have is that when you give people a greater say in the running of the country, far from using it for frivolous causes, the majority take their new responsibilities seriously. Citizens’ Initiatives may lead to wrong decisions from to time, but only at the end of a deliberative process. Sadly, that is not a claim that our representative institutions can also make.

Direct democracy does not have to be a rival of representative democracy: properly implemented it can complement it. The evidence suggests that citizens in countries with Citizens’ Initiative systems are better informed and, on average, more likely to vote. We can further guarantee that by developing a system that has the legislature at its heart, rather than a parallel one in which elected representatives are given little or no say.

There is an argument to be had about how a UK model might work in practice. We probably would not want to go as far as Switzerland, which is fundamentally different from Britain in other ways. Not least, its size. But, in the words of Vernon Bogdanor, “the arguments against the referendum are also arguments against democracy”.

I don’t hide away from the fact that Citizens’ Initiatives would present us with new challenges, but with antipathy about politics at an all time high, I don’t believe these are challenges we can afford to shirk from.

I am particularly grateful to Matt Qvortrup’s Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet Supply-Side Politics for the writing of this article (

James Graham blogs regularly at Quaequam Blog!

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Although I broadly support greater democratic participation, and feel that Citizens’ Initiatives are a good idea, I believe that the example of Switzerland is potentially misleading. Their levels of personal satisfaction may have an awful lot more to do with their personal wealth, and their fabulous climate, than any notions of participatory democracy. Indeed, they are probably just a more optimistic nation.

    To reiterate, the idea of Citizens’ Initiatives is a very valid one. But this makes me wonder: What about the practical obstacles for implimenting this? I can see those who favour of FPP over PR violently reacting to this. And I can see a lot of other people not really caring.

  • Nick Barlow 12th Apr '07 - 9:36pm

    To follow up on Andy’s point, I’ve read that one of the problems Citizen’s Initiatives have caused in California is spending too much money. Over the years, various initiatives have committed the State to funding a variety of schemes that aren’t expensive individually, but cumulatively they take up a large percentage of the budget.

  • Thanks to citizens ballot initiatives, the state of California is committed to simultaneously increase spending whilst cutting taxes, generating a budget crisis. Over 20 states – including such relatively liberal ones as Oregon – have banned gay marriage by ballot initiative, only Arizona being bold enough to reject a ban at the ballot, and only Vermont enacting gay marriage by ballot.

    Attempts to educate voters in the run up to ballots often become nothing more than wars to find out who can spend the most on advertising (California 2006), or mud slinging in which personal reputations both rightly and wrongly are destroyed (Colorado 2006). The only useful example I can think of from citizen ballots are when Denver made the rather smart decision to say that the Olympic costs had become too expensive, and handed them back to the IOC. That was in the 70s. The average voter is hopelessly badly informed – nobody should be allowed to vote until they can prove they know what the parties stand for, and what office they’re running for.

  • #4: Fair enough, point taken about the Swiss.
    Stop me if I’m wrong but I honestly thought PRers (and i include myself in that happy band) would be more welcoming of citizen’s initiatives as it would allow them to run a pro-PR citizen initiative?

  • Linda Forbes 13th Apr '07 - 9:53am

    When I first considered whether representative democracy was dead or alive in 2007, I was thinking in more simplistic terms. The idea that a political self-selected ‘elite’ continues to make decisions on behalf on citizens had the feel of being out-dated and paternalistic in the 21st century. Despite many advances – socially, educationally and technologically – we are dominated by a structure that has changed little since the time of the Greek philosophers. Indeed, the chamber in Westminster remains the preserve of the middle-aged male, from a fairly narrow stratum of society with an increasingly predictable educational background.

    Boldness in politics has been, in the main, replaced by ineffectual hand-wringing and patronising management speak: and this can only increase as control is garnered to the centre. This government appears to use official inquiries as a means of delaying action rather than taking it! An air of ‘we know what’s best for you – just take your medicine like good children’ emanates from the Palace… Is this because fewer and fewer representatives of the people have any experience outside that of politics? That they have not worked within organisations such as the NHS, in small businesses or multinational corporations, as an artist or an actor, or managed significant projects and operations that impact on people’s lives, thus having some understanding of the effects that constant interference has on morale, respect, and productivity? That, basically, Parliament and other elected bodies are themselves unrepresentative (or appear so to outsiders)?

    In the political world, there is, to me, an aura of timidity – a fear that any bold or innovative action may offend business or individuals and may result in a loss of office. Thankfully, despite its democratic deficit, the awkward squad in the House of Lords has retained its ability to surprise its neighbours from time to time!

    Why do people vote in a system that offers them promises, delivers something else, and hesitates in the face of real threats to their future? A system that does not trust the people they represent? Of course, this may be an illusion (delusion?) brought about by ten years of Labour’s Orwellian approach (speaking CCTV – just as predicted in 1984). But I don’t think so.

    Moving on: politicians complain that only an identifiable minority turn up at local Citizen’s Panels. Should we instead regard this as a failure to engage a majority of people who cannot attend meetings (either owing work, caring responsibilities, etc) or who have no faith in the process? Access is more than a physical presence – the forbidding aura of many council offices, and the mysteries of how they operate, are deterrents to citizen interaction. And local council meetings (of any type) are hardly the sort of event to set one’s pulse racing. Perhaps online interactive meetings are the way of the future? Where you can contribute directly, in real-time, and without giving notice of your questions in advance – but could this possibly be too much of a challenge to a representative democracy?

    James refers to falling turnouts in countries and states where citizens’ initiatives are present. However, the levels of turnout here in the UK have been declining over recent years – so have we anything to lose but our lack of legitimacy?

    Of concern too is how difficult the mainstream political parties are finding it to recruit members and candidates: evidenced by a significant number of walkover seats in the forthcoming local elections. Perhaps the idea of a common philosophy or ideology (wot? nuLabour?) is unattractive to an electorate faced with so many life opportunities? They may support our stance on Iraq but disagree with our views on another subject. Maybe this is why single issue parties (I use the term loosely) appeal – their key message, however disagreeable to some, is more clearly identifiable?

    I’m not suggesting abandonment of core philosophy – rather, I’m supporting the idea that direct democracy delivered through the medium of Citizens’ Initiatives and wider access would allow the people to vote on issues that specifically concern and interest them. In turn, this would be empowering: and might tackle the disempowerment that is experienced through the delegation of power in a representative democracy. And in many instances, citizens can be way ahead of the curve in tackling controversial issues.

    One may quote from philosophers of the past – however we must remind ourselves that they inhabited a different world from that in which we now live. Yes, we do need to be aware of the tyranny of the majority – but remind ourselves too that populism is not necessarily an evil. It’s like the definition of politics really – people say they’re not interested but ask them about Council Tax and suddenly… well, you know what I mean!

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