Tag Archives: referendums

Referendums: Getting it right next time

No one needs any help demonstrating the problems with the current ad–hoc manner in which the UK conducts referendums.

But while it might be tempting to argue that the best solution is simply to stop having them, there are problems with that approach. 

First, I’m not at all sure it is politically sensible, or intellectually honest, to say that since lies, fraud, and gross misconduct constituted the bulk of the Brexit campaign the solution is simply to have no more referendums. There have been lies, fraud, and misconduct in political campaigns since electoral politics began. The solution has always been to find better ways to conduct the campaigns, not to scrap the practice.

The Liberal Democrats are a party fundamentally committed to opening up political discourse, and to doing so responsibly. Referendums are fraught with peril and, ironically, run the risk of being distinctly undemocratic, but that does not mean there cannot be a role for them as part of a broader expansion of legitimate political expression.

And as recent votes in Ireland have shown, to take one example, referendums can play a crucial role in securing progressive social gains.

As another example, here in Massachusetts, where I now live, voters last November defeated by an overwhelming majority an attempt by fundamentalist Christian groups to repeal a law designed to protect transgender people by allowing them to use the restroom of their choice in any building open to the public.

By permitting the question and conducting the referendum, voters had the opportunity to affirm the actions of their legislature and governor and stop in its tracks the type of hate and fear that festers when it can pretend to a legitimacy it does not possess.

Wary of referendums as I am, I’m not proposing a radical overhaul of the UK political system to allow for the types of confirmatory votes we hold here in Massachusetts, where we can also vote by referendum to instruct the legislature to introduce legislation.

Massachusetts, incidentally, makes it much harder to initiate a referendum question than do many U.S. states and, in many cases, and wisely so as the government problems caused in referendum-happy states such as California help demonstrate.

Referendums shouldn’t happen often.

They should only happen with good reason.

But there are times when they might well be appropriate.

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