The Independent View: Lib Dem peers kill local referendums

On the 10th of October the House of Lords killed off the prospect of voters getting the power to initiate referendums on local issues. Up until then the Localism Bill had contained a modest proposal to give local people in England the power to call non-binding referendums on local issues if 5% of their fellow voters supported them. The proposal was hedged in with safeguards and protections to ensure that it did not contravene national laws or go beyond the powers of the local authority.

But the hopes that this could see revival of local democracy with citizens being given the same powers that their cousins in the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden already process were dashed when the government gave into peers and allowed a whole chapter of the Localism Bill to be deleted. But it wasn’t statist Labour peers or authoritarian Conservatives who wielded the knife. No it was Lib Dem peers lead by Lord Greaves who killed off this experiment before it could begin.

Was it the idea of referendums in general they had a problem with? Well if it was they had a strange way of showing it because they left in the Bill all the referendums that will be imposed from the centre. So the referendums next year for elected Mayors in 12 English cities stay. So does the government’s requirement that councils hold a referendum on council tax increases which is merely the continuation of the centrally imposed cap in a new form.

So their problem was with voters triggering referendums. If they had been worried about it being abused they could have sought to strengthen the safeguards, even called for pilots. But no. Ultimately it seems that their problem was that people could use it to call for things that they didn’t like.

So after years of slogans such as “putting people first” and “power to the people” they ended up showing that Lib Dem’s don’t trust voters, but simply want power to be transferred from one set of elected politicians to another. The last Labour government gave powers to local communities and people, but only to do the things it wanted to be done. I never thought I would say this but that mind set is alive and well in the Liberal Democrats group in the Lords.

But not all hope of progress is lost, local councils have the power to introduce their own systems or pilots. So are there any Lib Dem councils or councillors who want to bring forward proposals or, as I fear, is the drive to empower citizens going to have to come from reformers in other parties?

* Peter Facey is Director, Unlock Democracy

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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  • Wait! You can already call a non-binding referendum with the support of 12 voters. It’s called a “town poll”. How does 5% help? Or, are town polls to be abolished?

  • John Bennett 18th Oct '11 - 10:30am

    For some of us who voted Lib Dem, it’s just one more puzzle. But there you go, the Coalition by definition precludes the veto that “supply and confidence” might have afforded, so the party’s stance will, in government, drift further from what some of us want. Where next?

  • Whilst the idea may be nice in theory, in practice, just have to look at local elections, let alone by-elections, turnouts to see how easily that could get hijacked by special interests.
    Only people with a strong view one way or the other would bother to vote (and the more times it’s used the less people would bother). And if they’re not binding, it’s even worse.
    It’s like those ‘polls’ were you have to phone/write/text/email in. they’re only representative of who cares most about one side, not of the real opinion of the general readership/viewership at large let alone the general population.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Oct '11 - 3:54pm

    I don’t really know much about Peter Facey or his organisation (which appears to describe itself rather pompously as the “UK’s leading pressure group for democracy, rights and freedoms”) but I do bridle a bit at Liberal Democrat Voice giving him this platform without asking for a contribution from those of us immersed in the Localism Bill, on what was a real Liberal Democrat victory for common sense. You can read my speech to see the arguments, but here is some background:

    This idea (which appeared to come from clever policy wonks with little experience or understanding of the real world) woul dhave meant that any 5% of the electors in a ward, county division or local authority area (with some further complexities in the case of Greater London) would have been able to require a local referendum in that area. It would have been held on local election rules (ie full polling stations and polling hours etc). But the resutl would only have been advisory. Anyone involved in the real world of local politics and local campaigning can see the expense of this and the multiple opportunities for mischief.

    It is true that the Bill still contains provisions for referendums on local mayors in 11 large cities, on what the government decrees as “excessive” council tax rises (actually the new system of capping), and as part of the new neighbourhood planning system. We would have been very pleased to get rid of these too, particularly the first two, but we are not the government (just a team of LD peers working on this Bill) and we can only do so much (actually rather a lot on this Bill).

    Incidentally this Bill already does away with another similar nonsense – the detailed rules and regulations governing how councils have to deal with petitions, brought in by the previous Labour government in 2009. I fought hard against that at the time, without success other than making it a bit less silly than it was, and am delighted to see it go this time.

    We have achieved a lot on this Bill in the Lords and a bit more to go perhaps) and in due course will publish a list of our claimed “wins”. Perhaps LD Voice might pay us a bit more attention when we do that!

    Tony Greaves

  • Peter Facey 18th Oct '11 - 4:49pm

    Let me address some of the points raised.

    “We already have this it is called Parish Polls.” Firstly this is restricted to places that have a parish or town council (most urban areas don’t). Secondly it does not allow you to trigger a referendum over the whole of a local authority and thirdly they are actually too easy to trigger.

    Cost: By holding any referendum at the time of a election the cost can be kept to a minimum. But I accept that there would be a cost but democracy always has a cost attached.

    My friend Marks point about “Mandatory and prescriptive clauses on how councils should respond to the will of the people run contrary to the very concept of devolving powers to local communities”. ABSOLUTELY so why was the bit we neutered the bit that empowered local people to hold their Councils to account and to trigger local referendums and not the bits that imposed central control on Councils.

    Tony Greaves points. Firstly its nice to see that the tradition of pluralist debate is alive and well. For the record I am a LIb Dem member not that it should matter. I have heard comments like Tony’s on Conservative Home and Labour List I didn’t expect to hear them on Lib Dem Voice. There are a number of changes to the Localism Bill such as the amendments originally proposed by the Core Cities group that our a genuine improvement.

    For the record the powers that were removed already operate in places such as Sweden. We already allow local voters to trigger referendums on elected mayors why cant we give them the freedom to trigger referendums on issues they care about given the bill contained lots of safeguards.

    What I really object is that on this issue the effect of Tony’s amendments is to leave a bill that imposes referendums from the centre but does nothing to empower voters. It allows Conservatives like Andrew Boff to argue that the Lib Dems are in favour of empowering politicians and not voters

  • Stephen Donnelly 18th Oct '11 - 6:26pm

    Well done Tony Greaves and the Liberal Democrat peers. Direct democracy gives power to pressure groups and well funded special interests. Representative democracy encourages and enables balanced local management. For a good example of the extreme difficulties resulting from direct democracy look at the virtually ungovernable state of California.

  • Tony Dawson 18th Oct '11 - 7:45pm

    You either believe in representative democracy or you do not. Representative democracy involves giving a representative the power to vote for you for a given period. Permitting referendum calling by any pressure group which can amass signatures of one person in 20 in an area is a mild form of demagogy.

    Of course, to be democratic, one needs a more democratic process of electing representatives. So perhaps we need to be a bit more democratic in electing a ‘Yes’ campaign team who are given public money ostensibly to campaign for a more democratic system? 🙂

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Oct '11 - 8:00pm

    We have achieved a lot on this Bill in the Lords and a bit more to go perhaps) and in due course will publish a list of our claimed “wins”. Perhaps LD Voice might pay us a bit more attention when we do that!

    Oh piffle, you know full well that LDV runs almost everything they receive, and the chance of them publishing that list are almost exactly the same as the chance of you sending it in for publication. So far the number of people who were sufficiently interested to write an article on this subject appears to be one. You’re more than welcome to make it two.

  • Sounds like a pointless proposal that would a) give undue leverage to special interests and wealthy groups/individuals and b) be completely ignored by most councils in any case. Personally I applaud our peers for killing it off.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Oct '11 - 10:10pm

    Hm. If LDV paid more attention to what we are doing in the Lords it would advantage us all. But if you expect us to be able to spend a lot of time publicising what we are doing (working fairly full time on this Bill for weeks on end in my case) you have to tell us where to find the resources. Remember peers are not paid a salary and do not get expenses for staff, just an allowance when we attend (and I can spend a whole day working on Lords stuff without attending).

    So why not pay some attention to what we do – it’s easy enough to access nowadays via the Hansard website or TheyWorkforYou. Criticism is okay but not in a vacuum.

    As for the idea that a non-binding referendum “empowers voters”, that’s fanciful nonsense and not related to the real world. And a referendum had to be held within 6 months so could not often (or usually) be combined with elections. So you could have had a referendum that cost more than the service it might have referred to.

    Tony Greaves

    (I have now discovered that Democracy Unlimited is a new name or a reincarnation of Charter 88. Sorry I did not know. I’m sorry to say it does not increase my confidence in the organisation).

  • An interesting debate on which i a rather evenly split… would want to know more about the safeguards that Peter was hinting at . However Tonys points were rather lost by his attack on peters credendtials and organisation.
    Always thought this was an inclusive chat room that should judge posts on their merit not misconceived ideas about the article writer .

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Oct '11 - 11:20pm

    So why not pay some attention to what we do – it’s easy enough to access nowadays via the Hansard website or TheyWorkforYou.

    Personally I do (insofar as I have time), and I expect a fair number of others here do too. But it’s one thing to read about it, and another to want to write about it. Very little of the business of parliament manages to inspire somebody to write it up – LDV represents fairly precisely the set of things which somebody felt that strongly about. Make of that what you will.

  • The central question many people have raised is around the issue of the referendums being none binding. I think this a actually a red herring. Because if the referendums had been binding many would use that as a argument against. The reality is that if a Council (even a one party state one) ignored the result they would pay a political price and the electorate could punish them accordingly.

    Tony state above “And a referendum had to be held within 6 months so could not often (or usually) be combined with elections.” This really worries me because it actually implies that he has not actually read the clauses he got deleted. The bill stated that a referendum needed to be held with 12 months of it being accepted by a Council. Therefore in the vast majority of cases there would be another election to hold any referendum in conjunction with.
    The 6 month clause in the old bill referred to the length of time that people had to collect signatures and along with the 5% requirement would have meant that it was not that easy to do.

    I wrote this piece not because I thought the proposal was perfect I am sure it could have been improved. But because the whole section had been removed by people who seem on the face of it to fundamentally not like the idea of voters triggering referendums. Nothing in this blog discussion has changed that impression.

    I don’t really care what Tony Greaves thinks of me as he says doesn’t know me. I do worry that he is publicly dismissive of us as a organisation. In the last month our members and supporters have sent nearly 10,000 letters or submissions on issues such as voter registration, lords reform, and lobbying and for a member of the UK Parliament he at least owes them the courtesy of not dismissing them out of hand.

  • Cllr Colin Strong 19th Oct '11 - 3:12pm

    I note that on page 27 of the Full Coalition document it says:
    “We will give residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue.”

    Pity it doesn’t say whether this is a binding or non-binding local referendum. Sadly the coalition agreement document has these issues where clarity is required.

  • Andrew Boff 19th Oct '11 - 3:40pm

    Anyone involved in the real world of local politics and local campaigning can see the expense of this and the multiple opportunities for mischief. For “mischief” read anything that the local authority doesn’t want to talk about even though the people do.
    Go on M’Lud, shout it out loud “We Lib Dems trust the people” (But only in terms set by politicians and within existing structures also established by poltiicians, and if its cheap, and if they don’t disagree with us and only on subjects that we,the political class, think is important).

  • Stephen Donnelly has it right. We are (thank goodness) a representative democracy. As we get on with our busy lives it makes sense for us to elect the people we choose to look carefully at all aspects of proposals made for our betterment (?) and to decide whether to implement them or amend them or to reject them. Every so often they must account for their stewardship and face the electorate again.
    To attempt mixing this with some sort of public opinion poll is counter-productive – don’t we all think the juxtaposition of the AV referendum (much though that is at least a proper subject for a referendum) with the local elections earlier this year had a quite malevolent effect upon the latter in many places? As Stephen says – just look at California.
    Government by knee jerk reaction does not appeal to me.

  • I obviously missed that. According to the website it still has the provisions in there but with amendments. I’m confused!

  • This seems like a classic area for pilot studies. We have no idea how local people will react, but if we allowed some local areas to opt into such a system we might find out! Why ban it nationwide if we don’t know whether it will be helpful or harmful, instead of allowing places that want to experiment to find out?

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Oct '11 - 8:09pm

    This huge experience may be know to Peers, MPs and the community ministry but one cannot detect much exposure to this readily available body of knowledge in their debates and draft legislation. It may well be that our rulers prefer to keep the voting public away from ideas about reforming democracy, and to in effect censor evidence of good practice.

    It’s more that when a proposal within a complex bill is determined to be wrong in its approach, parliament tends to prefer to throw the whole chunk of legislation out and try again, rather than hold up the rest of the bill while they sort it out. It certainly seems to me that the referendum proposal needs more work. The Lords have not rejected the idea in principle, only this particular attempt at implementing it, and I firmly hope to see it return in a new bill in a year or two.

    When we need fresh ideas and expert analysis to be directed on an issue, the right thing to do is not to drag it out in parliament, but to hold a consultation with a view to drawing up a new bill.

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