Are referendums good for democracy?

No—they bypass the procedures designed to optimise decision-making

February 03, 2017
Vote leave supporters in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, in the run-up to the referendum on 23rd June ©Nick Ansell/PA Archive/PA Images
Vote leave supporters in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, in the run-up to the referendum on 23rd June ©Nick Ansell/PA Archive/PA Images

If you live in a small ancient Greek city with restrictions on who can take part in the political process, referendums are pretty well your only governmental decision-making resource.

But if you live in a populous, diverse and complex society, you do far better to avoid referendums, and instead to devise a representative democracy in which people are elected to act on the populace’s behalf by getting information, deliberating, discussing, listening to different points of view, making sober judgments, and acting on them wisely. If the representatives succeed in this, their electors might keep them in post. If they do not, their electors can throw them out.

There are two great advantages of the representative system. When combined with all the shortcomings of referendums, they show why the vote on 23rd June 2016 was such a farce. Regrettably, with MPs having voted in favour of triggering Article 50 on Wednesday night, the result is now very likely indeed to be acted upon.

The first such advantage is that the representative system allows the rest of us to get on with our lives, jobs and families without having to think about the minutiae of such things as legislation on health and safety in the gas industry, or amendments to §5(c)(ii) paragraph eight of the Heathlands and Waterways (Protected Fowl) Act of 1953. Much in the business of legislating involves equal quantities of boredom and expertise, each a great barrier to agora-style approaches to democracy, and they are peculiarly unfitted for them therefore.

The other advantage is that representative democracy is indirect democracy. The ignorance, self-interest, short-termism, emotion, prejudice and occasional knuckle-headedness of which almost all of us are capable are—or in the ideal should be—filtered out by the institutions and procedures of representative democracy, which are designed specifically for that purpose, and which accordingly allow mature intelligence to be focused on the business of government. Party politics interferes with this desirable arrangement, of course, and the result is not only that partisan interests and knuckle-headedness too often fail to get filtered out, but the very institutions and practices that exist to minimise such failure can be manipulated. But the system works often enough, at least for less contentious matters, and that is a good thing.

Referendums are in general inconsistent with this process. They bypass the institutions and procedures designed to optimise decision-making, and go straight for the opposite, posing a simplified question inviting a yes-no answer to a body of people among whom very few have given the matter much thought, or thought anything like informed and dispassionately enough. In handing decision-making over to a referendum, politicians thereby abdicate responsibility, and there is little guarantee that the outcome will be the most considered possible alternative.

In most cases if referendums are not merely consultative or advisory, they will be held on the basis of a supermajority requirement, typically of 60 per cent or 66 per cent either of votes cast or of the electorate as a whole. This is to ensure a modicum of filtering out of those emotional, prejudiced, etc., factors. In the UK trade unions in important public services such as the emergency services cannot call a strike on less than 40 per cent of the total membership, whether or not all the members vote. In the House of Commons a 66 per cent majority of all MPs is required for a general election to be called outside the fixed term of a parliament. These supermajorities are acknowledgments that simple majorities are not enough to license significant steps; there has to be evidence of a certain above-threshold level of consensus to confer legitimacy. And the electorate for a referendum, unlike that for a general election, has to embrace all with a material interest in the outcome, otherwise it lacks even the chance of such legitimacy.

For these reasons among others, the referendum held on the UK’s membership of the European Union was a travesty. It was advertised to MPs as advisory only, so no supermajority requirement was built in; yet a simple majority (which on the turn-out represented a minority of the electorate: little more than a third) was then taken by the government to be mandating and binding. Exclusion from the franchise of three groups with a material interest in the outcome—16-17 year olds, a large class of expatriates, and EU citizens working and paying tax in the UK—anyway deprived the referendum of legitimacy from the outset. Had they been included it is without question that the result would have been the opposite by a significant margin.

The example of the EU referendum is likely to make future thinking about referendums more cautious and sensible. That is a small gain for so great a harm that the 2016 EU referendum has done. Hindsight will show that canting phrases such as “the will of the people” do not bear scrutiny in referendums without the safeguards of full franchises and supermajority requirement; without them they are merely opinion polls with larger samples.