Direct democracy is back in fashion, seen as a way of restoring trust in politics. But more referendums, and even votes to sack MPs, are a bad idea—just look at what has happened in Californiaby Peter Kellner / July 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
For 40 years I have been a devotee of public attitudes data, both as a journalist and now as president of the polling company YouGov. When the New York Times first coined the term “the second superpower” to describe world public opinion, I thought: “Yes! I help to give this superpower its voice.” But I have come to believe that giving public opinion direct political expression is a dangerous folly.
Nevertheless, following the Westminster expenses scandal and the backlash it has created, a range of populist, direct democracy measures are now being proposed, particularly by the Conservatives. At their heart lies a tool virtually unknown in Britain until the latter part of the 20th century, but which Labour has encouraged and the Conservatives now embrace with the fervour of repentant sinners: the referendum. If David Cameron becomes prime minister, we face not only a referendum on the EU, but a blizzard of local votes on council tax and other issues. Cameron, along with some on the left, is also considering open primaries to select MPs and petitions to recall (or depose) them if enough voters disapprove of their actions. Also on the agenda are a sharp reduction in the number of MPs and California-style ballot initiatives, meaning the right to table further referendums. Yet I believe almost all of these will lead to worse government.
Direct democracy is superficially attractive. Politicians think it puts them in touch with the people, and it is popular with an electorate now used to being asked its opinions, not least through popular votes on programmes like Britain’s Got Talent and Big Brother. But it hollows out the accountability and legitimacy of parliament just when these should be strengthened. Indeed, taken together these mooted reforms could lead us down a slippery slope towards the California model, where referendums and recalls have destabilised politics, seen schools and hospitals go broke, and civil liberties threatened. The time has come to reassert the case for a robust representative democracy, in which politicians listen to the concerns of voters, but do not surrender their judgement to them, or to the polls that people like me produce. Referendums are a recent addition to British political life, beginning in their modern form in an argument about Welsh pub opening times in the mid-1960s. A handful followed in the 1970s, over Northern Ireland, Europe and devolution.
Then after the 1997 election…