Are referendums the ‘purest’ form of democracy or a reflection of a broken political system?

The use of the most direct form of democracy, a referendum, was used to determine in the issue of EU membership in 2016. From then, media outlets have been inundated with all manner of news on the ongoing fiasco that is Brexit. However, to take a step away from this frenzy and evaluate how we ended up at where we at, may also throw up some home truths about democracy that we would not like to admit. Although referendum can be seen to be empowering democratically ‘the people’, it has caused us, the people, more harm than good.

Referendums were so long avoided in the UK because of the connotations left by the abuse of referenda by nationalistic dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini. In these cases, referendums were used to gain public support on issues of very little contention, given the context of the time, it was also unlikely any one would oppose the desired outcome. When Churchill proposed a UK wide referendum in 1945 on whether a general election should be held before or after the defeat of Japan, the then Labour leader Clement Attlee stated ‘are you seriously suggesting we should use the tool of dictators?’. The idea for a referendum was subsequently abandoned, and the people of the UK would have to wait until 1975 before the first nation-wide referendum was held.

The source of this referendum pledge was surprising but the subject of this referendum rather un-surprising. Harold Wilson, the next Labour Prime Minister after Clement Attlee promised the first UK ‘in out’ referendum on the EU’s predecessor the European Economic Community (ECC). A divide on continued membership to the EEC threatened to split the Labour party, resulting in Wilson turning to ‘the tool of dictators’. It can be recognised at this point that the 1975 ECC referendum, like the 2016 EU referendum was in no way meant to be for the benefit of the people.

The 2016 referendum came off the back of a manifesto pledge made by David Cameron during the 2015 General Election, which in turn delivered the Conservative party a slim 12 seat majority. Again, this pledge had little to do with the transfer of power to the people. Moreover, it was in fact a last throw at the dice by David Cameron to try gain a Conservative majority.

It is at this point it may be worth trying to break the stigma that ‘direct democracy’ prevails above all else. In short, just because ‘the people’ have been consulted, it does not automatically qualify the outcome as just or merely beneficial to the people. Referendums, are unique in the sense they create a clear-cut division; either the ‘yes’ or the ‘no’; the ‘remain’ the ‘leave’; the ‘brexiteer’ the ‘remoaner’.

With such clear lines of tension, are such divisive democratic mechanisms necessary or even worthwhile existing alongside are representative democracy model? These divisions are beginning to transcend themselves into larger issues such as hate crime. In the 11 months that followed the 23rd June referendum police released figures indicating a rise of 23% in racially provoked hate crime.

The issues surrounding EU membership were unravelled in what can only be summarised as media slandering competition, whichever camp could throw enough mud at the opposition, in the hope some of it would stick. The leave sides claim that the remain side were operating ‘a project fear’, with claims that a leave vote would lead to another financial crash (which after the vote, despite a huge fall in the pound, we have not seen). Comparatively, the ‘leave’ side making inflated claims of what EU membership savings could be reinvested into (the promise of £350 billion to the NHS according to an infamous red bus). These final claims lead to the conclusion that the population on a whole were not ready, and therefore could not be trusted to be responsible to accommodate such a vote.

To say the population on a whole could not be trusted or responsible to answer such a basic ‘in/ out’ question is not a slander or a reflection of the populations competence. It is more a reflection of the governments incompetence and their lack of responsibility to deal with the issues which brought about the tensions which subsequently led to the referendum. Had governments (not just the most recent Conservative period of 2010- present) done more to ensure those who voted leave had their concerns listened to and acted upon, we would perhaps not have had to had the referendum at all. It is however the responsibility of government to ensure that tensions such as immigration are not ignored and left to manifest into bigger problems, like we find ourselves in now.

To bypass this issue, I would suggest it is not about the amount of democratic power that an individual has the capacity to exhibit. Moreover, it is the quality of that democracy that would ensure a reduction of tension between the people and Parliament. Whilst general elections under the 2011 Elections act are restricted to every 5 years’, further elections are not necessarily are going to act as a solution. However, a more proportionally based system of electing MP’s to the House of Commons would ensure relevant engagement, as with any other electoral system, but would also offer a fairer, proportionally based representation of voter’s intentions.

Where we have been left is utterly unacceptable and is because of a poorly, misconstrued attempt to use a democratic tool for personal (or in this case party) gain. We should all hold those who seek to represent us at a higher standard, and it is therefore important to look beyond the issues that Brexit turns up. If we allow ourselves to become engulfed within the Brexit fiasco, we lose sight of further issues of great important such as our slowly decaying National Health Service (NHS). It is with the above knowledge I take my issues with the fabrication that referendums are good for ‘the people’, when in actuality they are becoming a distraction to immanent crises.