Referenda - Delusions of Democracy

The menu at Cafe Referenda is distinctly limited – only sortition gives people real choices over the real choices, argues Daz Pearce.

To paraphrase Suzanne Vega, you walk into the diner and pick up a menu. It contains two options, namely Carnivore Speciale or Vegetariana. Logical powers of deduction suggest that one almost certainly contains meat and the other doesn't, but unless you're a self-identified vegetarian, or some wild inhabitant of the Serengeti taking a well-earned vacation, that probably isn't an enormous help. Even then, you'd like to know a few more of the particulars before deciding which, if any, of these appetising options most appeal to you. A minute later, a woman wanders over to your table, imploring you to vote Vegetariana - “Just think of the millions of animals impacted by your choice,” she quite ridiculously pleads before badgering you for several minutes about how 'Meat is Murder' until some Jehovah's Witnesses helpfully come along to make the save.

A short while later a man in a suit who looks, sounds and smells like he's been drinking heavily sidles up to you, explaining that he saw and heard the exchange you had with the vegetarian woman earlier. “She's talking out of her arse,” he tells you, “I reckon it's time you took back control, stuck it to the man and went Carnivore Speciale.” Confused, you approach the owner of the diner and ask him exactly what these two options consist of. Pulling a face, and with an apologetic look in his eyes, he informs you that 'the rules' dictate that he's not allowed to tell you that and, seeing as you're here, those same 'rules' mean that they're locking you in and you have to choose one of those options NOW. And by the way, would you like the alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink with that? Please note that the same 'rules' apply...


One of the more amusing 'political' conversations I can remember having over the years concerned a friend of mine who flirted with and then quickly abandoned the concept of 'rule by referenda.' In short, this would involve most major decisions (such as the budget) being put to a plebiscite in some curious nationwide game of snakes and ladders so that we got proper 'government by consent' – by the people, for the people, of the people. Fortunately I was able to blow this out of the water fairly quickly by pointing out that a majority would simultaneously vote for tax cuts for themselves, along with taxpayer-funded indulgence of their wildest public spending fantasies. The country would require a 70s-style IMF (or perhaps EU) bailout within three or four years – and I'm pretty sure this would be on their terms and not subject to a referendum.

I understand up to a point why a lot of people like the concept of having a referendum on major political questions. In the case of the recent Brexit shambles, a sense of pride was derived by many for having 'forced the hand' of Conservative politicians in particular and 'making' them offer a vote in the first place. In reality, just because you get the outcome you were arguing for doesn't necessarily mean that your arguing had anything whatsoever to do with it. That we ended up with the prolonged farce that was the Leave vs Remain battle owed more to David Cameron's trademark arrogance, inclination towards political expediency and, most importantly, his own belief that he wouldn't win the 2015 election outright than it ever did to 'people power' – the idea that we got a 'referendum by demand,' attractive though it might sound, is something of a myth.

There's an irreconcilable paradox at the centre of referenda which explains why so many descend into poor-quality argument before ending with a sense of anti-climax and disappointment. Their fundamental failing is simply this:- they don't reflect the complexities of political or economic reality. Whereas referenda ask a single, isolated question and require you to give an immediate yes/no answer, the landscape that actually exists encapsulates a multitude of complicated political, economic, social and moral issues, many of which bleed into each other. You can't have a conversation about public spending without also talking about the taxation you'll need to pay for it, or the general economic climate. Immigration clearly fuses with a discussion about welfare entitlement. Defence and foreign policy are perpetually intertwined with each other – in short, standalone issues simply do not exist.

This poses problems for all sides, but particularly for that which is arguing for a change to the current arrangement and even more so if that side is not the government, as was the case in the EU plebiscite. It's hardly unreasonable for the undecided to ask those pushing for an alteration to the status quo what their answers are to the spin-off questions that arise from leaving the European Union. What happens to the money that we currently pay in? Does this mean immigration policy will change, and what about all those who have moved between the UK and another EU country (in either direction) already? Does this impact our membership of any other international organisations? Are we going to join EFTA now? All entirely sensible and fair questions which logically you'd want to nail the 'candidate' down on, but there are two serious issues here:-

Uno - none of those questions are actually on the ballot paper.

Dos - if this 'candidate' is not the government, or about to become the government then his or her answers to those questions are utterly meaningless as they can't possibly be held accountable for them in this lifetime or the next.

Just about everyone remembers that bus with the magic number of £350 million on its side, don't they? Its impact was twofold – it fed into the religious fervour which many still feel about the National Health Service, while turning the Brexit referendum into a somewhat warped pseudo-election. Along with the 'pledge' to introduce an Australian-style points based immigration system, this transformed the answer to a single political question into the bare bones of a platform for 'Vote Leave' to form the next government, despite 'Call Me Dave' having stated, up to and including this point, that he would stay on and sign article 50 himself in the event of a leave vote. However, it's also true that a failure to offer some sort of wider post-Brexit programme would have resulted in what could be politely described as a credibility deficit – and herein lies the paradox at work.

Having spent most of the campaign period cringing, pulling faces and generally lamenting the cocktail of dishonesty and ineptitude on display from both sides on social media, I got used to labels like 'malcontent' and what have you. Fortunately, the Electoral Reform Society recently came to my rescue and agreed that the standard of debate conducted by all involved was 'dire' – note that this is about as strong a form of language as is possible for an organisation that does not allow its members to print expletives. However, it's possible that along with an encouraging number who noted the quality of the arguments or lack thereof, I was being slightly harsh on the individual participants. The nature of referenda themselves forced the hand of all involved to some extent, and Vote Leave in particular, to conduct themselves in the way that they did.

That same ERS report also offers the Scottish referendum vote as an example of how putting a question to the popular vote can result in an argument which is, well, much better than what we had to endure in the Brexit campaign. In absolute terms this is true, but it's misleading to conclude that therefore referenda are a good thing, or even that they can be a good thing on any sort of scale. As you'll recall, the two sides in the Scottish Independence campaign were the elected SNP government in Scotland and the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition that formed the UK government. It was understood beforehand that one of Alex Salmond or David Cameron would have to quit afterwards (which Salmond duly did). The two sides were able to engage in 'electioneering' because this WAS an election in all but name and at least not JUST a referendum.

And yet...even this left an unsatisfactory ending. Salmond's answers to the spin-off questions around independence gave you the complete picture of what his and the SNP's version of amicable divorce looked like – keeping the pound and the queen as head of state were the two that jumped out of the page immediately. So those Scots who saw their future as being part of a republic, and/or playing an active role within the EU and eventually joining the Euro, were left without any representation at all. Meanwhile, after seeing an opinion poll which had them trailing for the first time, Better Together sent the leaders of the three main parties up to Scotland to promise something called Devo Max if the vote was to keep the United Kingdom intact. Regardless of what was on the ballot paper, the status quo was no longer a genuine option as those seeking no change whatsoever were left high and dry just days before the vote.

This is why the holding of referenda represents a pernicious sleight of hand, a false delegation of autonomy to ordinary people when in reality the political class retain power over the question, your choices in answering and when it is asked. Moreover, the plebiscite paradox constrains politicians in such a way that either it locks you into Cafe Referenda with its two vague, unspecified options, or leaves their mouths writing cheques that they have neither the means nor inclination to cash. Cheap slogans, poor-quality arguments, personality-driven campaigns and a sense of 'hollow victory' for the 'winners' afterwards are inevitable by-products as nothing truly feels 'settled' for any length of time. It's amazing how many of those who genuinely believe the UK is better off out of the EU (myself included) were left just as deflated as the 'losers' on the day of the result.

Only sortition will give people real choices over the real choices. It will put an end to the logical fallacy that serious political and economic questions can be asked and answered in isolation and that there's a straightforward black/white, yes/no or in/out answer to everything. Far from representing 'people power,' referenda embrace the ugliest elements of direct democracy, appealing to group think and insulting human intelligence, while offering none of its benefits: most obviously that of delegating genuine decision-making to those impacted by it. That said, the increasing calls for referenda on a wide range of issues during my lifetime is something that should encourage and not dismay us. It serves as evidence that an increasing number of people are growing tired of the representative/party system and might be willing to consider an alternative.

Making your own lunch might be hard work, but at least you get to choose what's on the menu – something that could never be said for Cafe Referenda. Thanks for reading.


Showing 2 reactions

  • Malcolm Saunders
    I have been firmly opposed to referendums ever since the first European one in 1975. It is absolutely impossible to decide complex political issues by simple yes/no answers. People have very different intentions in casting their votes and they have different expectations of what will happen if their side wins. The are actually worse than representative democracy and that is very bad.

    Important decisions need to be taken by people who are not beholden to an electorate or prey to vested interests who consider all the issues carefully and then make a considered decision. That is what sortition offers.
  • Daz Pearce