Sunday, September 03, 2006

Is This the Way to Bring Democracy Back to the People?

Tomorrow, a major new initiative will be launched with the aim of bringing democracy closer to people. It is seeking to emulate the Swiss and various US States where people can trigger national referenda by signing a petition. The pressure group is called OUR SAY and is the brainchild of Saira Khan, star of The Apprentice.

Their press release says OUR SAY "offers a creative and constructive way of giving people a renewed stake in the democratic process at a time when confidence in politics in Britain is at an all-time low. OUR SAY believes that declining electoral turnout and public cynicism are the direct result of a political system that doesn’t listen to people. Under the group’s proposals, one million people would need to sign a petition to trigger a national referendum while a local vote could be held with the support of a few thousand voters. The result of such referendums would become law."

OUR SAY’s proposals are based on the "citizens’ initiatives" ideas in the POWER Inquiry report published in February 2006. Similar systems operate successfully in a variety of other countries, notably Switzerland, New Zealand, Poland and a number of US states. OUR SAY has already gained the backing of politicians, academics and campaign groups from across the political spectrum and aims to win support from all the main political parties. The group is also looking for a local authority willing to trial a referendum for a controversial local issue.

OUR SAY’s proposals:
* Referendums to be triggered by a petition supported by 2.5% of the electorate - one million people for a national referendum or 3-4,000 for a local issue. Signatures would have to be gathered within a set period and verified by the Electoral Commission. The outcome of the referendum would be binding on Parliament or the relevant local authority.
* Referendums could only be held once a year, on Referendum Day, which would
coincide with local elections.
* There would be strict limits on expenditure during the referendum campaigns and the Electoral Commission would have the duty of setting a fair, balanced question. Broadcast media would be required to ensure that there was equal coverage for both sides of any referendum question.

Launching the campaign, Saira Khan, Chair of OUR SAY, said: "Politics in Britain is broken. So many people are disillusioned and cynical about the way the system works. It’s no good simply tinkering. Politicians have to get serious about sharing power with the people. That’s what OUR SAY aims to do by giving every citizen a direct say over the issues that really matter to them."

On the face of it, this is an initiative I will support wholeheartedly. Let the People speak! Want an English Parliament? Want to come out of the EU? Want to abolish speed cameras? Want to introduce Sharia Law? We really would be able to have genuine debates. I hope the Conservative Party will take this initiative very seriously indeed. More on the Our Say Webiste HERE.


Anonymous said...


Jock Coats said...

I think it's a great idea. would need root and branch reform of the division of power between national and local government. It works in the cantonal system and in the US because of the "bottom up" approach to government, clearly defined and much wider ranging powers of more local tiers of government (and powers of taxation allowing them to budget for such popular measures). This of course is overdue anyway after a century of centralisation and would be a "good thing" in any event. But it would need to be done I reckon before such initiatives could really have an effect.

Benedict White said...

Er no. Bad idea. The reason being that as some one once said, referendums are the tools of demagogues. (or words to that effect)

Given we were just having a love in to the person who said that, our only female PM we might like to look at why:

Do you want less terrorism?

yes or no?

No nuance, like the measure proposed does not reduce terrorism.

We do not live on a democracy, we live in a constitutional monarchy which a parliament that operates as a representative democracy.

There is a subtle difference. This proposal would put far more power in media hands than is the case now. I think Rupert Murdoch would approve. For that reason I do not.

Anonymous said...

Certainly would get more involvement going. Plus, it would allow individuals with something to say to emerge without all cloak and dagger party political choice schemes.

Who knows, this may even get young people interested in politics and government.

Anonymous said...

Surely for it to be successful it has to have the full backing of all political parties. I would love to see something in the UK akin to Rock The Vote in the US. Maybe this is the first step towards that.

Scipio said...

The motivation is right, but the initiative could also be dangerous!

There is a lot of cynicism about politics and politicians, but that is (IMHO) not due to the system per se, but because so many of our politicians - especially the current Government - are just such outrageous, feather nesting, neer do well, malcontented, under achieving scumbags!

Whilst institutionalising the right of 'the people' (whoever they are) to have a say is an understandable reaction (are you listening politicians), the danger with referendums is that you could get some really silly laws as a result of legislation which is not debated, considered and argued out through parliamentary debate, committee and with input from specialists - but rather to appease a group of angry people who just want to ban something, enforce something on us, or control behaviour!

My fear is that, as crap as some of current MPs are, the 'Parliamentary Process' would still produce better law than a group of people down the pub saying 'I know, lets ban ........'.

Sorry for sounding a bit elitist - I am not really. I do want people more involved in politics, but I just fear that a process which institutionalises referendums will open up legislating to the extremists.

Also, we will forever be having referenda. One week, a million people sign a petition to ban hunting, the next week a million people sign a petition to un-ban hunting! So on and so forth!

You get my drift?

A possible way forward would be to have a law which says that if a million people sign a petition, then Parliament has to consider the matter with a debate, followed by a fre vote on whether legislation is needed. This would be a way of getting the peoples voice heard in Parliament, but with Primacy still resting with Parliament.

Johnny Norfolk said...

I think it is a good idea as politicians live in a world apart.
They think that they knopw what is best for us. Judging by the privates lives of many they dont.

Johnny Norfolk said...

Benedict White is just so far removed from reality. Does he realy think you would have a referendum with the question ' Do you want less terrorism ' How banal.

I think you should read Iains example questions. These would be far mor realistic.

I think it is a great idea that we will never have, as the parties are power mad and will not share it.

Anonymous said...

to quote Wolfy Smith
'Power to the people'

ThunderDragon said...

Nice idea, stupid interpretation. There is nothing wrong with the system, but the current government.

Anonymous said...

Good Idea - maybe get rid of the mad recycling rules or stop the crazy way fishing is organised - oops can't do that - the EUSSR have set the rules. Forget "binding referenda"

Anonymous said...

@ Adrian Yalland -

"the danger with referendums is that you could get some really silly laws as a result of legislation which is not debated, considered and argued out through parliamentary debate, committee and with input from specialists - but rather to appease a group of angry people who just want to ban something, enforce something on us, or control behaviour!"

You are describing the current way in which most legislation is rubberstamped through the House of Commons.

The control freaks and the special interests in the Government present a long portmanteau Bill, containing lots of unrelated items, many of which are about issues which are complicated enough to deserve their own Bill e.g. the badly draughted amendments to the Computer Misuse Act 1990 which have been tagged on to the lengthy Police and Justice Bill, which deals mostly with the re-organisation of regional Police forces.

The Opposition, such as it is, spends most of its time debating a couple of extremely controversial Clauses, conveniently numbered at the start of the Bill.

Other, equally controversial or technically complicated Clauses are deliberately numbered towards the end of the list items to be "debated". Many of these Clauses will employ "infinite powers" language, abusing words like "any" with no caveat or qualification, which leaves the Judicial appeals systems with no leeway to exclude any particular case on a point of law e.g. the definition of a "noxious substance" with respect to "terrorist hoaxes" is "any man-made substance" or "any natural substance" i.e. all known and unknown matter in the entire universe.

Just in case such overbroad wording is not enough, Primary Legislation usually seems to contain provisions for infinite Secondary Legislation, by Order of a Minister, which Parliament is not allowed to amend, only to pass or reject in its entirety. This is therefore usally presented as several necessary or non-controversial items, with an evil one smuggled in, which then goes through "on the nod".

"Debate" on such Orders can take less than an hour of time in Parliament, including the quarter of an hour for the antiquated lobby voting system e.g. the disgraceful "debate" on the "sunset clause" approving the continuation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 Control Orders, which had been "ping ponged" between the Commons and the Lords several times only a year previously.

The Committee stages of a Bill are usually subjected to a "Programming Motion" i.e the time for "debate" is deliberately "guillotined", and the controversial Clauses simply run out of time for "debate". There is often literally no time for them to be even read out loud, let alone "debated" properly, and so many of these clauses are not actually "debated" at all.

The "debate", such as it is, takes place in a House of Commons Chamber or even a Committee Room, with, if we are lucky, a couple of dozen MPs, from both sides of the House present, of which perhaps only half a dozen will actually bother to speak - the TV coverage is deliberately misleading and tries to hide the empty backbenches in the Chamber.

The herds of "lobby fodder" MPs, both from the Government and the Opposition, only turn up to rubberstamp the Bill, very often voting without actually having bothered to read the text on which they are supposedly exercising their judgement on our behalf, as our elected representatives.

No MP should be allowed to vote on a Bill, if they have not actually read or heard read, the text of the legislation upon which they are voting. If this leads to fewer Bills of shorter length, then so be it.

Ever lengthier and more complicated, and often unenforceable Legislation, which re-states previous existing laws, as a "must pretend to be seen to be doing something" substitute for sensible, practical policies, is one reason to feel disillusioned with this current Government, but it also taints the Opposition as well.

In the UK, getting a million people to sign a petition on anything would be a huge achievement, and there is little realistic chance of
two opposing "million signature" petitions at virtually the same time.

Even if there were, then according to the proposed scheme, both questions would end up on the annual referendum ballot paper at the same time. This has not been much of a problem in other countries, except where the ballot paper ends up being several pages long, which tends to favour questions printed on the first page.

Actual referendum questions should not be allowed to be a simple "yes" or "no" choice, there should also be a "not satisfied with the wording of this question" choice.

Anonymous said...

I am sure if legislation had been left to "the people" we would never have had homosexual law reform, abolition of hanging, privatisation etc.

No doubt at local level "the people" would vote to keep open uneconomic schools with falling numbers then also vote against the local administration because of the level of council tax required to pay for the initiatives they had previously demanded.

It would be a NIMBY's charter - no new housing would ever be built, no new roads opened - then the people who voted for the status quo would be the first to whine when their roads where congested and there was no affordable local housing for their children.

No doubt the next stage would be "recall" legislation (Gray Davis in California). This would lead to timid leadership, afraid to take any tough or unpopular decisions. Governance of the lowest common denominator.

No thank you.

Anonymous said...

If you haven't read the Swiss Constitution then I advise you to do so. Of course there are features which don't apply here - the independence of the Cantons, for example - but it appears designed to keep politicians on a tightish leash and does so fairly successfully.

The politicos don't like it much, it reinforces the principle that they're there to serve, not to rule, and means they can't force through stuff like joining the EU without the approval of the populace. And even legislation that has been enacted can be re-visited. Some subjects are ruled no-go for referendums, but they're remarkably few - defence, for example.

Can't see it happening here at more than a cosmetic level, which is a shame. I'd love to see London tell Ken he can stuff the bus-lanes where the monkey stuffs his nuts. And the Olympics (now there's a financial disaster in waiting, if ever there was one). Be useful to have the US 're-call' option for unsatisfactory performance, too. We'd've been able to get rid of the likes of Prezzie long since.

Anonymous said...

So Andrew Kennedy thinks if the people had decided, you would never have had homosexual law reform, abolition of hanging, privatisation etc.

Funny, they have had referendums in Ireland and Switzerland on capital punishment... and the people there decided to vote against it.

Sorry mate but your elitist arguments are precisely the same as those used by people in the past who wanted women or the working classes to get the vote.

Anonymous said...

An issue with the Swiss model is that in the internet age it is very easy to get 100,000 signatures (or even 1 million in the UK). This would mean a vote to kick the Government out, bring in the death penality, kick out all immigrants., make the Jedi religion compulsory every school assembly, free chocolate shoes for women and sports cars for men EVERY year.

May be not such a bad idea then!?

Anonymous said...

Since when has the Tory Party been a fan of greater democracy? Every Tory knows that the rot started in 1918.

As for increasing participation, at every new opportunity the Labour government has given the British people to express an opinion in a new forum (Whether it be Welsh or Scottish devolution, or votes to create directly-elected mayors), the turnout has always been disappointing, and in many cases below 50%.

The British people do not need more elections: let's improve those we currently have, starting by making constituencies in England, Scotland, Wales and northern Ireland have the same number of electors.

Thomas said...

One of the concerns about referenda is that by their nature they have to black and white (do you want this piece of legislation YES/NO)?

This has caused issues in the Republic of Ireland in the past, where complicated proposals have been put to the people, only for the referendum debate to turn on one or two points in the proposed legislation.

Anonymous said...

Power to the people, you must be joking.

Anonymous said...

If this comes into effect, I will be out on the streets at the very moment it comes into force.

One question, though - which country does it apply to? 2.5% of England or 2.5% of Britain? Necessary questions, seeing as England is governed by Scotland's MPs and they can't bring themselves to even say the word
"England," let alone allow us any say as a nation.

Finally - "They" will never allow this to happen. Corrupt governments do not work that way.

Anonymous said...

"Want to introduce Sharia Law?"

This idea should not even be remotely entertained.

"Give a kick up the backside of so-called moderate Muslims?"

Yes please.

The Hitch said...

the death penalty, flogging and the right to kill home intruders (maybe torture them as well)
Of course this will never happen as we the people are not to be trusted to make the correct decisions, only ex toe cap buffers like Cameron or failed lawyers like blair are to be trusted, ably supported by alcoholic communists like Dr Reid or lying, arrogant incompetents like David Blunkett.

neil craig said...

I would like to see the idea modified so that a 2/3s majority would be required for any vote that restricted freedom or increased regulations or taxes. This is the place where liberalism & democracy part company. It is very easy for a majority to vote to kick the current political out- group's backsides.

I suspect hanging would get in even on 2/3s - but if so it would be less divisive.

This is the sort of thing which would best be first tried by the Scottish/Welsh/Irish regions. The advantage of Federalim is that you can try new things in a small way.

It behooves me to point out that much of the problem this is designed for could be much more easily & quickly alleviated by a PR voting system. Being cynical may it be that part of the attraction of this more complicated reform is that it isn't going to happen quickly?

Anonymous said...

The back and forth issue wouldn't generally be a problem. Hunting, for example, would almost certainly never get back in under these proposals.

It's all very well, but what happens when 52% decide to bring sharia law to Luton or 51% of the country vote the police 90 days' detention. What happens when 60% of the country vote to keep the troops home when the leadership of the country is trying to build diplomatic relationships and responding to ongoing intelligence information.

I like the idea, but I'd want to see it argued out in much more detail first.

Anonymous said...

My concern is not that people do not know what's best for them, since they do and politicians don't. My concern is that most people think that they know what's best for everybody else, too.
This sort of proposal results in the majority (or any other biggest faction, including the largest minorities) forcing their prejudices onto everyone else. Daily Mail heaven.
Think of the over-riding prejudices in the last few decades - the sort of issues that got the tabloid readers foaming at the mouths, then think what a referendum on that issue would have given us.
What we need is not referendums for the majority to impose its will on the minority, but to have small government that keeps its nose out of other peoples' business, and protects the rights of those less able to protect themselves.

Scipio said...

@watching them.....

The point is that, although the current system is less than perfect, you shouldn't seek to replace it with a system which is even more flawed!

Yes, a lot of stuff gets rubber stamped through, and yes, some legislation is motivated due to spite (the hunting ban for example), but on the whole, parliamentary debate - especially the excellent quality of debate in the Lords - acts as a restraint on despotic governments. Giving us referenda would mean we all of a sudden have 60 million potential despots making laws!

Bad move!

The way forward is to ensure 'we, the people' have much better control over those who make our laws. The answer is NOT to make law making the domain of every person who thinks he has great idea!

Scipio said...

I've just changed my mind. I am going to join You-Say, and start a petiton that will propose a law which bans all future referedums!

Any takers?

Benedict White said...

Re Johny Norfolk, no you would not get such a question on the ballot paper, it would be something like "Should we have 90 day detention?" which would then be sold by its proponents as "Do you want less terrorism" despite a genuine belief by many that it won't help.

Anonymous said...

Was this post (and Guido's) explicitly part of the advertising deal 'Our Say' have done with MessageSpace, or simply an awful coincidence?

Scipio said...

Anon 2.27 - you cyncic! I like your style!

Scipio said...

Hey, where is Verity? Have the men in white coats re-captured again?

Anonymous said...

It's a poor, messy idea. We already have a parliamentary system whereby every adult has the right to be represented. However, Saira Khan is a gal to watch.

This idea will die a death, but she will put more work into it and come up with something else, and then something else. She's clever, motivated and ambitious. She'll become a national political figure, mark my words.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of referendums - makes a change somebody asking instead of merely telling. One thing that causes a wry smile is the occasional mention of The Representation of the People Act. If only. Then we wouldn't need to have this discussion.

As it is we get party manifestos - or initiatives, which are even worse - where wonks think up eye-catching ideas for problems that wouldn't exist if the last lot hadn't cocked it up. We'll do better, they say, with zero justification for their claims. Old Ronny Reagan was right, the most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you."

I prefer to make my own mistakes, thanks very much, that way I know who to blame. And Iain's heading is most thought-provoking, "bring democracy back to the people". Who took it away? Why, politicians of course. Mind you, it was for our own good. We can't be trusted with it.

Anonymous said...

"The result of such referendums would become law."

Oh dear. Allowing a simple majority to circumvent the political debate and conciliation that characterises Western liberal democracy would be disastrous. Death penalty anyone? Tyranny of the majority - hope they fail.

Anonymous said...

The Tyranny of the Officials

interesting article on the EU Ref blog, about the growing lack of local democracy in the UK, thanks to Prescotts "standards" board.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a way to give an old wannabe reality TV 'star' licence to get Daily Mail readers to run the country. I'll pass on that.

towcestarian said...

This idea is just plain crazy. We have a parliamentary democracy that works because we don't have PR and the government don't have continuously to second guess the electorate in a never-ending series of plebiscites.

Most of the electorate are too thick to do anything more difficult than vote on Big Brother. So it is complete madness to give them some sort of direct say on things like capital punishment, being in or out of Europe, expelling all Muslims from the UK, all MPs having big tits etc etc.

Give the great unwashed (myself included) one vote every 5 years and make it easy enough so that we know whether it is the Blue or the Red candidate that we are voting for. Colour coded ballot papers - that's my big idea for the day.

Little Black Sambo said...

Edr said, "Hunting ... would almost certainly never get back in under these proposals".
Parliament should never have even discussed hunting; most MPs had no experience of it & knew little about it. Under this system would ANYTHING be the possible subject of a referendum? Would that not mean even more license for busybodies than they already have to interfere in the lives of "ordinary working people"?

Richard Bailey said...

No it isn't.

There are two things currently wrong with politics.
First, the politicians are elected on the basis of saying what they think the electorate want to hear, rather than on the basis of the political principles they hold. The result of this is a Government that lurches about trying to keep up with popular opinion.

Second, an apathetic, slothful, selfinterested, conceited electorate let them get away with it.

Once elected, we owe it to our politicians to let them govern in the way they promised and without constant interference. Every 5 years we get the chance to kick out those who are not doing the job we want them to or that they promised to do.

Democracy is alive and well in this country - we just don't bother exercising it.

Anonymous said...

Been thinking about this idea a little more. Sadly I think the organisation is intellectually out of its depth.

The root of the issue is that there are many good examples and many bad examples of how this process could work.

Until OUR SAY come up with a coherent philosophy that can explain how they can avoid the bad examples and choose the good examples then I don't think they will have a mandate to be taken seriously.

If you are looking to improve the democratic this process is too crude.

Scipio said...

Richard Bailey says "Once elected, we owe it to our politicians to let them govern in the way they promised and without constant interference."

Not that I disagree with you, but you wouldn't happen to havbe a vested interest an as ...erm....elected polician would you???

Anonymous said...

As someone else has remarked, it is a good idea and the circumstances and aspects of the subject of the referendum could be well and truly examined in debate.
However, as long as BBC and the media is largely controlled by the Left then the debate will be well and truly skewered. You can just imagine the packed audience in the TV studio, can't you? There would have to be Fox television as a counterweight.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't agree with anything that loud mouthed publicity hungry woman Saira Khan suggested.

Anonymous said...

Sounds a bit like direct democracy......mmmmmm now where have I seen that before.........Oh Yes!

Anonymous said...

The big difference between Switzerland and the UK is that Switzerland is not in the EU and what works there would not work here because of the burgeoning bureacracy we have. It is an idealistic system and can work in countries which have fewer tiers to their democratic process.