Thursday, 26 May 2016

Why Referenda are Bad For Britain's Democracy

What could be more democratic than asking the adult population to vote on an issue rather than entrust our delegated representatives to come to a decision?

Whilst there has been several referenda on devolution and sovereignty issues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and those asking metropolitan areas whether they wanted an elected mayor of not, the upcoming EU referendum on June 23rd will only be the third UK-wide vote. The first concerned Britain's membership of the European Economic Community as it was called back then in 1975, but I was only 11 so not entitled to vote. Then we didn't have one until 2011 on the issue of a version of proportional representation called AV (Alternative Vote) replacing our first past the post system. Now I consider myself a political animal, yet such was the level of disengagement with the way AV was presented, that I can't even remember if I bothered to cast my vote. I wasn't the only one, turnout was a poor 42% (compared with 60-65% on average for a general election). This was generally felt to have been the result of AV being an inadequate voting system compared with all the proportional representation systems on offer and that even then no one really understood how it worked because the campaign to promote it was so lacklustre.

And now we come to the major referendum currently on the table, continued membership of the EU or to withdraw. I credit that whatever the outcome, the whole thing has been a disaster and weakened the credibility of british democracy. here's why:

1) The campaign isn't about the issue of EU membership at all:
Whatever the merits of In or Out has been partly sideswiped and colonised by the internal politics of the two major political parties. For the Tories, with David Cameron announcing he would not run for another term as Prime Minister after this one, there has been a power struggle to see who is in the best position to replace him when he goes. It's worth noting that if the vote is to leave, Cameron might have to go sooner than expected as he has nailed his colours so firmly to the Stay mast. That would only bring the whole succession battle forward and probably overshadow the mechanics of negotiating our way out of the EU as the country is paralysed without a leader and the bloody struggle to appoint one. So senior Tories have been positioning themselves in the referendum campaign with their eye firmly on the main prize beyond. The will he/won't he bated breath of which side Boris Johnson would side with went on for an age as Johnson made his calculations of support. Tory cabinet ministers in favour of Brexit screamed and shouted for their right to break cabinet unanimity and campaign for what they believed in, and having been granted that right have helped ratchet up the hysteria with attacks on their colleagues in the Remain camp and vice versa. If David Cameron imagined this vote to once and for all heal Tory divisions over the principle of Europe that first holed John Major's government back in the 1990s, he has been seriously mistaken. It's widened those enmities further and at a cost of degrading the quality of the debate. It's all got very personal and very stupid with appeals to an imagined Tory lineage stretching back to Winston Churchill. In other words, the debate has not really been about the EU at all.

Labour have performed no more credibly. The last referendum saw solid Labour support in Scotland wiped out by the simple fact Labour had joined with the Tories to oppose independence. Whatever the Scots thought of the merits or demerits of going it alone, they could not abide the sight of Labour and the hated Tories sharing platforms and singing off the same hymn sheet. "Red Tories" they called the Labour Party and duly annihilated them at the general election by returning just 1 Labour MP in Scotland. So Labour have been very careful not to make the same mistake again and alienate their support in England and Wales by being seen to be in close cahoots with the Tory government. Entirely understandable for a tactical point of view, but doing a huge disservice to the issue under debate, to go or stay in the EU. Labour as a party are contributing virtually nothing to the debate or the issue, beyond the efforts locally of individual MPs. A shameful dereliction of the democratic process by simply distancing themselves from the referendum.

2) Both sides of the debate are based on lies:
I am an avid 'Remain' voter, yet even I, along with every other pro-EU supporter I suspect, knows that the current EU is massively flawed. Just consider the EU's lamentable failure over the migration crisis, its impotency over Ukraine, its mutterings of admitting Turkey into the community despite it failing any standard of liberties and rights of free press and expression, etc etc. So we are voting to keep us in an imagined entity that doesn't in fact exist as it is currently constituted. We are voting for an ideal. On the other hand, since no country ever has left the EU, let alone an economically significant one as the UK is, nobody can have the first inkling as to what that means and how it will play out. For both the UK and the EU itself (it is not impossible that it could signal the break up of the whole Union). We just don't know, so every argument that avers that X will be a benefit of leaving and we will be better off regarding Y by going our own way has no basis in evidence. They are predictions and forecasts at best and entirely coloured by the ends they are seeking to secure.

This begs a question about all referenda; if the choice is between changing to something that has never been done before, (or to leave something as an exit which has never been tried before), is it even possible to posit and empirically back up arguments at all? In which case, how can you properly have a referendum on the issue?

3) Our politicians are not sophisticated enough to do justice to the arguments involved in the issue:
The inherent contradiction at the heart of any referendum question that threatens to tread new ground, makes it really tough for the public to grasp the issue. However, we are not being well served by our politicians and key society movers and shakers in helping us understand the issue any better. The level of debate has been risible. We've had spurious anachronistic reference to Hitler's likely sympathies with a European super-state. We have statements that the EU prohibit more than 3 bananas being bound together to constitute a bunch. We've had the appeal to UK house prices dropping significantly with an Out vote, or the price of your summer holiday increasing if we leave. Like that's the most important thing under consideration here. Politicians demean us the voters when they imagine they can appeal to us through such base and simplistic impulses. We're too ignorant to appreciate what will happen the Balance of payments, VAT revenue and the City of London's golden egg, so let's restrict it to the level of summer holidays since the public can understand that. We've had different sections of the military and security forces opine that our security will either be improved or degraded by the result of the vote. Each side of the campaign wheels out these expert witnesses that support their case and they just end up cancelling one another out and leaving us the voters contemptuous of them all.  If you've ever watched a US real crime programme and the court case where the two sides bring out their pet forensics expert and of course the two radically disagree on what the evidence tells them, so the jury are thrown back on their own instincts as to how to weight the two expert testimonies against one another. Well then you might as well not bother with specialist insight if we end up falling back on what our gut tells us. It's pretty much the same in this debate. I can't help feeling that while these talking heads have a right to hold a personal opinion informed by their professional experience, it probably shouldn't be offered as chapter and verse to us the public. That they do so is not their fault, they are called upon to do so by the politicians.

The upshot of all this? I am predicting a low turnout of similar magnitude to that of the AV vote. And that will be a terrible indictment not on public apathy, but on the performance of our politicians selling us the importance of this vote and the usefulness of referenda themselves, given their innate contradictions.

An undoubted fan of the European superstate 
 A non-compliant bunch of EU bananas
Quids in for car number plate manufacturers if we vote 'Leave'

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