How holding referendums may be a potential solution to some of the principal shortcomings of the UK’s representative democracy system
Direct democracy can potentially offer a solution to the shortcomings of representative democracy by the use of referendums that would complement the extant arrangements of a representative democracy system. In its purest form, direct democracy can be defined as a set of procedures that allow citizens to make political decisions without the need for intermediary institutions (i.e. directly) (Matsusaka, 2005: 187). Conversely, meanwhile, representative democracy can be defined as a system where representatives on behalf of the wider citizen body make political decisions (i.e. indirectly) (Alonso et al, 2011: 23). It has been widely observed that representative democracy has a number of shortcomings, which come from a wide range of theoretical perspectives (Dalton, 2004). This article will identify and explain two of the principal shortcomings of the UK’s representative democracy system, namely the lack of political engagement/interest and political inequality, before analysing how the use of the referendum in the UK has provided solutions to these shortcomings.
One of the most important characteristics of a healthy democracy is the idea that citizens should have a high level of political engagement and interest (Parvin, 2018). Nonetheless, political engagement and interest in the UK have sharply declined in recent times, with this being most ostensibly reflected in the turnout of each of the five UK 21st Century general elections being below 70%; a particularly compelling point when considering that the previous instance of turnout being below this 70% figure in a UK general election was as far back as 1918 (Dempsey, 2017). Furthermore, this decline is also reflected when considering the UK in a comparative perspective, with only 49% of UK citizens having a medium or strong interest in politics; well below the EU average of 61% (Apostolova & Uberoi, 2017). A parliamentary report analysing trends in political engagement and interest identified that a major driver of the UK’s political disengagement and disinterest could be attributed to concerns that the UK’s ‘representative’ democracy system itself was, in fact, unrepresentative (Parliament UK, 2015).
Conventional political theory would suggest that the use of referendums would be expected to increase political engagement and interest. This is because referendums enable citizens’ preferences to be expressed in a more accurate and targeted manner, and thus avoiding the distortions that would potentially occur in a representative democracy system (Pani, 2011). The resultant effect of this would be to give political decisions more legitimacy, which would then trigger more engagement, as citizens would feel that they have more influence in the decision-making process (Tolbert et al, 2003), particularly if the issues they influence are of fundamental importance. Meanwhile, referendums would increase political interest by providing additional and alternative opportunities outside the traditional electoral cycle of a representative democracy system to increase accountability, with the spill over effects on political interest again coming through the increased legitimacy of political decisions (Morel & Qvortrup, 2017: Ch. 23).
Data from the Indy and EU Referendums show that political engagement and interest appeared to be markedly higher relative to general elections, with the respective turnout figures in these referendums being 84.6% (McInnes et al, 2014) and 72.2% (Electoral Commission, 2016). The evident conclusion that can immediately be taken from this is that there were an additional number of citizens, who had not participated in previous general elections, that were clearly engaged and interested enough to participate in these referendums (that were held as standalone votes outside the electoral cycle), and that, on the surface, this alone may indicate that these referendums can be used as examples to show that referendums can address this decline in the UK’s political engagement and interest. Moreover, Blackwell et al (2018) have shown that the effects of the Indy and EU referendums, in tandem with the multiple general elections in 2015 and 2017, have “acted as ‘electric shock therapy’ for (boosting) political engagement” as well as political interest, which has risen 7 points between the pre and post referendum time periods. Indeed, this further indicates that an unintended effect of these referendums was that they re-prompted political debate in the wider polity on issues that were out with the direct issue of the referendum itself (Mooney & Scott, 2015) (Skey, 2016), meaning referendums may be seen a helpful trigger to reinvigorate the required political engagement and interest that ultimately stimulates the wider political debate.
However, in contrast, the earlier AV referendum, held on the same day as local elections may serve as a counter-example to this, with its very low turnout of 42.2% indicating that not every referendum would automatically increase political engagement and interest (Whiteley et al, 2011). Instead, for a more refined and accurate conclusion, it is necessary not to just consider the referendum itself in isolation, but to delve deeper and consider the effects of the referendum’s composition and subject. Indeed, in the Indy referendum, analysis by Tierney (2015) concluded that “citizens felt greatly empowered by the referendum,” with the undistorted role they had in making such a huge decision on a specific, fundamental issue ensuing “a remarkable process of citizen engagement” that was supplemented by a well-defined legal setup that helped to facilitate a high-quality public debate. Meanwhile, Curtice (2011) observed that the AV referendum did not achieve such an effect on political engagement because electoral reform was a subject of little importance to most citizens. This means that a more refined conclusion can be that referendums, if designed in an appropriate way on an issue that is important enough to citizens — particularly constitutional matters (Tierney, 2009), may indeed be able, to an extent, address this decline in political engagement and interest that stems from this shortcoming of the UK’s representative democracy system.
In an ideal democracy, the respective preferences of every citizen, no matter their status, should carry equal importance in the decision-making process (Birch et al, 2013: 2). The other principal shortcoming of the UK’s representative democracy is that, in practice, despite procedural equality, it systemically enables and encourages political inequality; that is, the unequal influence of certain citizen groupings in the decision-making processes (Lawrence, 2015: 3). In the UK, this political inequality is most manifestly found in the difference of political influence according to social class and age. Analysis by Wilks-Heeg (2012: 11) states that the more richer social classes have historically been able to, and currently enjoy a dominating influence in the political decision-making process, and that, by virtue of the representative democracy system, this generally leaves poorer citizens’ interests unrepresented as a result; as demonstrated by considering that only one in four citizens in the lowest two social classes believe that the UK’s representative democracy system addresses their interests well — a 20 point difference to those in the highest social class (Lawrence, 2015: 3). Meanwhile, the political inequality by age develops from the difference in voting turnout between younger and older voters, which alarmingly jumped from 18 points in 1970 to 32 points in 2010 (Birch et al, 2013: 2); with the resultant effect of this being a reduction in the incentives for governments to represent the interests of younger people — with the representative system itself helping to facilitate this.
A further dimension of this political inequality stems from the UK political system permitting a disproportionate influence by corporate/business interests over individual citizens. Wilks-Heeg (2012: 11) describes how the “influence that large corporations now wield on the UK political system seems unprecedented in the post-war period,” with “powerful evidence of politics and business interests becoming increasingly interwoven”, supporting the idea that there appears to be ‘political establishment’ that has a disproportionate amount of political influence than it otherwise should. Statistically, this is shown (Wilks-Heeg, 2012: Fig 3) in the density of connections between major corporations and MPs, with 46% of the UK’s top 50 firms having a connection (in terms of directorship/consultancy/shareholding) to a minister or MP; with this figure, comparatively, being considerably greater in the UK than in other established democracies around the world. The use of the referendum would be expected to be able to provide a solution to this political inequality, as each vote cast by a citizen would have an equal weighting and therefore an equivalent amount of influence, regardless of the citizens’ respective social class or age. Significantly in the context of the UK, this would mitigate the aforementioned dominance that the richer social classes have in the decision-making process. Additionally, the ability to participate in a referendum would be afforded to all (eligible) citizens, and not just restricted to only elected representatives; thus completely bypassing the potential systemic distortions in political influence that occur in a representative democracy system (Matsusaka, 2005b).
Evidence from the EU referendum directly backs up the paradigms discussed above. Goodwin & Heath’s (2016) analysis shows that, on the issue of the UK’s membership of the EU (amongst others), “a ‘liberal consensus’ had been formed by a set of ‘political elites’” who had the greatest influence in the political decision-making process which; consequently, “pushed to the margins” the views of the ‘left‐behind’ poorer, working-class voters. Veritably, the final referendum result of a slim majority of UK citizens voting to leave the EU highlighted this glaring disparity between the UK’s wider citizen body with those who had the greatest influence in political representation; as there was an substantial majority of MP’s in the House of Commons who had backed remaining in the EU (Edwards, 2016). Therefore, the referendum on EU membership can be seen as having a neutralising effect on this political inequality; as each citizens’ vote counted equally, regardless of their political influence in the representative democracy system. Furthermore, referendums themselves can be seen as counter to corporate interests; as referendums would not normally be an avenue that corporate influencers would generally prefer to use to influence policy (Christian et al, 2007), in addition to the issues of EU Withdrawal/Scottish independence seen as more ‘populist’ causes, and in spite of ‘conventional’ big business/corporate interests (Reuters, 2014) (ITV News, 2016).
Nevertheless, this conclusion can be qualified by noting that referendums would only be able to allow a greater opportunity for political inequality to be reduced, as the outcome of the referendum result cannot be guaranteed, and not every citizen group will necessarily turnout to vote. Indeed, in the Indy referendum, analysis by Dalzell (2017) revealed that younger voters (relative to older voters), were more likely to support independence but were also less likely to vote, and that this would have patently had an impact on the result being a ‘No’ to independence; in contrary to younger people’s views. Furthermore, it would be unrealistic to hold referendums on every political issue, both because of practicality constraints (Qvortrup, 2013) and because not every political issue would capture the interest of the wider citizen body, as seen in the AV referendum (Whiteley et al, 2011). Overall, these considerations back up the idea that referendums are more effective when held on issues that are of fundamental importance, as well as noting that referendums are not able to be provide a complete substitute for the representative democracy system, but instead should be used as a concomitant tool alongside the existing representative institutions.
In summary, this article has outlined the principal shortcomings of the UK’s representative democracy system, and has demonstrated how the recent experiences of referendums within the UK have provided a solution to these shortcomings. From the analysis, it is evident that the referendums are not able to fully solve these shortcomings, but they have managed to successfully mitigate them to a considerable extent. Indeed, when noting that it would be difficult to find an ‘ideal’ democratic system, and that the purest forms of both representative and direct democracy have significant shortcomings, then the need to find a balance between these extreme forms of democracy becomes apparent. Therefore, the qualified overall conclusion from this analysis is that referendums, if held on a sufficiently important issue with an appropriate design framework, can indeed be an effective solution to UK’s lack of political engagement/interest and political inequality, when used concomitantly with the UK’s extant representative democracy system.
Article first written October 2018
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