Democracy isn't complete without the ability to trigger a referendum

Regular elections are important, but what happens if we end up with more (or less!) than we bargained for?

We have never had the ability to select for or against parts of a governing party's policy programme, even at election time - most elections are won on a relatively small number of key issues. As it stands, we don't account for policy preferences or allow for the most basic democratic oversight - that of citizens themselves.

I would suggest three new powers for the electorate which would be supplementary to elections, which are:

  • The ability to trigger an election.
  • The ability to veto a bill passing through Westminster (or indeed, a regional parliament).
  • The ability to trigger a referendum on a bill put forward by any member of the public.

All these could be contingent on gathering sufficiently large numbers of signatures, with the numbers required reflecting the number of people affected by the change - eg, smaller requirements at a regional level, for instance.

This isn't an idea without precedent - Switzerland has a similar system that is worth studying.

I believe that in conjunction with proportional representation, this would restore a sense that people's views (and votes) count, and provide a rich avenue for participation in politics without having to be tied to a party - or perhaps as a precursor to a group becoming one.

edited on Jan 28, 2015 by Nicholas Charalambides

BananaPlant Apr 7, 2015

A must.

Hilary Cook Apr 7, 2015

". . . this would restore a sense that people's views (and votes) count, and provide a rich avenue for participation in politics without having to be tied to a party - or perhaps as a precursor to a group becoming one"

EXACTLY! - You've put my thoughts into words better than I could myself - thank you.


John Hackett Apr 11, 2015

What do people think of the following clauses?

"Enfranchised people in the United Kingdom have the right to sign a petition in favour of instigating any of the following electoral events and processes:

"a) A general election, in the event of which MPs from all electoral districts are recalled.

"b) The recall of a specific member of Parliament, if the petition is signed by constituents¹ from their electoral/nomination district.

"c) A referendum concerning an existing bill under debate by the legislature, or one passed within 24² months

"d) A referendum concerning a bill put forward by a group of citizens, to be ratified by the upper house and checked for consistency with existing constitutional rules by a constitutional court³

"e) A referendum concerning a constitutional amendment, which must be passed by a majority of no less than 2/3 of the population⁴.

"Thresholds for each should be decided in terms of eligible voters, and the quantity of signatures required should be:

"a) 3% of the eligible population nationally

"b) equal to the number of votes cast for the smallest represented party in Parliament,

"whichever is smaller.

"In matters pertaining only to one electoral district, the threshhold should be the lowest of either:⁵

"a) 10% of the turnout at the previous election

"b) 5% of the eligible population

"c) The minimum number of votes required to elect a member of Parliament, which may be localised if it is at variance across the country

"whichever is smaller.

"For referenda, signatures must be collected within 18 months from the official registration of the petition. After reaching the required threshhold, a 6 month period of debate will begin, with parties invited to state their cases to the public after the proposals are approved by a constitutional court as not being illegal or unconstitutional.

"No unreasonable barrier to entry may be made to prevent citizens from putting forward initiatives. Examples of unreasonable barriers may include setting a prohibitive cost to registering a petition, or requiring attendance at an distant premises which may incur prohibitive cost and inconvenience to a petition registrant. This is not an exhaustive list of unreasonable barriers, and each individual with grievance shall have the right to have their case heard and have reparations made if a jury finds their ability to participate in the system has been unduly limited. The jury may impose an obligation to accomodate (for example) a new medium or method for registering or signing petitions on the relevant authority.

"Referenda shall take place in batches up to once per calendar month, on a day which is determined to be maximally convenient for all voters. Workers should have the right to take time off work to vote if required.

The numbers are, as ever, made up; it's worth referring to the first phase to see the discussion I had about threshholds. They're very low in Switzerland, as a proportion of population. This makes me think that they should be even lower as a proportion in the UK, because the legwork involved in getting a million votes is (I believe) much more expensive and difficult than the legwork involved in getting one hundred thousand. That's as much up for debate as anything else here, though!

This is my first attempt, so obviously not everything should be just copied in from this. I'd be interested in people's thoughts about all of it, in particular how to set a threshhold. This is a surprisingly difficult one if we don't want to hamstring the idea, but if we also want to avoid the system getting 'filibustered' by vexatious contributors.

I've also tried to ensure that the right to participate in this process is protected, specifically I have in mind situations like legal aid, where a person is unable to protect their rights because they lack the funds to do so. A broad protection against this might seem a bit heavy handed, but there are lots of ways to break this system where really there ought to only be one - eg, a constitutional amendment ending it. Funding cuts should not be an issue for the vitality of participatory democracy, nor should choosing days to hold elections when the majority of people are unavailable due to work and the like.

I've noticed as I've gone along that I'm not exactly an excellent draftsman, so anyone who notices inadequate wording will be thanked for pointing it out!

Nicholas Charalambides Apr 13, 2015

Hi jhackett and thanks for the clauses you have provided for us!

Having looked through your comment the only section which stood out to me was the minimum threshold possibly being  'b) equal to the number of votes cast for the smallest represented party in Parliament,'.

I think this may be too low, especially if we have parties in parliament with a single representative, such as the Green Party in the last parliamentary session.

It would be great to have some more views on the matter though - to those I've tagged, your input would be much appreciated!

Rob G Apr 13, 2015

I'm personally very wary of referendums, but I'm trying to leave that to one side :-)

Nicholas is definitely right on (b) - the Alliance Party won a seat in Northern Ireland, on a total vote of 42,762. At the end of December, there were more than 1,000 times that number of registered electors in the UK (and that's gone up a lot since), so the second threshold would be something like 0.07% of the electorate.

However, I'd caution against having low thresholds - it was widely reported in 2011 that the referendum on a move to AV was received very badly, in part because it was seen to be an unnecessary expense on the public purse for something the public didn't find that merit-worthy. Yet as jhackett points out, changes to the voting system may well be one of the areas where representative democracy involves too great a conflict of interest between representative and represented to deliver the change the public wants.

Having an excessively low threshold might well let too many petty issues "bother" the public, and undermine the whole principle. For a similar reason, I'd suggest that there be a "referendum day" no more often than every 6 months. In both cases, public clamour for more issues to be put to the public more often would easily gain approval in a subsequent referendum on a constitutional amendment; responding to a mood of "referendum fatigue" would probably be much more a difficult sell involving more bitterness and division.

Tom Austin Apr 14, 2015

Yes Rob, the very devil is in the detail. Gavin and I had discussed his notion of some regular, celebratory, Constitution Festival - every five years or so, but if we are to have a Constitutional-committee/forum/jury and as such things do tend to be expected to 'report' regularly, it might be possible to hash things out at such times.

Nicholas Charalambides Apr 14, 2015

Thank you Rob and Tom! May I ask if you have any leanings toward any specific thresholds for triggering a referendum?

Tom Austin Apr 14, 2015

Specifics? No.

I see an issue with JH's "Thresholds:'b'", in that we have yet to finalise voting-reform, and again with the 'imminent' adoption of Electronic- online - voting, and yet somewhat with the public's acceptance and appreciation of their new status as Sovereign-Citizen under the Constitution.

And so...A small percentage of the voting population may suffice.

Rob G Apr 15, 2015

As an absolute minimum, I'd go for 5% of the registered electorate - in a 70,000 elector constituency, that would would work out at 3,500; on a national basis, assuming approximately 45,000,000 registered electors, at 2,225,000. 5% was the figure that  Zac Goldsmith was advocating to initiate the whole process of recall in his alternative to the government's recall Bill, so isn't a figure I've just plucked out of the air. To actually have a recall ballot, which might be closer to the calling of a referendum, his proposal required 20%...

Holding a referendum does not come cheap, so it shouldn't be too easy.

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Tom Austin Apr 13, 2015

"Regular elections are important, but what happens if we end up with more (or less!) than we bargained for?

We have never had the ability to select for or against parts of a governing party's policy programme, even at election time - most elections are won on a relatively small number of key issues. As it stands, we don't account for policy preferences or allow for the most basic democratic oversight - that of citizens themselves."

On this I am with you 100%. Of course I have a preference for Policy to be foremost, and for elections to become a 'Buyers Market', both these things concern pre-election though.

I also see a place/places here for Juries. I look forward to viewing your next draft.

Saeeda Bukhari Apr 16, 2015

I think we technically can enable mass voting on all issues permanently. There is nothing that technically prevents this putting in place except for will. Every time representatives debate an issue, and then vote a similar vote could take place with the public.

They could vote via their devises, using credit card, plus passport type authentication. Booths could permanently located in post offices, banks, petrol pumps, libraries, schools, universities and this could be trialled from today. When the system works, and is shown to be accessible and easy enough to use by all, it can run in parallel to the parliamentary process.

Formalising which mass votes would be official referendums would be a matter of procedure using the same tools.

In fact, MP's could have a running total in front of them, on their phones, in parliament, showing which way their constituents are voting and should be reflecting that in their debates.

P.S. The technology is already deployed in some for or another, in a variety of ways.
Authentication: Airport automatic security, bank payments security
Booths: Feedback booths are used by some local councils to give feedback on services given. These can be adapted for voting, commenting and equiped with cameras for video response.

Mass real time-voting is used for television programmes and by media, with running tallies.

Mass real time, input and crowdsourcing in currently being incorporate in MOOC's. Massive Open Online courses.

Live streaming of Parliamentary debates and giving access to source material and documents is currently being done too.

Saeeda Bukhari Apr 16, 2015

The running tally of public opinion, would also make it clear when politicians significantly depart from the will of the people.

Rob G Apr 16, 2015

Or depart from the will of the people who are motivated to take part in this sort of activity. I suspect that quite a lot of people are actually happy to have a representative democracy, and I worry that MPs would be given a very distorted view of what the people as a whole thinks.

Saeeda Bukhari Apr 16, 2015

The representatives themselves are voted in by people, who are "motivated to take part in this sort of activity", and most of the people who are not voting are saying that they don't vote because it does not make a difference, because politicians lie, don't listen, or will do what they want anyway. Or on certain issues people don't care either way because it doesn't impact them or they don't understand how it impacts them.

So not engaging with public opinion,compounds the problem of disengagement by the public, it does not make it disappear.

Malcolm Ramsay Apr 16, 2015

But as Rob pointed out, Saeeda, quite a lot of people are actually happy to have a representative democracy. Part of the reason for voting in a representative is to save ourselves from having to think about every issue of governance which might possibly have an impact on us, directly or indirectly.

Saeeda Bukhari Apr 17, 2015

a) Giving people the option to input into a poll of public opinion on parliamentary debates and policy, does not harm or substitute representative democracy. It does show us, if our representatives are responding to the public or their own networks.

b) To the comment about "saving ourselves from thinking about every issue". Meeting representatives, phoning representatives, emailing representatives are all other forms of giving our representatives our opinions. This is just another, easy and transparent way, to do that.

Malcolm Ramsay Apr 17, 2015

Meeting representatives and phoning representatives (and even, to a lesser extent, emailing representatives) involve significant effort on our part and therefore discourage glib opinions. What you're proposing would encourage them.

"It does show us, if our representatives are responding to the public or their own networks."

No. As Rob pointed out, it would merely show if our representatives are responding to that segment of the public who are motivated to take part in this sort of activity. I'd expect it to make it harder for MPs to take a considered view on issues.

Rob G Apr 16, 2015

I want MPs to engage with public opinion - I was in touch with my MP regularly over the course of the last Parliament! Having full conversations with constituents enables MPs to get a flavour for what's leading people to form their opinions in a way that an X Factor style phone vote wouldn't - even if the numbers participating were higher. Legislating should be a deliberate, and deliberative, process, and an instant "thumbs up / thumbs down" doesn't provide that.

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John Hackett Apr 17, 2015

Right, I can see there has been a lot of activity here since I was last able to check in. What I've written below is also particularly long, and does contain some things which are not completely relevant - specifically, the defence of the subject as a whole, which I believe is unnecessary at this stage of the process. However, for posterity and for the benefit of anyone who hasn't read older proposals, I've reiterated a few points as I see them, and added to some of them, too.

As such, here goes with a set of hopefully cogent responses:

Threshhold B is indeed quite low, under our current arrangements, which are not proportional. Keep in mind though, that we seem to have settled on proportional representation, judging by other proposals. This means that the absolute number of votes required to secure a seat may actually rise - keep in mind that PR systems may be specifically designed to keep a party out if they receive less than eg, 2% of the vote. In some places, that threshhold is 5%, I believe, but I'd like this system to say that if some percentage of the vote gets a group of people representation in parliament, it should also allow them access to direct democracy. This is based on the idea of the two systems having parity, and neither being a better avenue than the other for change. To me, that means the task of getting a referendum ought to be equal to the task of getting a representative.

It is worth pointing out that at the last election, roughly 28.6 million people voted. Divide by 650 seats, and you end up with 44,000 or so. That's more than most MPs ever receive; many end up in office with less than 25,000 votes. The Alliance Party actually won on Belfast East on 12,000 votes - which is not something that would have been possible under a proportional system, so not something we'd have to contend with if other proposed changes take place.

The threshhold would, in light of the above, vary - according to turnout at general elections. If people are not engaged in politics and are not voting, the threshhold drops. If turnout is extremely high, that makes it harder to call a referendum. This means the legitimacy of our representatives would become even more intimately tied to the number of votes cast for them.

As such, here is new wording:

Option 1:

"b) equal to the average number of votes cast per constituency, multiplied by seven.

Using the figure above, that would be just shy of 250,000 or so during this Parliamentary period. For reference: no political party in the UK has this many members.

To be clear, this means: the total number of votes cast at the last election, divided by the total number of constituencies, multiplied by seven.


Option 2:

"b) equal to the average number of votes cast per electoral district.

Note well: electoral districts under PR will be larger than constituencies - the more proportional the system we end up with is, the larger the number of votes will be required. This option could, depending on other outcomes, lead to a) being invoked more often, except in cases of extremely low turnout.

I think the more conservative amongst us will lean towards this option, and for the time being we should use the electoral districts defined for EU elections as a benchmark. I've only checked one district from the last election (Yorkshire and Humberside) but that had roughly 1.1 million votes cast in 2014. That would be a mountain to climb.


Option 3:

"b) equal to the average of the largest single party in each electoral district

This sets the bar lower than in option 2, but still quite high: judging by the last European election, that means 300,000 votes if the turnout is low (33%, as it was in Yorkshire and Humberside), but could be much higher.


Option 4:

"b) equal to the average number of votes required for the election of a single MP

This is my preference, but as I've indicated above, it puts the bar below 50,000 under normal circumstances and is contingent on us adopting PR wholeheartedly. That's likely too low for most people to agree with, although I'll keep it on the table because I'm self motivated like that! I've stated why I think this is good above, namely that it keeps parity between the two systems.

On balance, I think the healthiest compromise in lieu of option 4 is option 3. This assumes European-election style electoral districts though. Really it'd be nice to be able to decide this kind of thing after some details of the electoral system take shape, as it seems odd not to have the two interacting in some way.

That was quite long, so I'll keep the rest relatively short. The section on low threshholds is particularly salient if you wish to get to the point: I hope the (mercifully brief) argument I have made here will sway some opinions on the threshholds question above.

In defence of low threshholds:

I do believe that having a threshhold which is too high undermines the principle far more than having a threshhold which is too low. The system needs to cater for grassroots and community actions, but if we were to set the threshhold at (eg) half a million, then it'd take much larger organisations to get those kinds of numbers. Ad hoc, single issue campaigns would have to rely on either large donations (which is hardly democratic) or lots of press coverage (likewise undemocratic, especially given the state of our press and broadcast landscape).

In defence of referenda:

On the subject of representative democracy, it isn't an either/or - this is intended to blend the two. Elected officials can be challenged by direct democracy, but not replaced. That enables us to fix some of the shortcomings of representative democracy, and also some of the shortcomings of a party political system (eg, some policies will be popular but find it difficult to find a home). It also allows us to continue not having to think about every issue, but crucially, still allows us to collectively intervene if we deem it necessary.

Culturally, I don't think we'd be as hostile to regular (once every month or two) referendum days. It'd be good for participation as it'd build up not just the habit of voting, but the habit of opinion forming, all while not being too time consuming. While I have no hard evidence that we'd adapt, nor that it'd raise participation in politics, I suspect it would be a fertile route to increase voter turnouts (at elections, too), engagement, and trust in our politicians. At least part of this would be as a result of us having more power to oppose them.

Referendum fatigue is an interesting idea, principally because it suggests people don't want to participate. I think it likely comes from the length and scope of the campaign instead of the frequency of the votes - think about the Scottish referendum. If anyone was going to be tired out by that, it was because it went on for two years, not because they weren't intensely interested in the outcome.

In defence of the electorate:

While it hasn't come up for a while, there's also the issue of expertise. Many will say that the electorate isn't qualified to make some decisions - the "vote no if you don't know" approach gives some credence to this view. There has certainly been some allusion to this approach elsewhere in this discussion too - chiefly the idea of being "saved" from having to think about things.

It's worth pointing out a few things about these attitudes.

We shouldn't use sophistication or jargon as a reason to exclude people from politics. It's true that there's a minimum amount of knowledge required to participate, but the principles involved are unlikely to be beyond anyone's grasp. If we assume most people are unable to access either the technical or principled aspects of politics, we also throw people's competence into question for representative democracy.

Second, I recall in 2010 how engaged many people were by the emergence of a capable third force in British politics. It wasn't that a third group of voters magically appeared overnight (although some did come of age), it was that a third viable choice emerged because circumstances allowed it to do so. In other words, people could see their voice in politics as being relevant.

Likewise, in 2014 during the Scottish referendum, we saw incredible levels of engagement and turnout in an event which may have left the UK in tact, but which I think we'll soon see has changed it forever. More change is on the horizon as a result of that, and the reason why it mattered was because people could have their say about the kind of country they wanted to live in. This was the politics of principle and participation, and it allowed everyone to get involved - and when people care and engage, they learn.

In other words, if we are to argue the public is not capable of coping with a requirement for regular electoral engagement, it is, I believe, only because our political muscles have atrophied from enforced idleness. My prescription for this would be the regular excercise (of one's democratic rights) - which can't be had without this proposal.

In defence of spending money on democracy:

As I said in previous stages, with democracy, you get what you pay for. If it's worth it to have the strongest possible check against the power of our parliament (and government), then we should be happy to do so. There's also the fact that establishing regular polling means that we'd likely see efficiency gains - while we might end up having more polls, we'd end up spending less per-poll.

I'd agree with anyone that we shouldn't be profligate with our money, nor the next generation's (that's me, by the way), but spending money on democracy is the best investment money can buy, if I'm any judge. That we lose out on good policies because parties won't adopt them is a sad state of affairs: we can fix that and enhance people's opportunities for democratic expression

John Hackett Apr 17, 2015

I should add, I'd like people's opinions on the options I've presented, and more input on any other wording used above. Also, I forgot to tag everyone, so I'm doing it here. Oops.

Nicholas Charalambides Apr 17, 2015

Hi jhackett and thank you very much for laying out where you stand!

I completely agree with you that we should be wary of thresholds that are too high. A marked failure is the EU's Citizen Initiative, which is essentially impossible for citizens to vote on ad-hoc, it needing support from interest groups to gain the traction necessary.

However, I don't think the numbers in option 1 or 3 are unachievable. If we take the public petitions that currently exist (that actually result in little to nothing), it is possible to attract signatures of 100,000 without too much trouble, given that the idea is popular enough.

I would rather have the limit placed too high, as opposed to too low to begin with too. I fear that if the threshold is too low, the amount of referenda being triggered may simply lead to voter apathy, whereas if they are less frequent, and more 'important', more attention will be given to them. That said, I would be happy to enter a provision to lower the threshold if no referenda were being triggered after a set amount of time.

As an aside, I think your option 4 could be interesting for the recall of MPs, if instead of the average, we had it on a constituency basis, i.e. if it took 10,000 votes to elect MP X, would would need the same amount of votes to potentially recall them.

Malcolm Ramsay Apr 17, 2015

I'd also been thinking thresholds should probably be different for recalling MPs. There are two proposals which are specifically on recall:

Would it be worth concentrating here on issue-focused referendums and cover recall in one of the other proposals?

John Hackett Apr 17, 2015

I'm happy to segment the two, as they are reasonably separate and I've mostly given focus to issue-focused referenda here. It's reasonable to say the two need separate treatment.

Tom Austin Apr 17, 2015

We should perhaps also keep in mind 'public protest', this is something that is more likely to be curtailed further - even with our newly envisaged Parliamentary system. As the 'sage' advice of our security service will be immune from Political considerations, and 'things' could go wrong that might result in 'protest' being outlawed altogether.

We should then tend to err upon the side ease-of-effect, in all matters 'referendum'.

John Hackett Apr 17, 2015

Hi Nicholas,

Cheers for the input - I'm slightly wary of the numbers there, but you do make a compelling point about the existing (relatively pointless) petitions getting lots of signatures. There is, I suppose, some hope even with a higher threshold!

What do you think of the idea of relating the number of required votes for this to the 'natural' thresholds from the electoral system? Does it seem realistic to you?

As for whether or not to err on the side of caution, I have to disagree - I'd much rather we have the limit set too low at first and calibrate later. This way, if we have an absurd number of referenda, we can at least have another referenda where we amend the number of votes required. That's a bit harder to do the other way around!

The recall of MPs is an interesting one, because I'm still not entirely sure how it works under some of the forms of proportional representation discussed. It may be that it would be too complicated, but I suppose that's not necessarily a discussion for now. That being said, if we were to imagine option 4 under the current system (FPTP), I'd say it would end up being deeply unwise. It would destabilise marginal constituencies even further, and therefore draw even more attention to those places, at the expense of everywhere else. This mostly relates to constituencies where the winner receives less than 50% of the vote. In that case, or without PR, option 4 would be madness, surely?

Malcolm Ramsay Apr 17, 2015

"... the idea of being "saved" from having to think about things.

It's worth pointing out a few things about these attitudes.

We shouldn't use sophistication or jargon as a reason to exclude people from politics ..."

For the record, when I commented about being saved from having to think about things, it was in response to Saeeda's comment that 'we technically can enable mass voting on all issues permanently'. I was thinking about the sheer volume of law-making and administrative decision-making which affect us indirectly and, speaking for myself, I don't want to have to keep an eye on everything going through Parliament. It wasn't a comment on your proposal, John, which I did in fact vote up in the previous phase.

John Hackett Apr 17, 2015

That's noted, and thank you - it wasn't something I intended you to take personally, but I did think it was worth stressing some things first mentioned in the previous phase, including a response to the idea of 'inexpert' voters. I have to admit, I'd skimmed lightly before replying, so may have subconsciously picked up on your phrasing without acknowledging the context sufficiently. My bad, in that case!

It's fair to say that although not everybody wants to monitor everything that's going on all the time, but there are plenty of organisations that watch specific issues like hawks - be it the Open Rights Group checking for any lurking civil liberties horrors, or the Tax Justice Network shining a light on tax dodgers. Civil society already plays a valuable role here, and I would suspect it would play an even bigger role under this system. Deservedly so!

Saeeda's idea is quite interesting, but not really what's being discussed here. I think a system that might be of interest to Saeeda is "Liquid Democracy" or "delegative voting" - advances in technology such as smart cards and computers in general allow for many many more options than anyone has really explored to date. Among them is the idea of chains of delegation, with person A delegating to person B, then person B delegating to person C, and so on - with an unbroken chain of trust between A and Z, who might be the person with enough delegated votes to become an MP. That's an approach I like rather a lot, but not one that I put forward here, partly because people seem to think technology is so difficult to trust.

Anyway, thoughts of referendum fatigue aside, I've been on this site all day and appear to have begun to ramble. I'm out for today, but I'm very interested to hear any more on the subject that might be interesting or useful!


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