Referendums: Power to the People?

I’m having problems sleeping. I never have problems sleeping. A nearly four- year-old is a perfect remedy for sleeplessness. But still I’m tossing and turning in my bed in the mountains of the Algarve, worried. I have a German friend who is an expert in electoral law in Bremen and works for Mehr Demokratie. He is a great advocator of referendums. He had almost convinced me that this was real democracy at work. I even gave him the subtitle of a book he wrote about the subject: ‘Power to the People’. Switzerland, of course, is a Direct Democracy. All citizens have to vote for decisions pertaining to the governing of their country. It is law.

The first time I’d ever heard the word ‘Referendum’ was in the early nineties when I was in the collapsing Soviet Union and suddenly referendums started sprouting out of the cracked concrete. I didn’t quite understand them then. I had always thought it was the job of MPs to represent the people. I was indignant. How dare they shift the blame of society collapsing to the people? To the Russians I knew at the time they simply couldn’t keep up. They were groaning under the weight of them.

Now, largely thanks to having a friend who can talk on the subject for hours, I am much better informed about referendums but it has never really been part of the UK’s democracy. As a result of our ‘first-past-the-post’ system many of us have never had votes that really count. If you vote Labour in a Conservative county it is unlikely that your vote will change anything. And vice versa. And with Lib Dems. If you know Lib Dems are winning over Labour chances are (if you are more left-wing) you will, most likely, vote Lib Dems to give them a chance. Tactical voting. Also, many people when they are cross with a government will vote the opposite or for a party that they know will have little chance simply as a protest vote. It sometimes works. But, mostly, our votes don’t count for much.

A referendum is very different. All votes count. Even protest votes.

I try to try to explain this to my friend without crying. He is non-plussed.

‘To me, it is clear,’ he says. ‘The people have spoken to leave the EU. There’s no more to it.’

‘But it was a campaign based on lies and racism,’ I say. ‘So many people who voted Leave are regretting their decision!’

‘The Government had months to campaign.’ His voice is cold, unemotional. ‘Both sides had equal time and opportunity to explain their positions.’

‘But people believed the lies that Farage was going to spend 350 million allocated to the EU on the NHS. Did you not see the posters of refugees queuing in to come in to Britain? It was shameful.’

He shrugs.

‘People didn’t really understand that their vote would count,’ I continue even though I don’t know how to translate ‘first-past-the-post’. Elections in the UK are different, it’s a first past… We are not used to referendums.’

‘There was one a few years ago about the electoral system.’

It’s true. There was one in 2011 about an Alternative Voting system which was defeated. Forty-two percent voted in it. The campaign was described in retrospect by political scientist Iain McLean as a “bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate.”

‘You are being an anti-democrat,’ my friend swiftly concludes.

‘And you are letting fascism rise!’ I cry.

Maybe he’s right. But.

Racism is ugly. I have lived in many different countries and I have experienced racism. It is not nice. Fortunately, I live in a tolerant society in Portugal and have never had ‘Fuck off back to England’ spayed on my wall. Yet. Racism is not genetic. It is taught. By other unhappy people, and taken advantage of by people who want power to define themselves.

Of course, if all the UK citizens did have to fuck off back to Britain imagine what would happen. Up to five million Brits coming back. The drain on the NHS (most of us are older) and many don’t work that much so we wouldn’t be paying into society (not like the Polish anyway). That’s not clever.

I am not an expert. I am only one person. But I am not an anti-democrat. I accept the result. That won’t stop me, however, from democratically reeling against it. It seems to me that we need to think very carefully about holding referendums until we, as a society, are ready. There is a lot more groundwork to be done. We need rules. We need to decide what percentage needs to vote for a result to be acted upon. What does abstention mean? We need to decide if it has any constitutional hold (it doesn’t at the moment). We need campaigns based on truth, not lies – and we need an independent body to regulate this. We could practise with something like, ‘should voting rights be extended to UK citizens living in the EU and other countries’ – people who have been excluded from voting about their future. We should make sure that everyone really understands the power of the people before risking another fiasco such as Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. But I guess we know all that now. For me, my first referendum was a baptism in fire.

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