ForumTouchy Subjects ► Referendums and Democracy, direct or indirect
What is your opinion on democracy and particularly referendums? Brexit was famously decided by a referendum (as was the UK's continued membership in the then-EEC in 1975), but since then parliament, or large portions of it, have spent three years trying to stall or stop it.

New Zealand recently had a much-maligned referendum on changing its flag, and is about to have two more on cannabis and euthanasia. To what extent is it right that ordinary citizens decide these kinds of things? I think it was Winston Churchill who famously said the best argument against Democracy is a conversation with the average voter. But very few would be comfortable saying they don't support Democracy which is, at least in theory, the will of the people.

If we start saying ordinary people are too stupid to decide issues directly, is allowing them to vote for proxies to represent the same tendencies of opinion much better? Electing representatives obscures public opinion because political parties have a pre-packaged set of opinions and voters have to choose trade-offs. I for one never agree with any party/politician completely. The recent UK election saw a landslide victory for the Conservatives, but many are saying it's probably a one-off where voters interpreted it as a proxy second-Brexit-referendum, where a vote for the Conservatives was a vote to "get Brexit done", and many who voted Conservative didn't necessarily support their other policies.
  
I like referenda if the population is well informed. The flag referendum was a shambles because of the manner in which it happened. A committee with no design expertise asked pensioners with time what they wanted from a flag and decision by committee is often a frustrating and uninspired compromise.

The Scottish independence referendum for me highlights the issue of FPTP voting, as do the last two UK general elections: in the former, the slim minority (IIRC 45%) translated to about two counties; in the latter a party with a plurality is allowed to walk away with a "landslide" in the commons.

The Tories also ran a campaign that saw (hyperbole) as many ads deemed false or misleading as they had votes. An uninformed public cannot make informed decisions.
  
Grayseff said:
I like referenda if the population is well informed.
Yep, and that's a big if... I'm not convinced referenda are ever ideal, but they are more likely to be successful for "simple" issues, where the average voter can be expected to understand the relevant facts and tradeoffs. I think Brexit was too complex an issue for the average voter. A referendum on a basic moral issue like euthanasia is perhaps more appropriate.

I think representative/indirect democracy is in some ways the best of both bottom-up and top-down rule. I trust the public much more to elect honest and competent representatives than I trust them to be knowledgeable on every topic pertinent to legislation.
  
That I agree with entirely. The average person cannot and should not be expected to understand the details of policy making, and a degree of technocracy is needed. Referenda are extremely useful for simple moral issues or well understood issues like euthanasia and drug decriminalisation.
  
As mentioned in the other thread, I'm not sure political divisions are necessarily even about information. People still argue about the economic facts of Remain or Leave and who told the truth, but that assumes economics was the reason people voted the way they did, which polling suggests wasn't the case anyway. Campaigners can throw as many facts as they want at voters, but if the selected facts miss voters' motives then they've only got themselves to blame.

The Scottish Independence Referendum wasn't FPTP, it was a straight Yes / No Referendum where the national majority won, and the result was 45/55. But FPTP is a sham, you'll get no argument from me. I'm sure you've seen these stats from the last UK election:

It took:
864,743 to elect 1 Green
642,303 to elect 0 Brexit Party
334,122 to elect 1 Liberal Democrat
50,817 to elect 1 Labour
38,316 to elect 1 Plaid Cymru
38,300 to elect 1 Conservative
25,882 to elect 1 SNP

And because it's a sham, the SNP are over-represented in parliament, and a second Scottish Independence Referendum is back on the cards, to see if Scots have changed their minds in the last five years.
  
The reason we pay and empower representatives is so that they can be thoroughly informed on issues we don't have time to understand. That has nothing to do with stupidity. It's superfluous for us to follow the intricacies of international economic policy.

It doesn't make any sense to have referendums on complex foreign policy issues in a representative democracy. They're fine for local issues or straightforward issues about law enforcement, things that directly impact peoples' lives.

The other problem with direct referendums is that they're actually terrible at representing what effected people actually want or will want.

Using Brexit as an example: there was only a gap of about 1.4M votes in 2016 between the sides. 73% of voters 18-24 voted to remain, more than any other age group. The end result of changing demographics is that the Brexit gap closes by more than half a million people each year. By most projections, Brexit will not be majority supported by the time it actually happens, despite its victories in the last 3 years.

If the principle of a referendum is to make the vote directly represent the people, then you'd need to revisit referendums every couple years to ensure all the people effected are getting a voice.

Representative democracy theoretically does a much better job of representing future voters because representatives have to consider re-election, meaning they're supposed to be considering the perspectives and well-being of people who will be voting, not just the people who did vote in the past.

There's no incentive for a 90-year-old voter to consider the views of a 15-year-old future voter in a direct referendum.
  
This criticism rests on the assumption that the views of 2016's 18-24 year-olds will remain static when they're no longer 18-24. Who's to say that as they join higher age brackets, their views won't change to the views of their new age bracket. People often change their position as they get older.

If the UK ever actually does leave, then voters will get to experience not being in the EU. So if life's okay the hard-Remainers will soften, and vice-versa. Life outside the EU was an unknown quantity for 18-24 year-olds. The UK has been in the EU their whole life and it's all they've known. Whereas older age groups remember life without the EU, so they have a wider perspective to judge the difference the EU has made.

It's worth noting that the UK didn't join the EU via referendum. The government put the UK into the then-EEC in 1972 without a referendum, then offered the population what could be called the first Brexit referendum in 1975. 41 years elapsed between 1975 and 2016, so there should be another one in 2057.
  
Millpond said:
This criticism rests on the assumption that the views of 2016's 18-24 year-olds will remain static when they're no longer 18-24. Who's to say that as they join higher age brackets, their views won't change to the views of their new age bracket. People often change their position as they get older.

A) This is already factored in because I was conservative with the numbers.
B) This isn't typically how demographic change works, usually as older generations die, new generations don't step into their same ideas at the same rate.
Millpond said:
If the UK ever actually does leave, then voters will get to experience not being in the EU. So if life's okay the hard-Remainers will soften, and vice-versa.

This isn't relevant to my point, which was specifically about the period of time when Brexit actually occurs, it probably will not have popular support because it was passed by referendum so far in advance.

My point isn't about Brexit. It's about referendum. The politics of the example aren't important; it's only for the purpose of demonstration.
Millpond said:
Life outside the EU was an unknown quantity for 18-24 year-olds. The UK has been in the EU their whole life and it's all they've known. Whereas older age groups remember life without the EU, so they have a wider perspective to judge the difference the EU has made.

Gonna skip this because it's not really related to the referendum discussion.

Millpond said:
It's worth noting that the UK didn't join the EU via referendum. The government put the UK into the then-EEC in 1972 without a referendum, then offered the population what could be called the first Brexit referendum in 1975. 41 years elapsed between 1975 and 2016, so there should be another one in 2057.

This is specifically my point: waiting 41 years between referendum to check on policy is exactly the opposite of representative government. Referendum in this case is government without representation for future voters. In 41 years, majority of people living under a decision will not have had a chance to vote on it. At least with a representative government, their views are considered as parties/candidates think strategically about long-term electoral success.
  
Holding referendums seems like a way for some politicians to avoid directly taking a position on something potentially divisive in order to appease the masses; not that that's all bad but I do see it used more like a tool rather than as a way to simply benefit the nation (Brexit being a prime example).

Things like the New Zealand flag referendum are not well suited for this most of the time because vexillology in general seems to suffer from design by committee in many cases.

Decisions requiring an informed population can be used to exploit them if it rests in the hands of a few politicians and even if a referendum is held, the population can be intentionally misinformed. I don't have a quick solution for this because democracy in general seems to suffer from misinformation and crony capitalism.

We have what are essentially political dynasties within the parties built around mutually beneficial contracts that seek to maintain the current balance of both economic powers and government authorities; sometimes at the expense of the nation and it's people. Not everything can be decided by direct democracy or the majority will always get their way at the expense of everyone else and already the politicians and businesses have taken advantage of the highly popular conservative party. I think referendums should remain a rarity and be used more at the local level.
  
I think the Brexit referendum was definitely a tool. The Conservatives were slowly-but-surely losing votes to UKIP, so David Cameron came up with the Brexit referendum as an election bribe. Vote for us and we'll give you a referendum. The point was to shut Leavers up, not for them to actually win.

The flag referendum happened because the then-PM wanted to change the flag, and felt he'd better run it by the people. In a recent interview he said he should have just picked a new flag himself and changed it without asking.

The Scottish Independence Referendum seemed based on a genuine political will of the people, because the SNP are the ruling party in the Scottish Parliament, and that's their main issue . It seems intuitive that independence shouldn't and even couldn't be decided without a referendum. Throughout history many countries have gained or lost independence without a referendum, but that was usually before universal suffrage.
  
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