July 08, 2007

The Dangers of Plebiscitory Democracy

Michael Meacher, the former Labour Cabinet Minister and at one point leadership contender, wrote an article in today's Observer arguing that Gordon Brown's constitutional reforms whilst good don't go quite far enough. Mr Meacher argues that Britain ought to adopt two particular further reforms- firstly it ought to revive the old practice (Mr Meacher doesn't know that this would be a revival- for him it would be a reform) of petitioning Parliament via the internet- Parliament would then through a committee consider which petitions would be most worthy of framing into a bill for debate. Secondly Mr Meacher argues in favour of a set sum of public money- about 2.5 billion pounds- which would be devoted to projects that the people approved of. I think that both of Mr Meacher's proposals would be errors- and Mr Meacher has not understood one of the central principles of representative democracy.

Let us begin with the petitions- superficially it seems like a good plan- the public would bring up something that is of great concern to them and MPs would then see if they could obtain results on it. But its not. Firstly the problem with a petition- such as the recent road pricing petition on the Number 10 website is that they will never attract that many signatures- that attracted 1.8 million- consequently they will reflect the interests of that section of the population that care deeply about the issue instead of the section that care less but are on the other side. Imagine for example a decision to cut taxes based on a cut in wages for NHS staff- all the NHS staff would sign a Number 10 petition against such a cut- but almost none of the beneficiaries of the tax cut would sign a petition for it, either because they wouldn't realise the connection or because the issue is less immediate to them. The second problem is similar but its based on a slightly different way of seeing the world- I'd imagine that the first petitions up there would be on abortion and the environment- the reason is that on both issues large organisations- the Catholic Church and the Green lobby- can muster huge numbers of signatures of people- again though only representing a section of the population- the potential for exploitation by someone willing to organise or a presently organised group is huge already.

Ok lets move to the 2.5 billion- why is that a bad idea. Well I have already this weekend taken on the issue of the mob over at Bits of News- through comparison of Brutus and Anthony's speeches in Julius Caesar- and I think its time to think about this again. In the history of Xenophon there is a wonderful incident where after the battle of Arginusae- a battle the Athenians lost- the families of the victims argue that the generals ought to be convicted and exiled, they turn up dressed in mourning- and the assembly convicts the Generals out of sympathy for the relatives. The problem with the 2.5 million is that its easy to see for instance money being spent in ways that would ressemble the situation at Arginusae.

Ultimately the way representative democracy deals with these issues is to slow them down till in an election everyone has a vote on them- its imperfect but it avoids two problems the domination of government by interest groups and also the spasm of popular feeling (see death of Diana princess of Wales) that you can often get even in a mature democracy. Ultimately when the public really cares about an issue through protests and newspapers politicians are aware of it- they are polling as well all the time- but the intermediate stage is still useful and we should be wary of discarding it.


Lord Straf-Dresden said...

...Imagine for example a decision to cut taxes based on a cut in wages for NHS staff...

Sadly, that is so. Parochial interest wins every time and I'm sure these cynics are well aware of it.

youdontknowme said...

Petitions do not go far enough. We need what they have in Switzerland. Any initiative that has the specified number of signatures automatically begins a referendum. If the population votes for it then it should automatically become law.

I do think that there should be rules on referendums though. For instance I think foreign affairs, the military, tax and national security should be exempt for citizens’ initiatives. I also think it should be refused if it will damage the ability of the government to carry out it’s duties

Viking Sal said...

Re: internet petitions. This may come as a shocker, but not everyone has access to the internet. Surely such a method of petitioning parliament would discriminate highly against certain demographic groups who are not used to using the internet, do not have the time to spend hours trawling websites or cannot afford modern technology. My grandparents for example would certainly fall into this category (and my parents for that matterm though that it more because they are luddites). The general assumption that the net is available to all worries me somewhat.