Sometimes I am old fashioned. Despite all its flaws, I still see no better way of governing a country than representative democracy. Almost all of the advanced societies in the world use that system. These representative democracies of course need to evolve as times change, with periodic reassessments of the powers of the various bodies and the relationships between them. That is why I have advocated changes such as the introduction of AV and the establishment of the Welsh Assembly on their own merits.

In short: at a personal level in politics I am a democrat. Only thereafter am I social democrat, member of the Labour Party etc.

So extreme caution must be exercised when discussing the debate about the very nature of a country’s democracy – in the case of the UK at the moment a shift from representative to partially direct democracy. We need to discuss the pros and cons of each of the systems, and to establish the balance between them, and to maturely and sensibly work out the right combination that best suits the country’s current needs. We should also examine other partial solutions, such as the Liquid Democracy concept pioneered by the Piraten in Germany.

If we do in the end conclude there is some role for direct democracy (and despite my own position, I must admit this looks inevitable), we then need to examine the experience of how referendums have been run in the past in the UK, and learn the lessons from other countries where referendums take place more often. We need to examine Referendum Commissions, the Swiss tradition, and how referendums are initiated. We need to look at the right topics for referendums, and whether turnout requirements are needed. None of that discussion has even started in the UK.

What we most definitely do not need is the sort of debate raging currently in the UK about referendums. First of all the issue focuses on just one issue – the notion of an in-or-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Second, the whole argument is conducted in party political terms – see this by Sunny Hundal or this by Mark Rusling – on why such a vote benefits Labour.

Frankly, I don’t give a toss about what benefits Labour when it comes to constitutional questions. I want the best functioning democracy that can best represent the views of the population of the UK, where all points of view can be heard and methodologically analysed. I most definitely do not want the UK, one of the oldest democracies in the world, in haste going down the path of direct democracy just because it might win Labour a few votes at the 2015 general election by making such a call.

But – I hear you cry – Jon, you’re in favour of the European Union’s existence, and Britain’s membership of it. And the European Union crushes democracy. To a certain extent the latter accusation is true. That’s why I spent six years as a volunteer campaigning for EU federalism, to ensure the representative democracy of the EU is improved, that European Parliament elections matter, that the direction of the European Commission is determined by European citizens, not by whoever prime minister wants rid of.

The European Union needs to change, no doubt about it, but that change is not made by threatening to leave. The change can come only by making concrete proposals to improve how the EU functions. Such proposals have been sorely lacking from the UK over the years – it was the UK after all who pushed for the unaccountable, undemocratic President of the European Council position to be created. How Sunny suddenly thinks Labour could mount a case for a democratic EU is beyond me – it’s even more fanciful than Labour advocating a more socially democratic EU (remember the Working Time Directive, or Blair backing the centre right Barroso anyone?) Conversely, anyone advocating an in-out referendum would need to answer what no would mean in practice, and they would need to do a better job than the commenters here.

If Ed Miliband, Jon Cruddas, Sunny Hundal et al want to advance down the line towards a referendum they urgently need to think about the dangers of what they are advocating, and wonder whether that is a price worth paying to perhaps help win a few marginal seats. Party political expediency over the future of the UK’s democracy? No thanks.


  1. @peter – no. I just grabbed an EU flag pic at random!

  2. Was it intentional to choose an image of the EU flag upside down?

  3. danucky

    yet another voice from Labour Lord Owen: Referendum on EU membership is ‘inevitable’
    I wonder if his proposed two-question referendum is feasible.

  4. danucky
    “Clegg is starting to believe that saving Britain’s EU membership means renegotiating and establishing a looser relationship. His condition for this is that any shift away from Europe must be reversible. He is prepared to accept that, at the moment, the eurozone is not a project with which the British public want to be more involved. So he would allow a distancing, as long as Britain could – if it chose – move closer to the EU once the storm has blown itself out. His premise, of course, is that we are witnessing a weird blip in an otherwise smooth path to European prosperity and stability, which Britain could join later. His terms should be acceptable to Conservatives, who believe there will soon be nothing left to belong to.” I know this is coming from The Telegraph, but what are the odds of this actually happening, one way or the other?

  5. Mark Rusling

    Hi Jon, just a few comments!

    I don’t think you can conflate my article with Sunny’s. My article was an explicit – yes to a referendum, and yes in the referendum (and then reform the EU from a stronger position). Sunny’s is more like – yes, and then maybe no. I don’t agree with that.

    I’m also not sure that direct democracy (or elements of it) is a new thing. This wouldn’t even be the first ‘in-out’ referendum on the EU!

    And it is absolutely not true that I am saying that we should have a referendum because it would suit Labour in the 2015 election. I don’t think that the UK could ever have a grown-up conversation about the EU unless the current surly impasse is sorted. That, in my view, requires a referendum. I don’t think that a referendum could be won without Labour support for a Yes vote. That’s why I was arguing that Labour should support a Yes, Yes vote.

    I agree on one point – we won’t be able to argue for reform if we are simultaneously threatening to leave. Again, that’s why a Yes, Yes vote makes most sense to me.

    Ultimately, this comes down to whether you think that the many glorious parts of the British body politic – parties, press, Parliament, public – could have a grown-up conversation about something and then vote on whether they wanted it. Call me an eternal optimist, but I reckon we can do it!

  6. Hi Mark – thanks for taking the time to comment! Perhaps a little unfair to lump your piece in with Sunny’s, which I do agree is much worse. I do hope you’re right with your last line, but I am much more pessimistic on that…

  7. I think referenda are a pretty good tool for fundamental constitutional issues, like AV or EU membership. I don’t really understand Sunny’s argument though unless he wants Labour to argue against EU membership. And to do so purely for short-term political gain strikes me as… inappropriate.

    That liquid democracy story is fascinating though. That kind of direct, participatory e-democracy is IMHO exactly what we need to move towards. It’s a shame most democracies (UK/FR/US) aren’t really open to new parties like the Pirates joining the political system.

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