Think tank: Give voters a direct line to power

Regular referendums will revive democracy

In the sense that we, the people, still have the right to remove our government once every few years, Britain is a democracy. But I believe the time has come to acknowledge that our current form of democracy is too crude and inadequate to serve properly a sophisticated 21st-century society.

Let’s be honest: once elected, our MPs, councillors and other holders of public office habitually ignore the wishes of those who voted for them – and there is nothing anyone can do about it. The public will does not prevail in any meaningful sense; there is no continuing “rule of the people”.

This gulf – between promise and reality – angers people far more than it did in the past, and no amount of highfalutin talk from politicians about Britain’s long-established traditions of representative democracy can conceal the fact that there is growing friction between people and power.

People are switching off, not out of apathy but from a conviction that their voice is not being listened to. At the 2005 election only 37% of those aged 18-24 bothered to take part. Compared with the recent past, far fewer people identify with or vote for the main political parties.

“They’re all the same” is a commonly heard lament – and people are increasingly resorting to voting for fringe parties such as the BNP, whose policies and agendas would be disastrous for Britain.

Yet there is a solution: a simple mechanism that, if made an integral part of the democratic process, could both improve the quality of decision-making at national and local levels and restore the public’s faith in politics. That mechanism is the referendum.

One of the growing number of campaigns backing the greater use of referendums – also known as “direct democracy” or “citizens’ initiatives” – has set out how it could work in practice: each year on Referendum Day people would be able to vote on issues of concern, both national and local. To trigger a referendum on a particular topic 2.5% of the electorate would need to sign a petition.

This would mean that for national issues 1m signatures would be required to trigger a ballot. For local issues affecting, say, a district council, this would require about 4,000 people to back the proposition. Referendum Day would be held on the same day as local elections.

The Electoral Commission would need to agree the wording on the ballot paper to ensure that the question was fair and balanced. The commission would also be given new powers to check the validity of the petition and number of signatures. People would need to sign petitions in person and the signatures required to trigger a vote would have to be collected in a one-year period. There would be strict limits on the amount of money that could be spent on referendum campaigns.

No one would dispute that there are some matters that should never be subject to collective decision-making. Certain individual rights are sacrosanct.

The residents of a town cannot vote to evict their neighbour à la Big Brother, for example, but many other decisions are made best through a genuinely democratic process.

One of the most significant benefits would be the greater legitimacy given to controversial decisions. Under the current system, many people believe their view on a particular issue is a majority one but they have been in effect swindled by votes in parliament or the council chamber conducted by politicians who refuse to listen.

Under direct democracy the losers at least would have the important consolation of knowing that they were given the opportunity to make their case to their fellow citizens on a level playing field. A referendum, even one dealing with a complicated subject, would prompt precisely the kind of public engagement that politicians are desperate to encourage.

Knowing their vote would have an impact on the future would bring out the best in people and raise the quality of debate. More than 1m people marched in London against the war in Iraq. Half a million people took to the streets in opposition to the ban on hunting. Legions are involved in community and charity work and in single-issue pressure groups.

The public longs for a greater role in decision-making but has little expectation that this can be achieved. Instead, as a nation, we are becoming ever more sullen and mutinous.

Eventually MPs and councillors will come to understand that only by sharing power with their fellow citizens through a proper system of direct democracy will they recover the goodwill and respect that were once theirs by right.

This is an abridged version of an article taken from The New Blue: Conservative Candidates on New UK Policy Challenges, a collection of 10 essays by Conservative prospective parliamentary candidates, published today by the Social Market Foundation.