Direct Democracy and Its Discontents

Direct Democracy and Its Discontents

Oliver Conolly
Oliver Conolly
11 min read

The word “democracy” has a kind of halo around it. In right-thinking circles, criticism of democracy seems inherently indecent. This is not completely unwarranted. There is a good deal to be said in favour of the various forms of parliamentary democracy that have evolved around the world in the last 250 years. Whilst the causes of (previously unthinkable) increases in living standards around the world in that period are debated by historians, there is a plausible case that parliamentary democracy is at least one of the ingredients of that transformation. And democracy is not merely a means to the end of increased GDP. It also embodies fundamental values which we hold dear, such as respect for the dignity and liberty of the individual.

Whilst parliamentary democracy clearly has a lot going for it, direct democracy is something quite different. Of the 196 countries in the world 123 are representative democracies. None are direct democracies. Switzerland – or rather some cantons within in – comes closest, but is still nowhere near a pure direct democracy.

What is direct democracy? It is a process of political decision-making that puts power directly in the hands of the populace. It either removes the layer of elected representatives in the process, or reduces their power over it. This can take, as we shall see, a number of different forms.

In an age where the views of distinguished economists the world over are brushed aside, it is unlikely that the views of political philosophers will carry much weight. But those views have clearly been taken into account – albeit not necessarily consciously – in the universal rejection of direct democracy as a form of government. The most obvious objection to direct democracy is Plato’s point that instead of putting power in the hands of the people it in fact puts power in the hands of demagogues. Relatedly, direct democracy heightens the risk, pointed out by J.S. Mill, of the tyranny of the majority, or indeed of a highly motivated minority.

It is not only philosophers who object to direct democracy. If people were asked whether they believed that all governmental decisions ought to be taken by way of referendums – if there were a referendum about referendums – they would almost certainly say No, for two related reasons. The first is that it would not be practicable. Most people do not have the time or inclination to consider all of the issues that are relevant to such decisions. The second is that elected representatives ought to make those decisions. Those representatives have, it is thereby implied, a greater degree of expertise in doing so. And party politics means that when they are elected those representatives subscribe to a set of policies which will inform how that decision is made. They will not have free rein, once elected to decide how they wish. This is why party discipline, whilst no doubt frustrating for some of the more independent-minded MPs, is a critical component in legitimizing indirect democracy.

The year 2016 has provided us with not one but three excellent examples of the dangers of direct democracy: Brexit, the selection of Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, and the nomination of Trump as candidate for the Republican party in the US. Before turning to the EU referendum it is worthwhile considering the lessons of the Corbyn and Trump examples. They illustrate the dangers of direct democracy not at national level but in terms of the rules whereby political parties choose their leaders.

Jeremy Corbyn

First, there is the Corbyn leadership of the Labour party, which was re-affirmed on 24 September 2016. As is well known, this followed changes in the Labour party rules in 2014 whereby members and affiliates of the party could vote for a leader, and their votes would be worth the same as those of Labour MPs themselves. Prior to that, Labour MPs’ votes counted for a third, those of the members for another third, and those of trade unions for another third. Following the changes, there is now an initial selection process such that (i) the candidates must be MPs themselves and (ii) they must have the support of 15% of Labour MPs. Once they have cleared that hurdle, it is up to the members and affiliates as a whole to decide. Corbyn has a large following amongst the young, and they have flooded the party, and ensured that he is a leader of a party where the majority of MPs do not support his leadership.

I do not wish to criticize Corbyn or his policies here. The point is that it is anomalous that the leader of the Labour party has views at variance with the vast majority of its MPs. If we are to have elected representatives at all, it makes sense to give them more power than party members in choosing the leaders of those parties. The whole rationale of a system of elected representatives is that a pyramid is created, in which power is delegated upwards. It is illogical, in such a system, to revert to a direct democratic system when choosing the leader of a party. Yet there have been reports that the Labour National Executive Committee will dilute yet further the level of initial support from MPs which would be necessary for the process of selecting a leader from 15% to 10%.

If Labour MPs had a significant say in choosing their leader, their choice would necessarily reflect the preferences of their constituents, and would be more likely to reflect the ‘general will’ than the votes of highly motivated individuals who have joined or become affiliated with the Labour party for their own ideological ends. So far, of course, the Labour party has not imploded, but should it come to power the tensions between its MPs and its leadership would be impossible to mask.

Second, there is Trump. He was elected as President by the electorate at large, under the electoral college system. There has been much comment on the absurdities of that system. However, there has been little focus on the prior stage of his selection as Republican party nominee. This is a more extreme example of the Corbyn problem. Although there is a democratic process within the Republican party, there is no need for the party nominee to either be an elected representative at any level, or to have the support of any such representatives. The presidential nominee need not have any skin in the game at all. The system lends itself to a takeover by an opportunist demagogue such as Trump. If the selection process included requirements such as those of the current Labour party rules for a first filtering process this would have ensured that the nominee would have had to become a representative, and gain the respect and acceptance of at least some his peers. It is unlikely that Trump would have passed through those filters, or indeed that he would have had the inclination to do so.

Third, there is the EU referendum. It is well known that it was not binding on Parliament. But it has created a presumption that its result will be implemented. It is a perfect example of the kind of decision which should not be subject to a referendum, for two principal reasons. The first is the vast complexity and technocratic nature of the subject matter. The second is the far-reaching nature of the consequences. A referendum as to unilateral nuclear disarmament would also have significant consequences, but the logic of nuclear deterrence is obvious. By contrast, the subject matter of the EU referendum was nothing if not complex. Understanding what exactly the EU is and does, and how (if at all) the UK benefits from it is a major undertaking. As it happens an enquiry was carried out by the civil service into every aspect of the UK’s membership of the EU, the “EU Balance of Competences” review, which consisted of 32 volumes, based on 2,300 pieces of written work. This exercise, which was conducted in 2012 to 2014, and resulted in a broadly favourable view of that relationship, illustrates quite how much research needs to be done before a considered view can be reached on the matter.

Should a referendum be held on a subject which the majority of the electorate will not be well informed about, and which has drastic consequences if the answer is wrong? The question, it appears, answers itself.

There are three counters to this argument. The first is that most people, when they vote in local or general elections, do not conduct particularly extensive research, nor is the process predicated on their so doing. This is true, but there are significant differences between a general election and the referendum. The first is that parliamentary democracy depends to some extent on voters voting in what they consider to be their self-interest. If they do so the result will mirror the interests of the majority, at any rate as they perceive them. Of course voters often vote on the basis of what they consider fair even if that is against their narrow self-interest (in terms of taxation for instance), and that is all well and good. The point is that in a general election it is not too hard for voters to take a view on what is in their interest, or what is fair. The decision in a general election is, in one sense complex, but the issues are very familiar ones, which are scrutinised by the media, and debated with particular force every five years. Furthermore, they are the kinds of issues which we can relate to in our everyday experiences. That experience may be as important, if not more so, than a course of study.

By contrast, the question of whether it is in the national interest for the UK to leave the EU requires knowledge about a plethora of complex issues. To take only one, albeit critical issue, that of whether the UK would be able to negotiate a satisfactory trade deal with the EU and other parts of the world – and if so within what time frame – it is simply not the type of issue which most of us have knowledge of. There is no reason why we should. These are not matters that form part of the normal political discourse. They are technocratic issues.

This leads to the second objection which might be raised against my view, which is that membership of the EU cannot be categorized as a purely technocratic issue. It is an issue which has profound implication for democracy. It is true that the successive EU treaties have had political and constitutional implications, and that it may have made sense, accordingly, for referendums to have taken place on various Treaty changes. But those Treaty changes gave rise to a manageable set of issues to consider. And if a Treaty change is rejected, that just leaves one with the status quo, i.e. the treaty as it was before the change.  It leaves open the possibility of amending the changes so as to deal with people’s concerns. It doesn’t do what this referendum has done, which is take away the Treaty itself.

This leads to a third objection, which is: if the issue of EU membership is not a proper one for a referendum, does it follow that we are locked into the EU forever? No. If people feel strongly about a given issue, parliamentary democracy is a means whereby their views can be heard. Only a small minority of voters saw EU membership as particularly important – it has always ranked quite low on their list of priorities – which is why the Leave campaign will go down as one of the most successful political campaigns in history. It normalized what was once a peripheral view.

A lesson we have learnt from the EU referendum is that one of the key differences between direct and representative democracy is that in a pure direct democratic process such as a referendum, no-one is accountable. Because no representatives were elected as a result of the referendum, no-one is left holding the can. The Leave campaign did not formulate any plan as to what kind of Brexit should be implemented. It did not do so because it did not have to do so: it was promoting a mere idea, and not a representative who would have to implement it. It thus avoided the key dilemma currently confronting the government between a pointless soft Brexit and a highly damaging hard Brexit.

Representatives are in a position to weigh the pros and cons of the various alternatives, and also weigh in the balance competing interests of different social groups, and take an ‘all-things-considered’ view of complex issues. The mechanism of a referendum does not allow for, or compel, this process to take place.

London Brexit/pro-EU protest March 25, 2017

It might be said that there is something inherently elitist about parliamentary democracy. This is true. In placing representatives ‘above’ those they represent in the pecking order, it is inherently elitist. Implicit in support for parliamentary democracy is a distrust of the ‘people’, or of their ability to answer complex questions, particularly in the context of referendums which necessarily simplify the issues. The creation of the Single Market, for example, was a massive technocratic exercise, which led to a drastic reduction of bureaucracy. Instead of there being 28 different sets of regulations for widgets, there is now one such set, which radically facilitates trade. This was brought about by the dedicated efforts of politicians and civil servants who acted in the national interest, often in obscurity. They formed, in one sense, part of an elite. It is difficult however for Brexiters to complain as to this elitism. None of them wish to abolish parliamentary democracy, and many of them hold themselves out as staunch defenders of it.

What implications does the above have for the way forward in the UK? It is clear that many MPs only triggered Article 50 under duress. Many are no doubt playing a long, if dangerous, game by giving Brexiters enough rope to hang themselves with.

Brexiters have assumed the moral high ground. They are the true upholders of democracy. Charles Moore, writing in the Telegraph the day after the referendum, said that “Democratic self-government – parliamentary democracy – is what the modern British nation is founded on”. Yet he also said that “the result, with its very high turnout, is decisive: our decision must be enacted”. Interestingly, Moore places expertise below democracy:

Experts should, of course, be respected for their expertise. But no one is an expert where democracy is concerned. Each of us is worth only one vote.

There is no contradiction between expertise and democracy in a parliamentary, as opposed to a direct, democracy. The whole point – or at any rate one of points – of representative democratic systems is that they pool expertise in elected representatives, who have to weigh up competing interests, and act as a buffer against the potential dangers of mob rule. Nor do representatives have to rely on their own expertise: parliamentary committees have extensive access to relevant external expertise.

On the left of political spectrum, we have Brendan O’Neill writing in an article in the Spectator on 26 June 2016:

They [the Remainers] are howling against the demos; raging against the people; fuming about a system that allows even that portly bloke at the end of your street who never darkened the door of a university to have a say on important political matters. That system we call democracy.

The above commentators conflate direct democracy with representative democracy proper.

Crunch time is coming. By the end of March 2019, unless the UK’s membership of the EU is extended by agreement, a withdrawal deal will have been agreed. We also already know that Parliament will vote on it, although if the alternative is “no deal,” as the government has stated, this will be meaningless. Parliament will have two options: to either insist on rejecting the withdrawal deal, and revoking article 50, or to put the question of acceptance of the withdrawal deal to a referendum. It would be politically difficult to undo the EU referendum without a further referendum. This further referendum would not be about abstractions and mutually inconsistent fantasies. It would be about a real withdrawal deal, the contours of which are already taking shape. Brexiters generally object to this, but it is difficult to see on what principled basis they could do so. It is plain that a referendum on a concrete and comprehensible proposal is vastly preferable to one on an unsubstantiated idea. Those who object to such a referendum are committed to the proposition that one can only have a referendums on vague ideas, and not on concrete proposals. That is patently absurd.

Art and Culture

Oliver Conolly

Oliver Conolly is a barrister in London.