"There is no greater power on earth than an idea whose time has come" Victor Hugo
There is a serious problem with politics in Britain. Fewer and fewer people are voting in elections, there is widespread cynicism and opinion surveys show that, increasingly, mistrust is directed not just at politicians as individuals but towards representative government as a whole.
Far from having a sense of ownership of their democracy, people feel impotent when it comes to influencing decisions taken by those in power. Unless this changes, things will only get worse.
21st century Britain is a highly sophisticated society but we still make do with a crude 19th century system of limited and indirect democracy that was designed in – and for – a different era. Almost every other aspect of our lives has been transformed by social, economic and technological progress, but the way we make collective decisions is now hopelessly outdated.
In previous centuries, it was supposed that ordinary people were too ignorant and irresponsible to be allowed to vote at all. Under pressure, the franchise was extended gradually (and grudgingly) and it was only in 1928 that the right of every citizen to vote on equal terms was conceded. Our current system retains much of that spirit of mistrust of the people - and the public knows it.
Today, an increasingly educated and confident electorate is clearly dissatisfied with the limited form of democracy on offer. This is the direct result of a political system that does not – indeed cannot - reflect the wishes of the people.
The only way to restore trust and credibility to British politics is to give people a real and direct say over issues that matter most to them and their lives. That means allowing them to decide on national and local issues, on a case by case basis, by voting in a referendum instead of simply electing a government once every five years to make all the key decisions on their behalf.
OUR SAY's proposals would not be an instant panacea for the disillusionment that exists. But they would be an important step in rebuilding faith in our democracy. Nor would referendums replace representative democracy. Instead, direct democracy would complement our existing system, acting as a check on the power of government and bureaucracy alike. Even in countries where referendums are in widespread use, like Switzerland, the vast majority of decisions are still taken by elected representatives at national and local level.
How would this work?
Based on the recent Power Commission, OUR SAY has developed a proposition that would allow citizens to trigger referendums on any national or local issue.
- 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, a million signatures would be required to trigger a ballot. For local issues affecting, say, a district council, this would require around 4,000 people to back the proposition. Referendum Day would be held on the same day as the local elections.
- The Electoral Commission would need to agree the wording of the question 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 the number of signatures.
- People would need to sign petitions in person and the signatures to trigger a vote would need 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 and these would be the same for those supporting and opposing the question on the ballot paper.
- Balance in TV and radio coverage of the issues under discussion would be a legal requirement, as well as fair access to other media coverage for each side.
How does it work elsewhere in the world?
Referendums are already used in many parts of the world. Virtually every country in Europe has used referendums in recent years along with Australia, New Zealand and many states in the USA. They have covered a huge variety of subjects – from nuclear power in Switzerland to divorce in Ireland, from electoral reform in Italy to immigration in Australia.
In Britain, more than 31 referendums have been held over the past decade. Switzerland, regarded as a model democracy, has held referendums on a wide variety of subjects – from road building to conscription. According to Richard Layard's groundbreaking book, Happiness, there is compelling evidence to suggest a link between levels of human happiness and public control over political decisions. Even within Switzerland itself, studies show that people are happier in those parts of the country where direct democracy is strongest.
Do you want to "punish" the PM?
Ever wanted to make politicians feel the true impact of their policies? Or think that too many MPs live in their own world, isolated from the daily experiences of the rest of the population? Over-crowded tubes, dangerous streets, endless tax bills... the list is endless. Well, now you have the chance to get your own back. OUR SAY has developed a new website that lets you make Gordon Brown live in the real world - and you can sign our petition to support citizens initiatives at the same time. So if you want to "punish" the PM, click here.
Gordon Brown endorses Citizens Initiatives at a local level
In his first major speech on constitutional changes, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown has given a clear indication of his support for Citizens Initiatives at a local level. Gordon Brown proposed in the speech on 3rd July that people would be able to initiate changes at a local level through a new "community right to call for action" as well as new powers to give electors a vote on spending decisions over neighbourhood and youth budgets. In September, the Conservatives produced similar proposals, again endorsing local referendums, in their Quality of Life policy proposals.
Zac Goldsmith endorses local referendums
The renowned environmental campaigner, Zac Goldsmith, has backed local referendums as a means of giving people a say over community wide issues. In an article in the Daily Telegraph, Zac Goldsmith argues that planning issues are the best type of decision to be made by local polls. To read the full article, click here.
More Democracy = More Happiness
A new study by Professor Matt Qvortrup has established a link between direct democracy and happiness. The study, entitled the Voting Happiness Index, found that people living US states that used Citizens' Initiatives were significantly happier than those that did not use this form of direct democracy. Click here for the full story.
Put road pricing to public vote
The Government should put any road pricing proposals to a public vote following the news that one million people had signed a petition on the 10 Downing Street e-petition website opposing a road pricing scheme. Saira Khan thinks that letting the public decide would ensure that all the arguments were properly debated and would be a real legacy for the Prime Minister to leave. For the full story click here. Read Charles Moore's piece on the issue in this week's Spectator or Martin Bright in the New Statesman. Saira has also written a piece in The Guardian.
Why not support OUR SAY's petition for Citizens' Initiatives - you can log onto Downing Street's website here.
Time for supply side politics?
The Centre for Policy Studies has published a new pamphlet, Supply side politics, advocating the introduction of Citizens' Initiatives as a way of tackling disillusionment with democracy. The book is written by Professor Matt Qvortrup and argues that if Britain were to introduce this form of direct democracy it would increase turnout and improve the quality of political decisions. Copies of the book are available from the CPS website or more information here or read Peter Riddell's piece in The Times.
Helena Kennedy supports Citizens' Initiatives to revive democracy
Helena Kennedy has backed Citizens Initiatives to help revive democracy in Britain. Her support came as part of the launch of a new campaign - makeitanissue - around the proposals contained in the Power Inquiry's report last year. In an article in The Independent, she argues that it is time for politicians to share some power: "from climate change to crime, people want a proper debate and want contribute to decisions". Read Helena's article in The Independent here or log onto the Power Inquiry's campaign here.
Campaign launch wins support
OUR SAY was launched in September 2006 to push for much greater use of referendums on issues of public interest. The campaign is the brainchild of Saira Khan, star of The Apprentice and commentator on current affairs. Saira's article in The Times - click here - outlines how "citizen's initiatives" offer a constructive way of giving people a renewed stake in the democratic process at a time when confidence in politics in Britain is at a low ebb. The campaign has attracted supporters from across the political spectrum.