Direct Democracy


Back to the Polis

It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting.

- Tom Stoppard

In ancient Greece, city meetings provided the principal forum for democratic debate.  Representative bodies, led by Parliament, took on that role in Britain in the last century.  In recent decades television has become a crucial political medium.  New interactive cable technology, tied to television, offers a chance to inject some ancient-Greek directness into Britain's tired and uninspiring democratic institutions.

Every Saturday evening, throughout Parliament's summer recess, Channel 4 has broadcast a People's Parliament, in which randomly selected citizens, sitting in a mock-up House of Commons, debate and vote on controversial issues.  On 2 November the Institute for public Policy Research will publish a pamphlet on "citizens' juries", of which the People's Parliament is an example1.  On 5 November Charter 88, a group of constitutional reformers, will hold a conference on referendums, to coincide with the publication of a book on the same subject2.

What all these initiatives have in common is a desire to promote "direct democracy".  In Britain as in other western countries, opinion polls indicate that voters hold political leaders, parties and institutions in increasingly low esteem.  Advocates of direct democracy argue that existing proposals for constitutional reform, such as proportional representation - although desirable in themselves - are insufficiently radical to regain the enthusiasm of most voters.  Direct democrats favour three innovations.

Voter vetoes would give citizens the right to call a consultative referendum against a law or decision.  In "Back to Greece", one of a collection of essays published by Demos3, an independent think-tank, Geoff Mulgan and Andrew Adonis propose that any petition of lm signatures should be able to trigger a national referendum.  Local referendums would require 2.5% of the electorate to sign a petition.  Such procedures might have spared Britain the thoroughly unpopular poll tax.

Voter lethargy would limit the use of such referendums.  The Local Government Commission, which has come up with plans to reorganise local councils, has given affected households a postal vote on a range of options.  On 12 September, when the commission announced the results of its first referendum, held in Leicestershire, it admitted that only 2.3% of ballot papers had been returned.

Yet Britons have voted eagerly on single issues they care about.  Last March Strathclyde council organised a referendum on the government's plans to transfer responsibility for water and sewerage from local councils to quangos.  More than a million inhabitants of the Glascow region - 97% of the 72% who responded to a postal ballot - voted against the changes.  The government took no notice.

Voter juries, modeled on judicial juries, would play a consultative role rather than replace existing decision-making bodies.  In America the Jefferson Center, a Minneapolis-based foundation, regularly invites a randomly chosen jury of 24 to spend a week considering a topic.  Experts put the case for and against and the highlights are televised.  In October 1993 one of these juries debated President Clinton's health care proposals and concluded that, although the objective of universal provision was desirable, it would not be possible, as Mr Clinton had claimed, to provide it without tax increases.

The People's Parliament on Channel 4, similarly, has examined witnesses and engaged in long debates.  It decided in favour of fertility treatment on the National Health Service, including for elderly women; against legalising hard drugs but for decriminalising soft drugs; and for banning arms sales to oppressive regimes.

Voter feedback would exploit the new electronic media by allowing voters to express their views to politicians.  Earlier this year, in Calgary, Canada, the Reform Party organised an "electronic town meeting" on whether doctors should be allowed to assist suicide.  A random group of electors received information from both camps.  They then watched a television debate and, using a personal identification number, voted by the keys of their telephones.  The result - 70% in favour of doctor-assisted suicide - persuaded the party to change its policy.

The Demos essays assert that direct democracy would give the governed more control over the governors, promote civic education and force politicians to see voters as partners rather than as an audience.  Critics, however, point to the difficulties of setting a referendum question, and of choosing "representative" juries in multicultural communities.  They fear the new techniques could foster a nasty sort of intolerant populism: a referendum could restore the death penalty, while a jury might favour discrimination against immigrants.

The direct democrats respond that, so far, citizens' juries have seldom arrived at extreme or populist conclusions.  Many viewers of the People's Parliament have judged its debates to be of higher quality than those in the House of Commons.  Members of the former, unlike the latter, appear to listen to what their fellows say.

Public-opinion polls suggest that many Britons would welcome a greater use of referendums.  But a big obstacle to direct democracy is that professional politicians have a vested interest in blocking changes that would erode their power.  The new thinking may meet the least resistance, and have the most practical application, at local level.  Electors find local government even more opaque and incomprehensible than national politics.

The IPPR pamphlet shows that several German local authorities have used citizens' juries successfully.  Cologne city council scrapped its architects' scheme for building a new town hall when a jury opposed it.  In Britain, when local councillors consider planning proposals or traffic schemes or waste dumps, they often find it hard to test local sentiment; juries could make that job easier.  Local referendums could settle the most controversial issues.

Direct democracy is all about means, not ends.  Many of its proponents once hoped to transform society through a distinctively socialist economic programme.  Now that British socialists have accepted much of the right's market-based economics, some of them hope to redefine "the left" around non-economic objectives such as reforming the political system.

  1. Citizens' Juries by Anna Coote, Elizabeth Kendall and John Stewart. Institute for Public Policy Research
  2. Referendums around the World: The Growing Use of Direct Democracy, edited by David Butler and Austin Ranney; Macmillan
  3. "Lean Democracy", Demos Quarterly, July 1994

Source: The Economist 17 September 1994

Off the Cuff

bulletBill Clinton: "This is still the greatest country in the world, if we just will steel our wills and lose our minds."
bulletBill Clinton: "They've managed to keep their unemployment low although their overall unemployment is high."
bulletUS Senator Barbara Boxer: "Those who survived the San Francisco earthquake said, 'Thank God I'm still alive.' But, of course, those who died, their lives will never be the same again."
bulletFormer Attorney General Janet Reno: "I will always wait until a jury has spoken before I anticipate what they will do."

Source: Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right by Ann Coulter May 2002

Electing the Dead

Senator Wellstone of Minnesota Dies in Plane Crash

[excerpt] ...The death of Wellstone, 58, one of the Senate’s most liberal members, who was locked in a tight re-election race against former St Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, immediately raised questions about whether another candidate could take his place on the ballot and who that might be.  A Coleman spokesman, Ben Whitney, said: "Our prayers are with the Wellstone family.  That’s all I’m going to say."

The close Minnesota race is one of several around the nation that are considered key to control of the Senate, now controlled by Democrats by a one-vote margin.  Liberal to the end, Wellstone cast his vote earlier this month against legislation to authorise the use of force in Iraq - virtually the only Democrat in a competitive race to go against President Bush on the issue.

Friday’s crash brought to mind a 2000 tragedy in which Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, then Missouri’s Democratic candidate for the US Senate, died in a plane crash a few weeks before the election.  Carnahan’s name remained on the ballot, and he beat Republican Senator John Ashcroft.  Carnahan’s widow, Jean, was appointed to serve in his place and is now seeking election to a full term against Republican Jim Talent.

Before running for office, Wellstone was a professor and community organiser who fused the two passions in a course he taught at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, called "Social Movements and Grassroots Organising."  He stunned the political establishment when he knocked off Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz with a long-shot bid for office in 1990.  Afterward, left-leaning Mother Jones magazine called him "the first 1960s radical elected to the US Senate..."

Source: October 2002

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