Published on June 20, 2016

Political counter narratives and the rise of referenda

People & participation

By Harry Farmer

Harry Farmer is a policy researcher at Involve. He is fascinated by the power of deliberative processes to enable governments to negotiate controversial policy decisions - particularly those presented by emerging technologies and demographic change. He currently works primarily on the Citizens for Public Service programme.

As I have been discussing in a previous blog post, Referenda are on the rise across Europe, with an average of three a year in the 1970s having risen to eight today. In the UK, we will have soon had three major referenda since 2010. Many people have looked upon this new trend with dismay, complaining that governments should have the self-assurance to make decisions in their people’s best interests, rather than delegating them to the public. Though it’s tempting to putting the rise in referenda down to weak leadership, there are deeper reasons why governments are increasingly seeing them as appealing means of settling tough questions.

Considering the changes in the political landscape over the past few decades hints at the reasons for growing popularity of referenda. For most of the 20th century, the choice presented to voters has been that of left or right wing economic and social policy, with political parties positioning themselves at various points on the spectrum of left to right.  Following the 2008 financial crisis, however, a new political divide has emerged, this time between cosmopolitan and populist responses to globalization – with the former embracing globalization’s free flows of people and finance and culture, and the latter seeking greater restrictions to them.

Representative democracy is fairly good at allowing voters to choose a position on a single spectrum of related issues, but is generally fairly bad at coherently reflecting voters’ preferences on ideas that don’t fit straightforwardly onto such a spectrum.

Problematically, because both populism and cosmopolitanism are superficially compatible with both left and right wing thinking, our current political system is unable to accurately reflect voters’ preferences along this increasingly important political spectrum. Established political parties, whose identities are bound up with questions of left and right, are rarely explicit or consistent in their views on cosmopolitanism versus populism, and the opinions of their members are rarely homogenous.

This phenomenon also means that there is a risk of discussions of these kinds of questions going unheard. Just as political parties with geographically dispersed support do worse under first past the post, views that are spread across the spectrum of left and right often fail to get attention, as they fail to constitute the majority in any individual party.

The increasing relevance of the cosmopolitan/ populist divide, and the inability of our current political system to deal with it, is a recipe for both voter disenfranchisement and divided political parties. In these circumstances, it’s easy to see how a government might reasonably question its own mandate on such issues, and as such, be tempted to put them to referenda. Equally, it’s easy to see how a government might want to use a referendum to silence its own rebellious ranks.

The Brexit debate is the perfect example of a choice between cosmopolitan and populist visions for a country that has for years been marginalized by these features of the political system. While both the Conservatives and Labour are split (albeit to differing degrees) on the issue, both have been nominally in favour of continued membership. Add to this the fact that UKIP – the only UK party whose identity is framed around the cosmopolitan/ populist dichotomy – is kept artificially small by FPTP, and it’s hard to see how British voters could have had a say on the EU had it not been for the referendum. Regardless of the (small ‘p’) political reasons for promising a referendum, EU membership was clearly an important issue that lots of voters cared about, that they couldn’t have influenced through the UK’s normal political processes.

It may well be that as political parties adapt in response to the growing importance of the cosmopolitan/ populist divide, the temptation to call referenda diminishes.

If this does happen, it is unlikely to come about, as some have suggested, as a result of political parties fragmenting into smaller, more ideologically homogenous groups. As the continental European experience suggests, coalitions of smaller, more cohesive parties are struggling to deal with the cosmopolitan/ populist divide every bit as much as ideologically diverse single party governments.

Instead, if a viable solution to the problem is to be found within the context of representative democracy, it will be through establishing a connection between left and right wing, and cosmopolitan and populist ideas, such that four options become two. This is a task that the left in particular has been struggling with since the eighties, but that’s not to say that it can’t be done. Late 20th and early 21st century history is an example of how the left right spectrums of economic and social policy was reduced to a single spectrum, with social democracy on one end and conservatism on the other (authoritarian and libertarian positions having been all but abandoned).

Another option is to shift towards more participatory democratic structures. Referenda are not the only alternative to representative democratic structures, and are by no means the most conducive to nuanced reflection of public opinion and thinking.

Still, until our political system can adapt, referenda will continue to offer an imperfect, stopgap solution to its inability to reflect an increasingly relevant counter-narrative.

Click here to read my blog on what our anxieties about the increasing frequency of referenda tells us about the state of our democracy.

Image credit: Saikat Biswas 

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