I have been looking to see what there is to be said about Referendums and their role in democracies. Much has been said that Referendums or more accurately Plebiscites are the tools of dictators, but I have yet to see a compelling argument as to why! As I explored the issues, it became clear to me that I was pretty ignorant about the development of political theory and its application to the politics of government. I would be happy for any guidance from people more expert to me.

I hd returned to this question after the Xmas break. One of the easiest academic papers, albeit seemingly unfinished, to find on google and read using a browser is “The Paradox of Plebiscites: Why Do Authoritarian Submit issues to voters?” by Matt Qvortrup. He performs a light historical review and looks at the literature, finding little in terms of a compelling cause and effect. He also performs some statistical analysis. His review is restricted to plebiscites in totalitarian societies, and he argues that,

Based on Aristotle’s distinction (between King’s & Tyrants) we can distinguish between two forms of plebiscites; those which are intended to show genuine – if manipulated – support (legitimizing plebiscites) and those which are engineered to coerce and subdue the subjects (repressive plebiscites). The question is when, why and under which conditions authoritarian regimes submit issues to either

His statistical analysis starts from Louis Napoleon’s legitimising plebiscite[1] in France in but does not for instance include the UK’s three referendums since 2010, nor the disrupted referendum in Catalonia in 2017.  Qvortrup’s paper would seem to be unfinished but it has, to me, a useful citation list which I may look at another time.

Interestingly, again via Google, the CPGB-PRC via both the Weekly Worker and the Labour Party Marxist web site also address the legitimacy of referendums vs. representative democracy. In this article, they cite Kautsky as arguing that the focus of democratic politics for the Left must be a parliament, as it’s only through General Elections that the complete offering can be made i.e. it’s only through General Elections that the support for the Programme can be tested. Kautsky seems to be amongst the first to argue that the modern state could not be run through plebiscites and it is this complexity that means the choice is between a representative democracy (with a Parliament) or a powerful Leader orientated executive occasionally legitimising itself via plebiscites. Qvortrup also references Carl Schmidt who developed a critique of representative democracy as inexorably captured by interests, a malaise that could only be broken by strong leaders, who of course need and needed the coercive power to challenge those interests.

Recently on the LSE Blog feed, there have been two articles, one using the Theory of Committees to show that mass balloting can in some circumstances never produce a satisfactory i.e. a consented answer. Where

A > B > C > A

A simple ballot, even an eliminating ballot cannot determine what is the will of people, and certainly not if the questions are not put.  The hidden complexity in the EU question is that there are many ways to leave or even stay, with a United Kingdom or in parts, inside the EEA, some semantically different means of staying in the single market or under WTO terms; there are even several ways to remain. Voting theory suggests that Parliament, where bargains and compromises can take place is a better way of representing the population, particularly when the best, as in most supported solution to a problem involves second best choices.

The lack of clarity of the mandate, now evident is a problem for Leavers, and part of their design; in his paper Qvortrup quotes Robert Michels,

 … a Führer [sic!] would lead the people astray through unclear questions, and would himself be solely entitled to interpret the result afterwards

It’s certainly the case, that interpreting the EU mandate is impossible and the sense of fear in Parliament about going against a so-called  “superior” popular mandate is substantial. It’s fortunate that we don’t have Führer.

A second article on the LSE Blogs, examining the behaviour of voters in Scotland proves that some pro-independence voters voted to Leave because they thought that it would improve the chances of achieving an independent Scotland. While this is up to them, their votes as a mandate for Government is highly questionable. If we argue that only a Representative Democracy can bargain and represent the complete spectrum of political decisions, building otherwise undiscovered consensus then this is evidence showing that Referendums cannot perform that role.

The experience of various political parties, and arguably the British Trade Union movement with its imposed plebiscitary balloting shows the weakness in structures and democracy in building a participatory, vibrant democracy where all who participate have an equal say. In the Unions, and now in the Labour Party, the Leaderships have separate mandates from the policy making processes. This structure is unstable as given a choice between renewing their personal mandate and supporting democratically decided policy, they’ll always choose the former. The Worker’s Party of Brazil, Podemos and now Momentum have all adopted the use of plebiscites and the vibrancy of their democracy has all suffered. It’s arguable that in the case of the first two movements, their mass appeal has also been adversely impacted.

What’s missing from my little tour is the compelling statements of theory of the superiority of representative democracy (and thus republicanism) over plebiscitary consultations. It has raised in my mind questions often raised by the left, of annual parliaments, first raised by the Levellers and Chartists,  recall, and possibly fairer voting systems, the question of party candidate accountability (reselection) and even the legitimacy of the UK’s executive Mayors and new Commissioners.

I consider asking our twenty first century Burkean theorists, that MPs are representatives and not delegates, what’s the point if they won’t exercise their judgement when confronted with the bullying menace of the Brexiters? If representative democracy is a superior form of expressing the will of the people, its very superiority can be damaged by the cowardice of the elected representatives, although I must add that in many cases, political parties don’t help.

I’ll finish with another quote from Qvortrup, but to me this exploration has raised more questions,

In the light of this it is not surprising that philosophers and political scientists have been rather sceptical, if not outright cynical as regards utility of plebiscites. Michael Oakeshott, for one, was not impressed. In his view, “The plebiscite is not a method by which ‘mass man’ imposes his choices upon his rulers; it is a method for generating a government with unlimited authority to make choices . In the plebiscite the ‘mass man’ achieved release from the burden of individuality he was emphatically told what to choose”. Michael Oakeshott (Rationalism in Politics)


[1] Arguably, since it only had a Yes vote option, it was also a repressive plebiscite.

On Plebiscites
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