It’s a "yes/no" question, Minister

And so, we’re getting another referendum. Possibly. Maybe. In time.

I remember those hazy, lazy far off days when the chances of Britain getting a referendum on anything was dismissed as pinko dreaming. We don’t do referendums, the Establishment sneered, that’s European.

“This is Britain,” went the line. “We have unelected, unaccountable political appointees in the House of Lords and that’s the end of it,”.

These days there is nothing which can’t be resolved without the mention of the word “referendum”. It’s radical, it’s representative, it’s hip and now and acknowledging the power of the people and all the rest. Crucially the referendum as concept is sewing itself within the fabric of our unwritten constitution – thanks to the e-petition scheme and a combination of Facebook and plummeting confidence in the political system holding referendums  is considered the strongest tool of all inside democracy’s garden shed. You can’t go too far into the nightmare world of On-Line Comment Sections without seeing people called WhitePower84 or Orwell Was Right directing you to their e-petition against or for the kneejerk demand du jour, and I think it’s fantastic that we’re walking down this particular road. “Referendum as threat” would make a cracking dissertation.

I recall when the very notion of Britain embracing the referendum was sneered at for being unsuitable. Holding a public plebiscite was an act which others did – the Swiss, for example, with their four languages and political neutrality and chocolate and giving Celine Dion her big break. Critics argued that a general election was the only referendum Britain needed, as we transferred our right to have a say to those MPs who sat at Westminster, that somehow holding a secondary vote was invalidating the result of that election.

Things changed with the Blair government, who gave Scotland and Wales the right to support devolution, and since then the Welsh have given a further thumbs up to awarding extra powers at Cardiff Bay. Voters in Scotland will soon have a say on leaving the Union, perhaps the greatest sign of the politician’s acknowledgement of the power of the referendum. “I act upon what the people say” and all that.

Of course the greatest example of the referendum on these isles was the AV referendum. I still shudder at the memory.

The “no” vote on voting change was a kick in the constitutionals, and no mistake. Voting reform was knocked back a generation. The campaign was not edifying, nor mature, and those who campaigned on either side revelled in behaviour unthinkable in a general election.

“No” supporters used the most shallow and cynical campaign tricks – “This baby needs a life support machine and a cute little puppy and hugs from his mother, not a new voting system YOU MONSTER” – which was nonetheless successful. The power of the repeated meme and all that, and something which must be combated by “In” campaigners next time round. Anything which was good for the defeat of AV will be considered good for the Scottish Independence vote too, and that’s all for the worse in the longer term.

If Cameron does go to the country after 2015 with an EU vote the difficulties faced by the Yes2AV experience will come back with a vengeance. Those in favour of the change couldn’t agree on a theme until a few days before polling day, and even when there was a hint of a united message, some of the adverts used by them accurately described a voting system which was anything but AV. Similar mess-ups both in Scotland and the EU votes would deliver defeats before midnight.

Britain’s future is within the EU, that’s my view now  as it’s been for years. I’m not particularly confident about living in a country which purposely isolated itself from the rest of the trading world at a time when every other major power is doing precisely the opposite. If there is to be a referendum, we “In” supporters must learn from the lessons of the AV disaster. We have to agree on a simple, single message, and use that message alone. We must avoid  falling into the trite, over-emotional garbage of the No campaign, which effectively distorted the pro-message without having to do anything. Crucially there has to be meat to share round years before the vote is even announced, as the AV campaign had nothing in the cupboard beyond an old tin of golden syrup, some rice and an old -fashioned manual tin opener.

The EU vote can be won because Britain needs to remain within the club for the greater, long-term good of both country and region. It would be a folly of ridiculous proportions to pretend that a Britain alone is a Britain strengthened, the kind of isolationist, borderline xenophobic thinking which permeates the “Better Off Out” brigade. But just as with the AV vote, it doesn’t take much to gain traction with peoples emotions. A “yes” to the EU is not a “no” to Britain. It’s not patriotic to support building a wall between these islands and Germany for the sake of feeling good about defeating bendy bananas and all the rest of it.

Saying “no” to AV was a constitutional disaster, putting back real reform of our voting system a generation or more, and slamming shut any real chance of improvements to the Commons, the Lords and so much more. An “out” vote in 2017 at the EU referendum would be much, much worse – economically, socially, politically. If there’s anyone worried about how the campaign might go, look back at the AV experience, take it, hold it close, cherish it……and then throw it into the sun. 

16 going on 2015

Way back in the mists of time – November 2009, to be almost precise – I recorded in a blog I now want to proof-read within an inch of its life how Gordon Brown spoke of his support for giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote.  That was prior to the 2010 election, and now here we are closer to the local elections of 2013 than we are to that polling day as far away from the change being made than ever.

Today the SNP has won an important concession from the Government; young people aged sixteen and seventeen will now be allowed to vote in the forthcoming Scottish Independence referendum. This is another widening of the democratic deficit between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Whilst Scottish councils are elected by a representative voting system, in England and Wales voters are lumbered with the old-fashioned, out of date, unfair and unjust First Past the Post. There are still, in 2012, parts of the country where councils publish election results prior to polling day because of ‘uncontested wards’. This scandal doesn’t exist in Scotland; it only exists in England because of First Past the Post.

I’ve supported Votes At 16 from the first moment I realised that our current democratic systems dissuade young people from taking an active role in politics. Whilst party machines may hold no interest to teenagers – they hardly attract older people, let’s be honest – arguing and demonstrating for or against  specific policies has not been this prevalent amongst the young for generations. With more teenagers likely to be taking part-time jobs, or elbow deep in worry about higher education, or earning a bit of cash here and there through App designs and other computer programming endeavours, it’s no longer logical to deny them the vote. It’s hardly worth unravelling the old ‘no taxation without representation’ line, however true it is, because the logic is undefeatable. All those years ago I pointed out that 16 year olds in the 21st century are the 21 year olds of the 1960s, eager to participate in the democratic process whilst denied by the establishment. If the denial seems ‘typical’ from the Tories today, it was merely unfathomable under Labour. Why deny over a million votes out of some outdated view of who ‘gets’ politics in the round? I’ve been a party activist, I can tell you there’s a fair amount of older people who don’t ‘get’ politics either.

Let’s return to another of my obsessions – local government. There needs to be a big reset button pressed at some point in the not so distant future. We need local government elected by proportional representation, what I called ‘a coalition compromise’ , and we need the abolition of Council Tax. Added to that is the need to bring more young people into the political processes, not just as candidates or leaflet droppers or hand-shakers but as voters too. As another ‘compromise’ to act as a stepping stone between no reform and real reform, let’s lower the age at which a person can vote at local elections to 16, just as Scotland will allow younger people to vote in the referendum, to show how minded we are towards longer lasting, real reform.

It’s not because I’m a zealot that I support lowering the voting age, or because I’m a geek or idealistic or a soppy liberal. It’s because the alternative looks, sounds and feels like an establishment stitch-up, and nobody should go along with them whatever your character.

Speak your brains

When Tony Blair introduced the Number 10 petition site, critics and plaudits arranged themselves in formations not too dissimilar to those now reacting to the Coalition’s proposals to allow Parliamentary debate and even Bills from a website-based scheme whereby 100,000 signatures could be the gateway to Commons scrutiny. “This could open up Westminster”, claimed those in favour. “Magnet for obsessives and saddoes” decry the antis.

In reality, the Number10 scheme was not a total disaster. It did encourage debate; over 1 million people supported the proposal to scrap road tolls and vehicle monitoring, something the Labour government was forced to carry-out and something the Coalition has pledged not to introduce. I recall the issue coming up in conversation in the office at the time, which led to people spending a lazy afternoon creating and signing petitions of their own interests and persuasions. Although the Number10 model was flawed (and in some cases open to this sort of tin-hat oddity), it opened a door which subsequent Governments will find difficult to close.

(Labour have been very good at laying ‘traps’ for subsequent Governments, I notice, they may have been economically illiterate but they were as cunning….)

As Mark Pack points out over at LibDem Voice, the scheme proposed by the Coalition has some in-built ‘checks’ against viral campaigns and trouble-makers; the 100,000 minimum signature level should deter some of the usual suspects, and even then only those ‘deemed appropriate’ would make it to the floor of the House. I worry about how those which cross the 100,000 line would be ‘chosen’, and whether orchestrated campaigns for extreme or frivolous suggestions would be themselves encouraged by MPs who want the scheme ended, but from the groundwork of the original site I think a sound building has been proposed.

Asking our MPs to debate awkward subjects – maybe an immigration petition, possibly abortion law reform or tax evasion – cannot have a down-side. There is all to play for if the scheme allows the country to put pressure on MPs to debate those subjects which attract the attention of the increasingly politically inclined Twitterati and Facebook group creators?

There is something of the ‘novelty’ about all the recent attempts to – horrible word alert – ‘engage’. Nobody seems to have responded to “The Big Conversation”, and Nick Clegg’s ‘freedom from’ or ‘freedom to’ website has only been given a prod today thanks to the Independent on Sunday running a front page feature (with highlighted proposals running from the legalisation of cannabis and relaxing the Licencing Act, to scrapping the Racial and Religious Hatred Act. Out in the country is a genuine hunger for debate and discussion, one which is fired up with every newspaper comment column and phone-in. Petition sites with the ‘prize’ of a Bill at the end could be a great idea (I hope is it), though the path getting here is littered with forgotten schemes and redundant websites.

Democracy has not been fixed since the general election; schemes like this won’t repair everything, and must be attached to such ideas as the referendums in the Localism Bill and genuine work on fixing broken relationships between people and elected representatives. Has anything come from the Labour idea to make creating parish councils gone anywhere? “Estate Councils” would empower disadvantaged people build their local area far more than pressing ‘Like’ on the proposal ‘Give checkout girls nurses wages!’.

Critics bemoan all these ‘devolution’ schemes as gimmicks. They underestimate the power of the internet to collect and organise, to frame and focus debate and lobbyists. There’s a lot of constitutional reform being pushed through this Parliament, and the main focus seems to be on returning power to the people through direct democracy. This could be a massive opportunity for reform, one which will shake the certainty of ‘the establishment’, one which will test the doubters if its allowed to happen.

Doubters have valid concerns – the cost, the feasibility, how the valid petitions will be chosen, how much of this is ‘buck passing’. One interesting idea from the comments section of Mark Pack’s blog post is to have a “NO” vote reduction on the scheme, reducing the total of supporting signatures. That could dampen the viral campaigning of the troublemakers.

I have tentative support for the ideas, all told. It would encourage debate of some tricky subjects, introduce to the House the subjects so often called ‘those our MPs never want to discuss”. There’s a heap load of logistical nightmares to overcome, though I’m one for siding with the opportunities it encourages. Dealing with difficult truths could be Blair’s petition legacy…