Eton Mess: Why a summer referendum is undemocratic

Photo: Creative Commons
Referendums tend to be viewed as instruments of democracy. They are opportunities for direct engagement with the policy making process, an opportunity usually limited to general elections, and even then in
nebulous fashion.
However, Britain is destined for such an exercise, thanks to David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU on 23 June. This can only be a good thing, surely? The sooner the British public get the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights the better. Three cheers for democracy! Three
cheers for the Tories!
However, as this article seeks to show, we should treat this new found Tory passion for a swift referendum with suspicion. This seemingly pro-democracy stance sits uneasily amongst the Conservatives’ policies enacted since their surprise general election victory in May last year. Indeed, a brief inspection of Conservative policy reveals a much more sinister agenda; one in which a summer referendum is entirely consistent.
The Conservatives, since May last year, have tried their utmost to bring about the destruction of the traditional opposition party, Labour [cue all Tory supporters to snigger with the retort of “Corbyn’s doing that for them”]. This has principally come in the form of the Trade Union and Lobbying Acts. For instance, trade union members are now required to opt in to allow their union funds and membership fees to be donated to political parties, traditionally the Labour party, rather than the previous opt-out policy. The Lobbying Act has served to reduce the maximum amount of money that voluntary groups and trade unions can spend on political campaigning in the period before a general election by 60 per cent. The effect of this on political funding for the Labour Party has been estimated to be a loss of £5.4 million.
Worse still for the Labour Party, the Conservatives’ cutting of Short Money, that is, the public funding provided to opposition parties to employ staff and meet office costs, by 19 per cent, can be seen as nothing but a shameless politically motivated measure. The saving to the state is negligible, standing at 0.001 per cent,
but will cost the Labour Party £1.2m a year, approximately 3 per cent of its income. This is not the policy record that one would expect from a seemingly ‘pro-democracy’ party; precisely the image the Conservatives are trying to project in discussions regarding the EU referendum.
Moreover, when attacks on funding are coupled with the Tory proposals to redraw constituency boundaries
and streamline parliament, which in itself threatens to remove up to 50 MPs, the majority of whom are expected to be Labour MPs, as well as David Cameron’s recent appointment of 26 Conservative Peers to the House of Lords, we see a blatant attempt, on the part of the Conservatives, to redraw the boundaries of the British political system in their favour. We are witnessing a democracy under threat. The focus in the Conservative camp seems not to be the maintenance and extension of a vibrant democracy, but the growth and accumulation of political power in their favour.
Indeed, the root of this power ambition may to some extent lie within the individual of Chancellor George
Osborne himself. A self-proclaimed enthusiast for American political history, he has asserted that his favourite
political figure of all time is Lyndon B. Johnson; a surprise to some, considering Johnson was one of the most
left-leaning American Presidents. However, little Georgy’s admiration for such a figure does not lie with
Johnson’s ambitions for society, but his ambitions for power. Indeed, Johnson once said: “I do understand
power, whatever else may be said of me. I know where to look for it and how to use it”. Considering Osborne’s
invitation of Robert Caro, President Lyndon B Johnson’s biographer, to Downing Street at the end of last year,
this simple schoolboy dream of being like his political hero can be seen to be taking a darker turn. No doubt,
as Osborne has been telling us for six years now, there were “lessons to be learned”.
And now we return to discussion of the EU referendum. David Cameron’s calling for a summer referendum as opposed to his previous suggestion of a 2017 referendum has greatly reduced the opportunity to inform the electorate. We can thus expect more rhetoric and less substance, and this is not a healthy democratic process.
As the Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, has argued in his book The Price of Inequality,
politicians are becoming far more interested in mobilising voters than informing them. In a time when news
headlines are polluted with bigoted and misconceived statements and accusations, the need to inform has never been more important.
With an issue as important and polarised as the EU referendum, we cannot risk being rushed into a decision. The Scottish Independence Referendum is a fine example of what occurs when an electorate feels like they have not been informed. The losing faction continues to engage in debates and policies characterised by division. Indeed, the fact that the new divide in Scottish politics is no longer between Left and Right, but Nationalist and Unionist, is perhaps the greatest reflection of this post-referendum division. The damage done to Scottish politics, as a fall-out from the Independence Referendum, has crystallised in the form of unwavering SNP support, when in reality, their policies are not proving favourable to Scottish people. In education for example, the number of college students has fallen by 152,000 since the SNP entered office, not to mention the closure
of the Forth Bridge, an inconvenience to us all over the Christmas period, because the administration failed to
perform necessary repairs. Yet, as Labour’s Scottish Secretary has argued, “The poll numbers aren’t shifting, because we’re in post-referendum politics”. Nationalism has taken hold over pragmatic politics to the detriment of Scottish people. This is all because the Yes voters, for Scottish independence, felt cheated. We cannot repeat this mistake with Europe.
The EU question is the most divisive issue in British politics at present, as Iain Duncan-Smith’s resignation
clearly demonstrates. The fact that cuts to disability benefits send reverberations through the EU debate, with
accusations that Duncan-Smith had resigned to enhance the chances of the Leave Europe campaign, reflects
the extent to which the EU issue is deeply embedded in British politics. We cannot run the risk of having an ill
informed electorate, for this will only serve to cement the issue of Britain’s membership of the EU on the political agenda long after the referendum has been held.
Three months is not enough time to fully inform an electorate and this is proving so. Polling released at the
beginning of March by the Electoral Reform Society shows that just 16 percent of people feel “well informed”
or “very informed” about the EU referendum. By contrast 46 per cent say they are “poorly” or “very poorly
informed”. This is not good enough. This is perhaps the most important decision of our generation. These
percentages will not alter radically in three months, no matter how hard the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ campaigns try. By holding a June referendum, Cameron is banking the result upon national gut feeling, not informed decision.
As mentioned earlier, I do not believe it matters what one’s opinion on Britain’s membership of the EU is, but I feel certain that both campaigns would feel ashamed at their failure to inform the electorate. All this does is
exacerbate the resentment felt by the campaign that is defeated on 23 June, and ensures that Britain’s debate on the EU remains cemented like a barnacle to Britain’s political rock. A June referendum will not serve to resolve the EU debate in Britain, it will serve to stoke the flames of division, that will continue to burn away at Britain’s ever important unity.
Therefore, what Cameron should do is instead hold a 2017 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
This would allow both campaigns to fully engage with the electorate and ensure the true political sentiments
of the British people are expressed. Without ensuring high voter turn-out and a high level of information dissemination, the language of division will continue to infect and undermine the British political system.
Simply holding a referendum is not, in itself, democracy in action. Democracy in action is having a well-informed debate whereby we can come to reasoned conclusions, and then we vote upon them. For as long
as there is a sense of urgency to the debate, erroneous arguments and facts will be thrown around and abused
like a first year looking for a flat. Both sides are guilty of this, with the ‘Out’ campaign currently denouncing any
argument for remaining in the EU as ‘scaremongering’ or ‘Project Fear’.
Whether Britain ends up ‘In’ or ‘Out’, the result must be achieved in a democratic manner.
In my opinion, a three month long debate is not long enough to achieve this democratic goal.


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