Michael Macpherson

The case for introducing elements of direct democracy

In an almost purely representative democracy such as the United Kingdom most people can contribute only by voting for an MP once every few years. Recently there have been moves to mitigate this lack of citizens’ involvement in their own affairs by introducing consultative procedures such as panels, usually of a dozen or so people from different backgrounds, asked to consider matters such as an aspect of health care. Also, the changes involving proportional election systems, and the whole devolution process appear to be intended to improve the quality of representation of the will of constituents.

There are other, arguably more effective ways to improve representation in public affairs, namely those in which citizens represent themselves directly. Obviously, parliamentary systems, governments and administrations will not become redundant but, using already established methods, citizens can be enabled to intervene when they (that is, a reasonable quorum) so wish. Some of these methods of decision making are known as citizens’ (law) initiative, referendum and recall. Passive procedures, such as when the people of a European country are asked by their government if they want to join or leave the European Community, are not meant here. I am referring to procedures which are actively introduced by a large number of constituents, and to legislative proposals on which a majority of them decide.

IRR offer some ways in which tried, effective “checks and balances” can be introduced into public affairs and decision making, involving public administration and parliamentary democracy. My proposal to introduce IRR does not of course suggest that parliament should be abolished or weakened. I suggest that on the contrary the whole system of governance would be strengthened. These reforms would give the voters a way to have more say in their own affairs if and when enough of them want it, without having to wait till the next election in order “to throw the blighters out” (a clumsy way to express creative wishes or discontent, often too late for many problem issues). With IRR there can be a more refined, developed and focussed discourse of the people with their representatives and delegates. Further, it has been suggested that politicians and ministers tend to respect the wishes of their constituents more, merely because the possibility of citizen intervention in parliamentary process exists.

Information and Deliberation

It is often asserted that the directer forms of democracy such as IRR do not allow adequate consideration of the issue at stake. Agreed, a rapid process conducted like an opinion survey might gather many unreflected replies. But  that is not what is proposed here. There are very good ways to build in plenty of information, discussion, and debating time (summed up as “deliberation”) into the processes of citizen-initiated lawmaking. For instance:
The time from launching initiative to decision is several months at least.

The two or three (depending on method) phases of the citizens’ initiative are accompanied by dissemination of information and public debate. An agreed percentage of citizen votes must be collected to start the initiative in order to put a law before parliament. If it is rejected, then many more votes must be collected in order to start and carry through a public referendum. Proponents of the initiative must engage the public in debate, or they will not succeed in mobilising enough support to take the process further. Similarly, opponents of the initiative will try to mobilise dissent by disseminating counter arguments, thus creating further debate.

Information about the issue at stake must be freely available to any citizen who wants it.

Public debate and information can nowadays be aided by information and communication technology such as e-mail, World Wide Web, on-line discussion; not forgetting television, radio and print.

Electronic collection of signatures and electronic voting in referenda, for instance using the bank teller system or Internet, would speed up matters. But this not essential.

*Note. The abbreviation IRR refers to Citizens’ Law Initiative, Referendum and Recall of elected representatives. I and R means simply “initiative and referendum”

Dr. Michael Macpherson
Psycho-Social and Medical Research PSAMRA ~ Integral Studies
Guildford and Berlin

Campaign for direct democracy in Britain
Citizens’ Initiative and Referendum I&R ~ GB