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Referendums: Parliamentary Democracy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:31 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 2:31 pm, 19th July 2018

That is a matter for the noble Lord.

We have a broken two-party system. In many other countries, the old parties have begun to break up and new parties are emerging, but ours are held in place by a voting system and by their privileged access to funding. We have a situation in which political education in this country is extremely poor—almost absent. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said that we believe in parliamentary democracy. However, my experience of the referendum campaign is that many people expressed deep confusion about the quality of democracy and the issues at stake because we have not tackled the question of how to educate our masters, as Disraeli said we needed to do, so many years ago. One reason I have been converted to the idea of the voting age being 16 is that it would encourage schools to get into political education in a much more active way. We all know how delicate and difficult that is, but we need enormously to prioritise citizenship, an understanding of the rights and obligations of citizenship, what we mean by the rule of law and what we mean by representative democracy.

It does not help that local democracy has been undermined and its funding cut back, and that we now have fewer elected representatives in England than in any other democratic country. We have seen the professionalisation of political campaigning, the rise of what the Russians call political technology, and the very slick way in which the anti-AV campaign and the Brexit campaign—both led by Matthew Elliott—used the peripheral, almost irrelevant, question of funding for the National Health Service to discredit other matters. That was very well done and very clever, given that it was not central to the issues. The influence of big funders—often offshore and occasionally foreign funders, and occasionally also dark money—is clearly something that we need to look at.

Where does that take us? Like the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, I have read the various reports. I was very impressed by the Independent Commission on Referendums and I strongly agree with many of its recommendations, including that referendums are best to ratify a decision which government has taken rather than to start a debate about what we might do if the population expressed a preference for X rather than Y. The last thing one should do, of course, is have a referendum to avoid the governing party having to take a decision first. That is what happened two years ago and is, after all, what happened in 1975.

I also agree with the commitment that referendums need to be embedded in a longer process of debate and negotiation, as far as they can be. Citizens’ assemblies and other things are mentioned, and in Britain we face the problem that we have a more highly educated electorate but they are less interested in politics. They want to listen to us on the radio or television only for 30 seconds at a time, rather than the two to three minutes we used to get 20 or 30 years ago. There is a real problem in getting complex politics across. I also agree that referendums need to be restricted to major constitutional questions. I further agree that referendums need to be tightly regulated. The report says rather optimistically that they need to be fair, but what we have seen in the context of the last two referendums—most recently in 2016—is that regulation needs to be not only clear but quickly imposed. Here we are, two years after the referendum, and the questions of where some of the money came from and whether the limits were exceeded still hang in the air.

Where are we as a result of all this? Referendums have become a part of the British constitution—we cannot take them away again—but they should be used rarely. Our democratic system is much shakier than it used to be, and politicians across all parties need to co-operate to repair and strengthen it. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: parliamentary democracy is the worst of all systems of government, except for all the others. And I am not at all sure that plebiscitary democracy is any better than parliamentary government.