In a brief and fleeting moment of sanity, UKIP has announced that if it performs well in the 2015 general election, it will seek measures that promote ‘direct democracy’, the process whereby citizens decide some issues in referendums, as opposed to representative democracy whereby citizens elect people to decide all issues for them. This is another aspect of UKIP’s seemingly populist brand of politics, and is a breath of fresh air when you consider how bad all of their other policies are.
Nigel Farage has stated that a Swiss-style democracy may be the best way forward, but has told voters that the party has yet to work out the finer details to prevent the system from being abused (after all, you can’t have votes on absolutely every decision). The beauty of the Swiss system is that Swiss citizens are at least somewhat politically motivated. As the graphs below show, at least half of Swiss voters usually come out to vote in referendums, and while a high number of UK voters come out to vote in national elections, our European elections turnout fares far worse.
It’s hard to say whether UK turnout for these hypothetical referendums would match the turnout of general elections or the EU elections, but I’m guessing they’d match the latter, for if only a third of the electorate bothers to vote in the EU elections, what proof do we have that more will turn out 7, 10, 15 times a year to vote on single issues? When the turnout is inevitably low, you have a small number of people making a very big decision, and that doesn’t seem to add much to democracy. Our current MEPs have been elected by only a third of UK voters. In fact, the last referendum the UK held had a turnout of 42.2%. Hardly representing the full public sentiment. I’m not suggesting that a representative democracy under first-past-the-post fares any better, just to be clear, just whether it’s worth the effort.
The main problem would definitely be the lack of turnout. If less than half of the electorate will vote in referendums, we haven’t really gained much more of a direct democracy, given that half of the electorate will probably agree or disagree with any given issue if it was at the hands of MPs and not their own. Any decision that gets made in government draws praise and scrutiny (which would translate as ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes in the event of a referendum), so what’s to be gained by calling it a referendum instead of a Parliamentary vote? Direct democracy’s success depends on an informed and motivated electorate, and that is something UKIP cannot promise.
Nonetheless, the idea of direct democracy is theoretically appealing, and greater powers for citizens is usually a good thing (unless the citizens are stupid). As an added bonus for UKIP, it will definitely pull in idealists and those who are completely disillusioned with the current political system. UKIP draws great support from people who are sick of the “establishment”, so if you tell them you’re going to put more power directly into their hands, it solidifies their support for you. Reactionaries will love it, the disillusioned will love it, and some liberals might even fall for it. In many ways this was the most predictable and best move for UKIP to make before the general election.
Additionally, the use of referendums is sorely needed when it comes to one of the things Farage directly addressed – the use of military intervention overseas. Farage is a libertarian and is therefore usually opposed to wars, foreign aid or military intervention in foreign conflicts. Libertarians often have an “our country first” attitude, which frees them from deep international commitments. To his credit (and it takes a lot of personal strength for me to credit Nigel Farage with anything), Farage was consistently opposed to the Iraq War and has very recently reaffirmed his opposition to intervention in the Middle East:
“In almost every country in which the West has intervened or even implied support for regime change, the situation has been made worse and not better. This is true of Libya, Syria and of course Iraq.”
The current national mood, when it comes to sending more soldiers overseas to fight wars that have nothing to do with them, seems to be pretty negative. People from most developed nations are sick of what they see as Western countries meddling in the affairs of the Middle East. If direct democracy is enacted, it will be a long, long time before the UK electorate votes to put their sons and daughters in harm’s way abroad. That is undoubtedly a bonus.
But, to flip the issue, referendums have the capacity to veto desperately needed legislation, perhaps of the sort that UKIP is opposed to anyway. The prime example is environmental policies, where UKIP remains in the 19th century. It is opposed to teaching about the consequences of climate change in schools, opposed to wind farm subsidies, opposed to green taxes, and supports greater coal and natural gas extraction. Expect Britain to quit tackling climate change if UKIP wins significant power. If referendums are to be held on these environmental issues, the people may do the sensible thing and vote to fight the effects of climate change, or they may be reactionaries who want cheap and fast energy and want it now now now. Which seems more likely to you? Again, the effectiveness of a direct democracy depends on an informed and engaged electorate.
This is a worrisome crease that must be ironed out – referendums are not, by themselves, directly democratic. They still depend on the authority of the central government, and can be dealt or withheld like poker cards. A government may choose to offer referendums on issues it knows the people will vote one way or another on, and may choose to decide for itself on issues it knows the public won’t back them on. If you know the electorate will vote against you in a referendum on taxation or environmentalism, you’re not gonna offer them the chance to vote on it. I can’t see any of the political parties in this country offering a referendum on something they know the public will go against them on, especially the Tories, and UKIP included.
Everything else aside, UKIP is directly akin to the Libertarian wing of the U.S. Republican party in one key aspect: They’re both pragmatic when it comes to foreign policy, and completely insane when it comes to anything else.