Monday, November 03, 2014

Referendum problems

Okay let's get the easy one out of the way first. The plural is "referendums". Not ~a. I won't take up this post with the rationale (but see the very end for a bit).

The more complicated problems stem from their haphazard use in this country, with the result that we now have a mixture of precedents and popular decisions. Exactly what has been rejected beyond the specific measure on the ballot paper is often disputed and that brings up the question of what would be ignoring the will of the people or subjecting them to a neverendum until they "get it right". And some of these decisions covered only specific nations, regions or cities so are they binding on the rest?

In general a referendum is assumed to settle a political question for some period longer than a single parliament or council term. Of course one can find examples internationally of the same question being brought back almost immediately and rather more cases of losing sides declining to give up the cause. And there are countries where the political culture is such that a second referendum is actually expected if the measure is initially defeated, allowing the first vote to be used as a chance to protest some of the detail rather than an outright rejection. Legislation (and constitutions) only sometimes addresses this matter. More usually it's left to political will.

(In another post I'll detail what we have and haven't voted for on constitutional matters over the years and ask just how far that stretches.)

And if a referendum is going to formally settle a matter for a long time then there's the question of just what should be an acceptable threshold for enacting a change. It's fashionable to decry super majorities. turnout thresholds, total electorate requirements and multiple sectional consents as undemocratic, but is democracy really served well by measures passing on tiny turnouts? With some referendums and elections attracting turnouts in the teens or below, the prospect of just 5% of an electorate deciding a matter is not unrealistic. Is that really "democratic"?

The UK's mixed history of using referendums has thrown up a lot of anomalies. We've had them for a number of differing reasons including:
  • A desire to transfer the decision making to a local level to get out of the issue altogether.
  • A way for a national government to duck a divisive issue that splits the party or parties.
  • A way for a government to lock in constitutional change by getting a direct mandate from the people, making it harder for a different party to undo in government.
  • A way for opponents of a measure to put a populist roadblock in the way of a change.
  • A way to demonstrate to the international community that the constitutional situation has popular support.
  • The broad principle that a change in the distribution of political power should be decided by the people not by the politicians.
The last one is often appealed in calls for referendums but is rarely the reason we actually get them - whether we have a vote or not is decided by politicians in the first place.

Because of these varying reasons the thresholds for referendums to pass have also varied. In general if the prospective "Yes"/"Change" campaign is in control of setting the rules then all that's needed is 50%+1 of any turnout whatsoever. When the rules are controlled by the less enthusiastic or opponents then additional thresholds can come up. The old Scottish local prohibition referendums had complex requirements of super majorities and minimum support amongst the total electorate in order to enact prohibition. More notoriously the 1979 devolution referendums required a minimum of 40% of the total electorate to vote yes for the measure to pass. It's a surprise that council tax increase referendums do not come with any special threshold.

Because most recent referendums have had no additional thresholds it may be hard to consider them now. (That said I note the SNP are now calling for an EU withdrawal referendum to pass in all four parts of the UK to be valid.) But with turnouts in serious decline and ever more calls for public votes that could mean more stuff passing over the heads of the population. Even publicity is not a given. The myth of the obsessed citizen who always knows which noticeboard to consult and who is always aware of every vote and planning measure going is not one that matches the reality.

And in this great wave of calls to think again about how we do things, why should we be bound by past precedents? We should be able to consider this one carefully in a way that can empower the electorate without forcing them to have to turnout all the time to block measures they don't care for.

But there is a major problem that can't easily be overcome and that's different results in different areas. Can individual nations and regions rewrite the make-up of the UK without reference to others? An individual city may not want a Mayor but should it have a say in whether or not its rivals can get an advantage from a champion. Can only some parts of England have devolution or will it be an all or nothing offer?

All questions to ponder...

(So why is it "referendums" not ~a? The only necessary answer is very simple - loan-words absorbed into the English language take English language rules and people do not need to be familiar with the origin of a word and the rules of the original language in order to use it. We do not talk of "apparatchiki" or "octopodes" or "kindergärten". There is no good reason for making an exception for Latin.

And although it's irrelevant to the plural, those who argue for the original Latin usually get it wrong anyway. Latin has lot of "cases" and "declensions" and other terms that hardly anyone can remember and which even my spell check doesn't recognise, meaning the word has different endings depending on the circumstances. But the advocates for "Latin plurals" put forward a single plural in all circumstances. That's bad Latin even before it gets to English.

Turning back to "referendum", this doesn't even have a plural in Latin. The word means "referring". Using ~a would mean a multi-issue referendum, but almost nobody uses the word in such a narrow context.)


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