The Electoral Reform Society’s fringe event at the Local Government Association Conference 2011 instigated a lively discussion around localism, and how Citizen Initiated Referendums might affect local politics.
Direct democracy is not a new idea; the ancient Greeks pioneered the practice of giving citizens the power to make decisions on individual laws, and modern democracies such as Switzerland and the state of California both use referendums on a regular basis.
The new Localism Bill includes proposals that would require local authorities in the UK to run referendum on any local issue if at least 5% of electors sign a petition. Results will not be binding but will be taken into account. Interestingly the Bill also provides for referendums on council tax rises and these will binding.
So what might be the impact on local democracy?
Andy Sawford, Chief Executive of the Local Government Information Unit drew attention to the unique nature of local government. He asserted that local government should have enhanced profile and powers but he questioned how Citizen Initiated Referendums could contribute to the necessary shift in power from central to local government. He did believe that they would help alongside existing consultation to make sure difficult choices had the support of the community. However Andy warned that if local referendums were binding, this risked undermining the role of more in depth consultation.
Professor Colin Copus, Lecturer in Local Politics in the Department of Public Policy at DeMontfort University and Director of the Local Governance Research Unit, argued the reverse. He felt that Citizens Referendums needed to be binding in order for voters to feel genuinely empowered. Localism, he stressed was about different areas making their own solutions to problems. He used fox hunting and the smoking ban as examples of where local authorities could have made their own decisions based on the popular preference. Professor Copus concluded that there was not enough trust that voters could make informed decisions, and this attitude did nothing to hand power from local parties to people.
Councillor Richard Kemp, Leader of the Liberal Democrat LGA group was quick to dismiss this. He argued that councillors are able to take the time to assess properly what in many cases are extremely complex and technical issues, and sometimes simply a matter of what’s best for the community as a whole rather than minority groups. He insisted that it doesn’t help if local people campaign to prop up a failing medical unit when a better one can be built to service the wider area.
The discussion had started with a vote, and ended with another show of hands. Had any of our speakers swayed the audience? Many were yet to make up their mind but of those who remained undecided a few were less in favour of Citizen Initiated Referendums by the end of the event. Certainly there are steps being taken in California to move away from what is seen in some quarters as an overload of ballots – ask the electorate to decide too often it seems, and they begin to wonder what their elected representatives are there for. In Switzerland a series of referendums on mosques have highlighted and exacerbated racial and religious tensions.
Who would regulate the campaigns? – pointed out one attendee. A problem that would be especially apparent in cases where big business represented one side of the issue.
The debate is certainly far from over and the Electoral Reform Society is keen to explore this emerging area of democracy further. One thing seems clear, Citizen Initiated Referendums will take their place alongside existing forms of local engagement, but how and for what purposes they are used is anyone’s guess.