Democracy Matters: Why we need ‘A Better Referendum’

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Posted on the 23rd May 2016

This is a guest blog by Professor Matthew Flinders. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Electoral Reform Society. 

Life, it would often appear, seems dominated by a series of ‘gaps’. The ‘gaps’ between the young and the old, between rich and the poor, between North and the South, between educated and uneducated and – most importantly – between the governors and the governed that are said to exist leave me worried about the state of society and the public realm in the twenty-first century. This sense of anxiety has now been heightened by the forthcoming referendum and the chance that the longstanding ‘gap’ between the UK and the European Union (the former always ‘an awkward partner’ in a team project) may suddenly become something of a chasm if the British public vote for Brexit on the 23 June.

And yet my argument is very different to those promoted by the ‘leave’ or ‘stay’ campaigns in the sense that my focus is on informed public engagement leading up to the referendum and not so much on the subsequent decision itself. This is a critical point.

So far the referendum debate has been dismal [1]. Dismal in the sense that is has rarely moved beyond over-simplistic economic debates that claim to know the price of everything but the value of nothing; dismal in the sense that both sides of the argument have focused on promoting a politics of pessimism rather than a positive vision for the future; and dismal in the sense that the debate has attempted to divide communities rather than bringing them together around a shared challenge.

The paradox, however, is that the millions of little crosses that will be etched into one of just two simple boxes on the 23rd June will inevitably have a transformative impact – possibly good, possibly bad – on every person, every family and on future generations. The pencil on the end of that shabby looking piece of string wields real power in the voter’s hand. Moreover, as the Scottish referendum on independence demonstrated, the public will undoubtedly turn out to vote in large numbers when they feel they are being offered a real and very clear choice—and there is no doubt that in relation to the EU they are being offered a very real and clear choice.

But making this choice in an increasingly uncertain world surely demands a slightly more creative and supported approach to public engagement and the provision of information than has so far been apparent. Recent research suggests that there is a real public appetite and need for more information about the EU referendum and its possible implications.

Put slightly differently, there’s a need for more public deliberation, more public discussion, more public disagreement and new ways of ‘doing politics’ that are not top-down elite-dictated but that actually allow local communities and groups to access the information and skills through which to run their own events. As the recent citizens’ assemblies on English regional devolution demonstrated, the public are less ‘anti-political’ and more ‘pro-politics’ but ‘pro-doing-politics-differently’ which is exactly why the online tool to build a ‘Better Referendum’ debate – featuring contributions from the official campaigns and leading EU experts – is being launched this week.

This initiative dovetails with a broader public shift towards forms of ‘pop up’, ‘DIY’ or ‘flat pack’ democracy whereby members of the public self-organise in order to take control or empower themselves through information gathering. The great value of a citizens’ assembly, even on a fairly small scale, is that, through the simple act of bringing people together in a flexible manner, learning will inevitably take place, viewpoints will alter, and friends will be made.

The idea has been to create an online citizens’ assembly that builds bridges in the sense of allowing the latest academic research to underpin public discussions, and that uses technology in order to bolster both digital democracy and old-fashioned face-to-face democracy. The message is therefore clear: assemble, learn, listen and most of all …vote.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom.

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