The government's opportunistic support for referenda will damage democracy

The tool of dictators and demagogues makes its return.

This government has implemented or announced referenda for three things: a national referendum on whether or not the electoral system used in general elections should be switched to AV; a local referendum whenever a council decides to increase council tax by more than 2 per cent in one year; and a national referendum, to be held in the second half of the next parliament if the Tories get a majority and David Cameron manages to renegotiate Britain's treaties, on whether or not the UK should stay in the EU.

That is not the pattern of a government which has a coherent belief in when norms of democracy require referenda; it is, rather, the pattern of a government which believes in the art of using referenda to manipulate the agenda under the guise of democracy.

The AV referendum is the sort which, under the shaky constitutional settlement which emerged from the Blair years, is now a requirement. Major constitutional changes require the consent of those hit by them. Major, in this case, has previously meant a change to electoral politics, or substantial delegation of sovereignty (the exception being Northern Ireland, where the Good Friday referendum was integral to building a coalition of support for the Good Friday agreement). There was ridiculous, infantile campaigning, but the need for a referendum was clear.

The referendum on membership of the EU is less clear. The referendum is apparently justified based on the fact that there has been a significant amount of change in the EU since the last referendum in 1975. But Britain, with its unwritten constitution, is almost characterised by gradual but persistent change. In the last hundred years, the roles of the monarchy and the House of Lords have changed dramatically, without referenda. The UK has also joined, and strengthened its ties to, the UN, NATO, the IMF and the WTO, without referenda.

This is likely part of the reason the referendum is predicated on the idea that Cameron wins "concessions" from the EU. That way, what is being voted on isn't continued membership in an institution which has gradually changed, but rather a straight proposal to directly change a number of things in our relationship with that institution.

But the referendum proposal which really demonstrates the government's desire to use the system as a political bludgeon is Eric Pickle's suggestion that councils which raise council tax by more than two per cent should have to hold local referenda.

There is no constitutional or theoretical justification for this whatsoever. Pickles says:

I don’t have a problem with councils that want to put up council tax if they have a good reason – to fund local opportunities. But I do have an issue if they don’t ask permission first. They have to man up. Be straight with people. Take them into their confidence. If the public believes you’ve got a sensible case they might well listen. But councils should also stop treating residents with contempt.

But if that is to be a guiding principle for future referenda, then why did the government not "man up" when they raised VAT? And ought they to have been "straight with people" when they ended EMA? They certainly didn't "take them into their confidence" over their decision to proceed with a top-down re-organisation of the NHS.

If this government did decide to move to a Swiss-style system of direct democracy, that would be a major constitutional change. Ironically, it would probably be so large as to require a referendum to give it the mandate to do so.

But it transparently has no desire to do so. Instead, the referendum lock on council tax is just a method to impose a cap in a way that replaces toxic language of "central government control" with happy words like "democracy" and "consultation".

We already have democracy, of sorts, in the UK. It is representative, and it relies on parties and candidates running for election with clear sets of promises and priorities, and then sticking to them once elected. If Mr Pickles does want to attack "democracy dodgers", he could do worse than to look at his own coalition partners, authors of the most famous fictional manifesto in British political history. But offering votes on things you'll win, then ignoring public opinion on things you won't, isn't democracy in any sense I recognise. It's more recognisable as the tool of dictators and demagogues Atlee warned of.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue