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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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.