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.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.