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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

0800 7318496