General election 2015: the UK craves direct democracy

As the general election approaches and the spotlight falls on British politics, Mike Pettifer makes the case for energising our democracy with more referenda

In the 2010 general election, over 16 million people – 35% of the voting population – chose not to vote. Apathy among the electorate has long been a problem in the UK and, despite the wall-to-wall election coverage in the mainstream media, there’s no indication that political engagement will significantly improve this time around.

 

So it’s time we took a hard look at our brand of representative democracy; the current system of asking the public to engage once every five years just isn’t enough to sustain any meaningful interest in politics.

 

Establishing a truer form of democracy

 

The electorate wants a bigger say in the running of the country and this could realistically be achieved through more referenda. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum – which had an 84.5% voter turnout – shows they work when people care deeply about an issue.

 

Yes, there may well be a 2017 in/out referendum on the EU (depending on who gets into power), but more steps need to be taken if direct democracy – surely a truer form of democracy – is to be established. There has to be a transfer of power from the ‘establishment’ to the electorate.

 

There are examples of regular referenda working in other countries. In 2014, Switzerland had 12 referenda on topics ranging from the minimum wage to primary healthcare – the

latter inspiring an 88% voter turnout.

 

Trusting the public to vote

 

Of course, there are those who argue plebiscites have a dark history and that the public can’t be trusted to educate themselves on political topics and turn out to vote. But the interest surrounding the Scottish referendum shows that people do become engaged, acquiring knowledge from a number of sources, when there is a decision to be made.

 

With the prominence of the internet and social media, there’s now a wealth of information and discussion going on all the time. If a subject truly matters to someone, then they can find out about it.

 

Another solution to the problem of knowledge on esoteric political subjects could be to have an independent organisation – similar to a court clerk who explains the finer points of law to the jury in a criminal case – who can inform the public as to the facts surrounding a particular issue.

 

There are many ways to inform the public on the salient facts, but in the end all that really matters is trust. The electorate must trust whichever party (or parties) get into power to make certain decisions on behalf of them and the party must also trust the people to make the right decisions on big issues.

 

The risk of inaction

It is the suppression of our collective voice that has caused the level of disengagement from politics we see today. Too much power has been taken from us and placed in the hands of the men and women of Westminster, most of whom are largely disconnected from the everyday issues facing people today.

 

Over the next five years, politicians must realise that if they don’t concede at least some of their decision-making powers, they risk isolating a whole generation from political discourse.

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