Defending Representative Democracy

Paul Evans asks a good question: how do we effectively make the case for Parliamentary democracy, as a better, and more legitimate way of doing things than government by referendum?

The most important point is what the argument should not be. The case for parliamentary democracy must not be framed in terms of elected representatives knowing more than ordinary voters, or being better able to deliberate on technical issues. This kind of patrician argument  plays into the charge that those defending the parliamentary system are in fact defending elitism. You could not give Dominic Cummings a better gift than to frame the argument in these terms. 

Instead, it should be about the value of Parliament as a deliberative body, which allows for a greater degree of representation than government by plebiscite or by an executive claiming to represent popular will. The list below might provide a starting point for thinking about how the case could be argued:

1. Referendums allow governments to abuse power by claiming popular mandates they don't have. Government by referendum, at least as it is likely to be instantiated, cannot provide a basis for working out the details of policy. This implies that power resides in whoever gets to define what the question put to a referendum means. If this is left vague at the time of a the vote, this is then done retroactively. Referendums are therefore open to abuse by governments seeking to define them however they like.

2. Referendums do not provide accountability, parliamentary democracy does. Even simple policies require a lot of effort to implement well, and a lot of value judgements and decisions about how they are implemented. A government seeking to be re-elected has to be held accountable for these decisions, but a referendum allows a government to disown any negative consequences of their decisions or executive ineptitude. They were, they might say, simply following instructions from 'the people'.

3. Referendums as conducted in the UK are too inflexible to be representative of changes in public opinion. By providing an absolute mandate for a policy, they do not easily allow for changes in circumstance or public mood. This is not to say there are no conceivable mechanisms for making them more fleixble, but no significant political forces in the UK are arguing for means to do so. In a system of representative democracy, governments are only bound to continue down a particular path in so far as they think that it is electorally advantageous to do so.

4. Referendums do not allow provide a mechanism for deciding on the relative importance of an issue, or how it meshes with other policy choices. Many policy choices strongly interact with one another. It might make little sense, for example, to ask whether taxes should be lowered without asking how much money should be spent on public services, or how much should be spent on one area without considering the implication for others*. Referendums do not ask people how important a policy is relative to other issues, or in what circumstances a policy should be implemented. It means there is option for supporting a policy in a limited range of circumstances, or in the context of other choices- it is all or nothing. When voting for a political party in a general election, on the other hand, you are voting for a broader set of policy choices and a manifesto as a whole.

5. Referendums do not in and of themselves produce political coalitions that are capable of delivering a policy. For policies to be effectively implemented and to last, they require broad coalitions of voters, politicians and interest groups who on some level think they are a good idea. A government that has to implement a referendum result it does not favour has to try approximate what it thinks supporters of a policy want. It is unlikely to do so effectively, or have any decent mechanism for balancing these desires with its own priorities. This is no good for those who want a policy to be implemented, as they lack an effective mechanism for doing so.

6. Parliaments can allow greater discussion and consensus building. It is not built in to parliamentary systems that this has to happen (the UK is quite bad at consensus politics), but they at least offer this potential. Referendums do not. At the very least, parliaments provide a legitimate space for opposition, and scrutiny of governments. 

* This is true regardless of the debate on deficit spending. Assuming there is some upper limit to deficit spending, or some point above which there are substantial costs (e.g inflation), at some point down the line there are trade offs. 

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