Let the politicians decide to let the people decide

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Last week, the House of Lords put a spanner in the works of Government education policy. By a vote of 111 to 94, it required a school proposing to extend selection to consult the parents and governing bodies of every school affected by the decision; and also to consult such "other persons as appear to the admissions authorities to be concerned".

In education, as in health and other areas of social policy, consultation is the order of the day. The public, it is now held, are entitled to decide on the crucial issues which affect their lives. Yet, in our political arrangements, the role of the people remains negative, to consent or to withhold its consent from the government of the day.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously said that the British were under the illusion that they were free. In reality, they were free only once every five years when they cast their vote at a general election. Democracy in Britain is still predicated upon the passivity of the vast majority of its citizens. The British constitution, indeed, is nothing more than a system for selecting, maintaining and on occasion dismissing a governing elite, the leaders of the ruling party. Political decisions remain in the hands of a small number of political professionals, and at arm's length from the people.

Recent years have seen the growth in British politics of that most dangerous of all political cleavages, that between the political class and the people. On Europe, in the 1992 general election, all three political parties supported the Maastricht treaty and Britain's membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. How, then, was an elector opposed to Maastricht and the ERM to use his or her vote? On education and health, also, the differences between the parties have become muffled as Labour has transformed itself into New Labour. Alternative points of view are now found as much within the parties as between them. No wonder that politics has become a matter of public relations and soundbites, the province of the electioneer rather than the statesman.

The parties have tacitly recognised the limitations of conventional politics by their increasing resort to the referendum, an instrument which, until the 1970s, was widely regarded as unconstitutional and as heralding the downfall of serious political debate. Now, however, on issues which divide the parties, such as Europe, Northern Ireland, devolution and electoral reform, the crucial decisions are to be made by the people and not by Parliament.

Yet the referendum remains a device in the hands of the political professionals. It is they who decide whether and when it should be used. Thus, the referendum, while a weapon of great value, will not do much to redistribute power from the political class to the people. What it might do, however, is to point the way to the introduction of other instruments of direct democracy, such as citizens' juries and local referendums which really would do something to redistribute power.

Local bodies already have the power to call referendums. Local authorities in England are empowered to hold them under section 142 of the 1972 Local Government Act, while a parish council is required to call one if six electors sign a letter to the parish clerk asking for the necessary initial special meeting, or if 10 electors request it at the annual parish meeting.

In 1992, Harlow District Council held a referendum on whether the West Essex local hospital should become a self-governing trust. A leaflet was sent to 30,000 households and the outcome of a postal ballot was a 7 to 1 majority against trust status. Although the "turnout" was only 15 per cent, this was, nevertheless, a valuable exercise in popular consultation. It is perhaps surprising that local authorities have not been pressed to hold referendums on educational policy. For such referendums would be, in effect, schools of local democracy, and could lead to the public becoming better informed on matters of educational policy.

An extension of this principle would be for legislation to be introduced providing for local initiatives. The initiative allows a percentage of registered electors to secure a referendum on any policy matter except for issues specifically excluded. It has recently been introduced in New Zealand, a country whose political system is very like our own, in the 1993 Citizens Initiated Referenda Act. This requires a non-binding referendum to be held on any matter when requested in a petition signed by at least 10 per cent of registered electors. So far only one referendum has been held under the provisions of this Act - in December 1995, on staffing levels in the fire service.

Citizens' juries would be another means of engaging the active participation of local voters. This device, perhaps misnamed, since the function of the "juries" is purely advisory, has been widely used in the United States. Citizens' juries consist of around 20 randomly selected voters who examine issues of major public interest or controversy. Their conclusions, although generally attracting wide attention, are in no way binding. They have been found, however, to have considerably increased the understanding of those who participate. In October last year, Tony Blair indicated that Labour would seek to introduce citizens' juries, and these could well be employed in the evaluation of educational policy.

There are signs, as we reach the end of the 20th century, that electors are no longer satisfied with a form of democracy in which the main decisions which affect their lives are taken by a very small number of people, the political professionals. Thus the referendum and other instruments of direct democracy, far from being regarded as unconstitutional, will come to seem staple fixtures of our political system. Indeed, developments in communications technology will make possible many more innovations in direct democracy, and this will allow for a redistribution of power away from the political class and towards the people.

So it is that the debate on the future of our democracy needs to go well beyond the constitutional reform agenda as conventionally conceived if it is to achieve its fundamental aim, that of empowering the people.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His book, Power and the People: a guide to constitutional reform, will shortly be published by Gollancz.

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