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Direct Democracy Campaign
Once upon a time, long before the ancient Greeks created their Democracy, our distant ancestors roamed the grasslands of the world in hunter-gatherer bands of several dozen souls. Everyone in the community knew everyone else - indeed they were often closely related to each other - and anyone who wanted to could give voice on the communal decisions of the day ..............................and then we invented civilisation.
The case for Direct Democracy in the UK
In recent referendums around the world :-
Today we live in a very different world to that of our distant ancestors. Our lives are immeasurably more complex than theirs, our creature comforts way beyond their wildest imaginings. Our communities are nation states of millions, and our communal decisions are made by politicians personally unknown and unseen by most of us, their charges. The only contact we have is the ever present electronic talking head, and the vote gathering fixed-smile walkabout in the local shopping centre just prior to the next set of elections.
Our 20th Century democracy allowed us to choose our politicians, - local or national - and then required those chosen to take all the communal decisions for us until the next elections fall due some years hence. Proponents of Direct Democracy believe that in the Twenty First Century we can do things better than that. We believe that it is now both desirable and possible for citizens to take part in the decision making process themselves, rather than always relying upon the selected few to do it for them. What follows is a summary of our reasons for that belief, together with some suggestions as to how Direct Democracy could operate in the modern world.
The political system under which we currently live is known as a Representative Democracy. ‘Democracy’, because we have some say in how we are governed, and ‘Representative’ because we vote for those whom we think will best represent our interests.
In its modern Western form Representative Democracy has come about largely through a process of evolution over the course of the last couple of centuries, and it is now being copied to some extent in many other parts of the globe. It is better than what went before, and today's version is better than that of a hundred years ago when the male franchise was much more restricted, and in many countries no women were allowed the vote at all.
Prior to that, in the courts of kings, only the courtiers had a say. Then representative democracy came along allowing citizens from all corners of the nation to feel that someone was speaking up for them in halls of the mighty. Eventually even the humblest in the land were given the right to put theirs cross against the name of their chosen champion, allowing them to continue their daily toils secure in the knowledge that now their cause too could now be argued in the chambers of the nation's Parliament.
At least, that was the theory, and to give it its due, to some extent it worked. It worked before the age of mass
education. It worked when everyone knew
their place and understood that those who went to
Direct Democracy is democracy more fully developed, for
in addition to the choice of representatives, it also institutionalises the
voter's right to decide for themselves on many of the issues of the day,
usually by means of referendums. It not only requires governments to hold
referendums as a regular and normal part of the democratic process, but in
addition it allows for private citizens to demand a referendum on any matter of
their choice, provided that they can raise enough signatures in their support. Direct
Democracy can operate both at the level of the national government
and at local council level. In the
Ten ways in which Direct Democracy would be better:-
1. Direct Democracy would remove the artificial division between the government and the governed, because for a lot of the time the governed, via the referendum, would now be telling the government what to do.
2. Representative Democracy requires the voter to vote for some candidate or party with whom they are very unlikely to agree on everything - the 'take it or leave it' option. Direct Democracy allows voters to vote on the issues separately.
3. Direct Democracy leaves no confusion over decisions taken. They will always have been the will of the people, rather than that of a few politicians.
4. Direct Democracy encourages people to take more of an interest in the political process, and hence to be more responsible for their own future.
5. Direct Democracy curbs the power of elites.
6. Under Representative Democracy, representatives listen far more to party leaders, party whips and civil servants than to the voters who put them there in the first place. Under Direct Democracy this will cease.
7. In a representative democracy, representatives succumb to all sorts of blandishments, flatteries, and fact finding missions to hot countries paid for by rich and powerful pressure groups. Under Direct Democracy those self same pressure groups would not be able to afford to 'flatter' everyone.
8. Direct Democracy allows citizens to bring up difficult issues which the politicians would otherwise avoid.
9. Direct Democracy would rein in any government which began to develop dictatorial tendencies.
10. Direct Democracy is simply more democratic.
The Politicians Wouldn't like it
It goes without saying that the politicians would not like Direct Democracy. Nobody likes losing some of their powers. They will try to persuade us that the issues are far too complex for us ordinary folk to sort out; that they themselves are the professional decision makers - in other words that they know best. They will not however explain why, if this is the case, the main political parties always find themselves at loggerheads over the issues, always arguing over who knows best, and always accusing the other side of being unimaginably stupid. The truth is of course that many if not most government decisions are not over questions which have right or wrong answers, but rather are concerned with choosing between a number of different value options, and since one person's value judgements are just as good as the next, then there is no earthly reason why politicians should have any superior rights in taking these decisions over you or me. Why else are we to be allowed a referendum on the question of the pound versus the Euro? On this matter like so many others, your values and mine are just as good as the politician's
The politicians will also claim that people will loose interest if they have to vote too often. But a lack of involvement by some of the electorate, whilst we may not relish it, is for the individuals concerned to decide upon. Under Direct Democracy the poll will sometimes be high when we get worked up over the issues, and sometimes lower when we are disinterested, or just simply content to leave it to other voters to take the decisions for us. At present, participation in House of Commons votes can range from several hundred MPs to sometimes barely a dozen. To participate or not is our choice not theirs, and the politicians must learn to accept it.
Finally there is the argument that since dictators have made use of referendums in the past, then we should not - the 'tool of the tyrant' argument. But by this logic we should presumably also have to ban General Elections, since it was a General Election which brought Hitler to power.
The Swiss Example
During the latter part of the twentieth century there were many examples of Direct
Democracy world-wide. A few
were mentioned at the beginning. There
have been others in
Since the 1850s there have been nearly five hundred national referendums in
Some critics of Direct Democracy have argued that it
is dangerous to open up the calling of referendums to the population at large,
and it is interesting to note in this context what has happened in
Issues that are put to the referendum in
At the Cantonal level also many issues are decided directly by the
people. During the 1990s some hundreds
of issues have been decided in this way.
Sometimes a matter will have to go to a popular vote automatically, for
instance any proposed expenditure in the canton of
In some of the very small cantons decisions are sometimes taken at 'town meetings' which all of the voters are entitled to attend. This is often also the case at the lowest level of local government the 'Gemeinder' (commune), of which there are some three thousand in the country. Several thousand voters may turn out for these town square meetings, and the proceedings can be heated and lively. Voters vote by show of hands on issues of local accounts and taxation, recommended new by-laws, planning and development issues, and anything else which is making the headlines in the local area. Turnout is sometimes low at these meetings, but there are usually rules in place whereby a minority in the crowd can demand a paper ballot if it is felt that a decision made by show of hands would not achieve a democratic result.
Direct Democracy is sometimes said to run the risk of atomising a country, but the Swiss example shows that an overbearing central government is not a prerequisite for a people's sense of nationhood. Under Direct Democracy the country has held together during peace and war whilst the boundaries of countries around it have been shifted backwards and forwards by one army after another. Swiss Direct Democracy is an example which we could well seek to emulate.
The electronic dimension
Make voting easier, and more people will vote. Trekking to a polling station takes time which many voters feel they just cannot afford. Polling stations are antiquated, labour intensive, and expensive to run. They are a hangover from a bygone age, and their life expectancy is now severely limited. With or without Direct Democracy, political choice in the twenty first century requires something faster, cheaper, and altogether more efficient to operate. This is where secure electronic communication comes in, and there are a number of different options.
One suggestion is some form of interactive television, whereby the
viewer/voter, having considered the issues presented on the screen, presses a
button and sends a referendum vote back down the line to the studio from where
it is forwarded to the appropriate electoral body. TV voting like this has been used already in
a few television programmes
of the 'vote for your favourite pop group' variety, but as an aid to democracy
it currently suffers from a lack of overall control, and is open to all sorts
of electoral fraud. A possibly improved
variation on this theme is telephone democracy, whereby voters cast their votes
down the telephone line direct to the electoral authorities. Here too there are identity and security
implications, but one way around these may be some sort of system akin to a
telephone credit card purchase, and with similar built in safeguards. There have already been a number of telephone
voting experiments in the
A rather more dramatic version of this idea sees the government supplying every home with a computer, so that voting could be by a secure E-mail system. Aside from the prohibitive initial cost of such a project however, there remains the difficulty that with home computer software in its current state of user - unfriendliness, at least two thirds of the voters would be disenfranchised because they would not know how to make the thing work properly.
At present the best and most secure bet however, seems to lie with the use of voting machines installed in public places rather along the lines of 'hole in the wall' automatic bank teller machines. To install enough Automatic voting machines (AVMs) to serve the whole electorate would certainly require initial expenditure, but not prohibitively so, especially considering that numerous banks and building societies seem to have managed something similar without too many financial difficulties. What's more the cost would soon be recouped in the savings on polling stations and ballot counts at election time. The great advantage of AVMs, unlike polling stations however, is that they could be installed in all sorts of places frequented by the public, such as civic buildings, shopping precincts, petrol stations, post offices and the like. Security could be ensured through the use of plastic cards and pin numbers just as are currently required for bank cash withdrawals. Voting, either on referendum issues, or for candidates to office could be allowed over a full twenty four hour period, the results being collated and delivered virtually as soon as the polls close.
Various communities in the
Direct democracy in the
In the future, we voters should be able to take decisions not only on our
country's place in the European Union, but also on government expenditure on
the NHS, the county education policy, the new town bypass, and whether to
renovate the old village hall. Perhaps
we will find ourselves voting once a week on the issues, as suggested by Ross
Perot in the
'Let the people decide.............'
John Harvey: October 2002 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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