Are referendums useful?

Credit: Rain Rabbit via Flickr


By Lorenzo Migliorato

The idea behind a referendum is, like most things in politics, a noble one. When it comes to wide-impacting issues, it is not enough to rely on the result from the elections two or three years ago. Rather, an opinion is needed from the whole nation before taking a decision.

Again like most things in politics, however, a referendum is also, for the “winning” party, a jackpot that is extremely easy to manipulate. How many Britons, for example, knew that the voting results from back in May were not legally binding for the government, but a mere consultation? (A point that the media hardly pressed on the Leave campaign)

In my opinion, it is not that democracy is too good for the masses. On the contrary, referendums – binding or not – are a precious tool to hold governments to account. The problem with such consultations, rather, lies in their framing. It is extremely easy to give them a much larger meaning than originally intended. Sometimes, this works to the politicians’ advantage, like UKIP making voters believe that Brexit was about refugees (at best, it was about having to get a visa to spend your retirement in Spain). In other cases, it’s something to handle carefully: Italy’s President Matteo Renzi is having a hard time convincing voters that the constitutional referendum next December should not be a judgment on his government.

The issue that popular opinion is an oft-unwise force is something we’ve seen over and over again. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be given a voice. It just needs to be educated at the same time. As obvious it may sound, it falls to the media to do this. Holding campaigners to account, explaining the issue at hand and giving equal space to different perspectives on the matter are the only ways to properly frame referendums, and get voters to actually know what they’re doing when they grab their pencils.

Brexit wasn’t a failure of popular opinion. It was, rather, a failure of the infrastructure of democracy: the media, the watchdog organizations, the side of politics with a moderate agenda (Tory or Labour it may be). Their inability to hold the ground with Leave supporters was what transformed the popular vote into Frankenstein’s monster – an agglomerate of undistinguished voices ready to serve the winner’s agenda. But democracies keep learning. Here’s to the next referendum.


by Tamsin Dykstra

Referendums seem, on the surface, the most democratic way to settle a debate – why not just ask everyone and see who wins? But in reality, the careful, considered decision isn’t always victorious. Referendums are mob rule, and being a majority doesn’t automatically make you right. People will, as they always have done, vote for their own self-interest, be easily swayed by sensationalist arguments, and end up picking their gut instinct, or what ‘feels right’ to them on the day.

It’s not surprising then that a historic peace deal in Colombia has just been torpedoed by a referendum that rejected it with the barest sliver of a majority. This deal took 4 years to reach, and had the potential to put an end to 56 years of warfare that has killed 220,000 people. But good old fear mongering and ‘outrage’ from the No side won out, and the future of Colombia is now less than certain.

Rather than decisively settle an issue, these votes divide a country, inflame tensions and pit people against each other, far more than any election vote. And the consequences to a referendum vote are permanent. There’s no changing your mind after 5 years if you don’t like the outcome, or find out that you were lied to by the side you ended up supporting. Referendums reduce incredibly complex problems to yes/no answers. Expecting the populace to be able to pick the right one without suddenly becoming experts in the complex economic and sociological repercussions of each side is simply ludicrous, and opens the door to populism, like the wave of anti-immigration sentiment currently sweeping Europe.

Essentially, referendums allow politicians to shirk the actual responsibility of making decisions for the country – the job they’ve been elected to do as the people’s representatives – and blame us if it all goes wrong. David Cameron’s sudden commitment to an EU vote was clearly motivated by wanting to shut up UKIP and his own unruly backbenchers. He never expected to actually lose. Why would he? He’d already done it twice before: with voting reform and Scottish independence, and won both times. He took a gamble that it would consolidate his power, underestimated how many people wanted to stick two fingers up at the political establishment, and lost. Now we’re all stuck with an unelected leader pushing a new platform that nobody has actually voted for. Doesn’t sound so democratic to me.

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