UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Direct democracy meets whips' clunking fist

Again, I'm coming to events pretty late after a long time out of blogging whilst I completed my notice from the civil service. I hope to begin blogging under my real name (and perhaps to a real audience, not just to myself) in the next few weeks in a re-launched format.

I'm just reflecting again how the Government might have handled the EU referendum issue better at the Commons vote a few weeks ago. There's no doubt that the timing was pretty odd, held as the eurozone was crumbling. But, I also feel strongly that the Lib Dems in particular were in entirely the wrong place on the issue and were sending out some pretty confusing signals.

First, this was a non-binding vote. So if MPs had voted to have a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, there wouldn't necessarily have been a referendum. It would have signalled what MPs thought, so it was heavy handed and unnecessary for the Coalition to force MPs to vote against it.

Second, this vote happened because more than 100,000 members of the public signed a petition for Parliament to debate the issue. The first time this has happened under a wheeze ostensibly designed to bring citizen and state together, and petitions - we're told -  are "a good thing". They will "make a difference".  They will chip away at the "old, discredited politics".  The petitions system is a form of direct democracy, beyond the 5 year lock-in a party's manifesto, where the public can (supposedly) shape and refine the Government's programme.

Let's be frank, the Lib Dems were nowhere in this argument. Yes, because the media turned the clock back to 1992 and enjoyed a Tory "rebellion" over Europe. But for a party which tore itself up over the Lisbon Treaty vote, where - back in 2007 - Nick Clegg ordered his MPs to abstain because they wanted not a referendum on Lisbon but on "in or out"... to be voting against an "in or out" referendum this time seemed bizarre to anyone who bothers to track how a party feels about an issue like Europe.

On Europe, the Lib Dems are looking illiberal and undemocratic, afraid of putting the positive case for Europe that they surely believe in to the public. You can't argue the toss over AV or PR on the grounds of fairness, if you want to deny a vote on Europe because you don't trust the public to make the right decision. Or is it that they, we, don't have the confidence to put the arguments across.

The excuse this time for ducking a referendum was that the Lib Dem manifesto promised a referendum only in the event of future treaty changes. I guess that's what the small print says, and it's what will happen if there are future treaty changes (both parties support it).   . 

But on a non-binding motion responding to a free public petition, it's a shame that the Government responded by whipping MPs to the party line.   And we don't just elect Members of Parliament to solidly defend their parties' manifesto.  Yes, the winning candidate for the winning party is elected to gather sufficient MPs in Parliament to win a mandate to deliver the most popular manifesto.  But we also elect our MPs on the basis of other things they say, who they are, what they stand for and because we put trust in their judgement to act on our behalf.  And now, so we thought, through petitioning we have a direct way of influencing their judgement beyond the electoral cycle.

What the Government (one we are told is "liberal" Conservative and "Liberal" Democrat) was effectively saying was, "thanks for your views submitted to our new grand, democratic scheme; but, actually, we don't care what you think... it's what our 2010 manifestos said ,that you may or may not have voted on, that counts". And, they said, it's more important for our MPs to be loyal to the whips, not think for themselves.

After this, why bother petitioning?  Reasonable or unreasonable (there's plenty of Clarkson for PM petitions out there) - if we continue this way, the most likely outcome is to be ignored.

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