Research Project

What’s the Verdict on Local Referendums?
8 September, 2009

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Conservative Party plans to introduce local referendums could lead to councils being burdened with unmanageable financial commitments according to a new report from the New Local Government Network.

Whilst NLGN supports in principle the idea of giving citizens more of a voice in local decision making, it warns that the existing plans could undermine the role of locally elected government and may lead to the rights of minority groups being diminished.

Instead of the referendum concept, as advocated by the Conservatives in their recent Control Shift document, NLGN supports the idea of a Community Proposal, which would allow residents to demand that an issue be debated at a full council meeting if they gathered enough signatures supporting the idea. The issue would also have to be voted on. NLGN argues that this model would allow citizens greater engagement in local decision making without jeopardising the democratic mandate of elected councillors.

The report recognises that councils could do more to engage their citizens in local decision making and accepts that the Conservative’s referendum model could lead to higher voter turnout and engagement. Under their plans, people would be allowed to hold a referendum on any local issue if 5% of the local population sign a petition in favour of it within a six month period. The idea is modelled on the American system of Citizens’ Initiatives, which allows local residents to ‘trigger’ referendums, often based on controversial issues such as gay marriage, stem cell research and taxation.

However, NLGN identifies a number of pitfalls with the idea including:

  • The potential suppression of minority rights
  • Informational problems and concerns around the quality of decisions that are made
  • An inherent tendency for referendums to produce a reactionary rather than progressive results
  • The possibility that councils are burdened with unmanageable financial
    commitments
  • A danger that this version of citizen engagement would be quickly tarnished by deferred referendums – ‘deferendums’ – that postpone decisions by months or even years
  • The potential for wealthy interest groups to unfairly influence policy by using the weight of their financial resources to collect the signatures needed to get issues to the referendum stage
NLGN’s Community Proposal model would obligate elected representatives to genuinely engage with the proposal being put to them and make voting mandatory rather than optional. This would give the Community Proposal sufficient status in the public’s perception necessary to generate engagement and deliberation and restore the link between citizens and elected representatives.

Author of the report, Tom Symons, argues:

“The appetite for democratic renewal has been growing for decades with calls for greater transparency, accountability and redistribution of power towards the public. However, direct referendums do not resolve many of the problems inherent with a “direct democracy”.

Instead, a Community Proposal, based on the principles of deliberative democracy, would represent a means of increasing public participation and engagement and give citizens the power to set the agenda at a full council meeting.

Publication Date: 8 September 2009
Authored by: Tom Symons