A general election is more democratic than a referendum

Jon Danzig |

LibDem leader, Jo Swinson, has promised that if her party wins the general election, they will revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit.

Some people are crying that would be undemocratic, as it would mean undoing the referendum result of 2016.

Some are even claiming that it would represent an insult to the 17.4 million who voted Leave in that referendum over three years ago.

But these arguments are flawed.

  • For one thing, in a democracy, any democratic decision can be undone by a new democratic decision.

Winning a general election with a promise to cancel Brexit would be a new democratic decision, endorsed by voters.

If the LibDems won power with a majority of MPs, they would have a cast iron democratic mandate to do as they promised: to stop Brexit.

  • For another thing, a general election has far more democratic legitimacy and legality than a referendum.

In this country, it’s our Parliament that is sovereign and Parliament gains that power through the voting public.

General elections represent legally binding votes that give authority to a party or parties to form a government.

Referendums are flimsy affairs compared to general elections.

The referendum in 2016 was an advisory poll, and Parliament had the legal and democratic power to reject the ‘advice’ of the electorate if it so chose.

Even if we had another referendum, it would be another advisory vote. Only Parliament can make the final decision (a key point confirmed by the ruling of the Supreme Court).

Since it is Parliament in our country that is sovereign, it is clearly the case that a vote to give power to one party or another in a general election is far superior to an ‘advisory’ referendum result.

  • There’s another thing: Referendums are a lousy way to make democratic decisions, especially compared to the way our representative Parliament works.

When making a decision, our Parliament has many debates, multiple votes, often over several months, based on full information, with opportunities to consider updated information throughout the process, and with the democratic power to amend or abandon the decision at any stage.

By contrast in the referendum we, ‘the people’, only had one vote, on one day, on a simplistic binary choice of only two words, without sufficient information (on the contrary, a lot of misinformation), without any opportunities to consider updated information, and with no democratic opportunity to amend or abandon the decision.

That can hardly be described as a democratic process, let alone a good way to make big decisions.

  • And there’s one final thing: the way we do referendums in the UK can be incompatible with Parliamentary democracy.

The Brexit referendum pitched ‘direct democracy’ against ‘Parliamentary democracy’, with disastrous consequences.

Either Parliament has sovereignty, or referendums do. So, which one wins? It’s a battle still ongoing.

The referendum of 2016 returned a result that most Parliamentarians did not approve.

In our Parliamentary democracy, MPs are the representatives of their constituents, and not their delegates.

MPs have a duty to act in the best interests of the country, according to their own consciences and beliefs, and not as their constituents ‘instruct’ them.

That is always how our system of modern democracy has worked.

But suddenly, the referendum turned MPs into delegates of ‘the people’, apparently having to obey their ‘instruction’ – the complete opposite to how Parliament is supposed to function.

The conflict has the potential to destroy the very core of our democracy.

It’s why, for good reason, a number of sage British politicians have been completely against referendums.

Labour Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, categorically stated that referendums “are just not British.” He said:

“I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism.”

Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was also adamantly opposed to referendums. She said that they were the “device of dictators and demagogues”.

And it’s true: Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon III all used referendums to legitimise decisions they had made.

They could go to the populace and ask them any question, and then interpret the simplistic one-word answer almost any way they wanted.

(Which is pretty much what both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have been doing with Brexit.)

It’s the reason that, since the Second World War, national referendums have been banned in Germany. They are considered too dangerous and too undemocratic

Following the referendum result, MPs and members of the House of Lords felt stymied.

The vast majority of their heads and hearts told them that Britain’s best interests are served by remaining in the EU, and that Brexit is likely to cause the country severe economic hardship and isolation.

But instead of the referendum giving our Parliament more sovereignty – one of the many disingenuous promises of the Leave campaign – the referendum result severely weakened and demeaned Parliamentary sovereignty and the function of MPs.

A new referendum may be one way to resolve the Brexit conundrum, but it could easily end up splitting the country again and causing serious conflicts of interests for our current Parliamentarians.

Only a general election will give us the greater chance that the composition of our Parliament will truly reflect and represent the current will of the people.

(Although if we had a modern system of proportional representation, instead of our antiquated first-past-the-post system of voting, we could have a Parliament that is more representative of the people.)

A new general election means that you can vote for a candidate that represents your will, whether it’s for a version of Brexit or for Remain, to represent you in Parliament on decisions about Brexit.

A referendum cannot achieve that.

The country now needs clarity and a decisive and prompt end to the Brexit uncertainty. A general election before we leave the EU may offer that:

  • Vote for the Conservatives or the Brexit Party and if they win, the country will get Brexit with no referendum; almost certainly a no-deal Brexit, with many years of uncertainty ahead.
  • Vote for Labour and if they win, there may be months or years tied up with negotiating yet another deal with the EU, followed by a referendum that may create yet more division and uncertainty, and with Labour (on its current policy) not backing Remain or Leave.
  • Vote for the LibDems – hopefully with the support of all the anti-Brexit parties: SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green Party and Change UK – and if they win, Brexit will be cancelled on day one of their government, and we can get back to where we were before 23 June 2016. Still with many problems to fix across the country, but with the recognition that our EU membership didn’t cause any of them.

Watch this 40-second video about the LibDems general election promise:

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