In the days following the 2016 referendum result, I posted the meme below on Twitter. It reflected the shocked reaction of the political establishment that we had not done as we were told, despite them having spent twice as much as the 'Leave' side on campaigning. It was meant as a joke - but too many on the establishment side have taken it as received wisdom. Leavers are too ill-educated, too ill-informed, too plain stupid to be entrusted with a vote on a matter as complex as EU membership - we've heard that so many times in so many variations not to understand that they actually believe it.
Our system of representative democracy allows us to elect MPs and Councillors as representatives, not as delegates. Our representatives are independent. Parliament is supreme. Our strength comes from having universal suffrage, the secret ballot and the right to associate and campaign for political change. There's a saying that hard cases make bad law; using the Brexit mess to force changes to an essentially sound democratic system would be a mistake. Nonetheless, there are moves on both sides to do so.
We have already looked at options to strengthen Parliament in holding the government to account, and as uncomfortable as it seems, the protracted Brexit approval process is actually an effective Parliament in action. Let's then look at the main contenders to augment or replace our current system of representative democracy
This is the favourite of the Remain side, who think that voters in their natural state are not fit to make important decisions. The schemes on offer vary, but all involve some sort of 'sortition' - the use of a voters' panel, a bit like Blair's focus groups, to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us. But only of course after being lectured by experts on the right choice to make. The experts would be neutral in the same way that the BBC is neutral.
To me, this all sounds too much like the pointless design Charettes I have encountered. The architect generally conducts them to convince planners / clients that his or her ideas have community support. They involve the architect talking to a room of people for a very long time with tons of slides and display boards and then asking them at the end which shade of Farringdon Grey, of the three offered, they would like as a finish to the front door?
This is essentially about referendums. Referenda are valuable democratic tools that can engage the attention of the public in deciding important matters that have a binary choice. The Swiss in particular use them at all three administrative levels, national, cantonal and municipal. Swiss electors can challenge new Acts of Parliament in two ways, either by gathering 50,000 signatures out of 5.4m registered voters (0.93% - equal to about 420,000 signatures in the UK) or by 8 Cantons protesting. However, referenda in Switzerland - which I think work well - are clearly intended to augment and scrutinise the normal system of representative democracy, not to replace it. The political power able to be exercised by the people is enhanced, not transformed.
I really cannot imagine that a constant process of referenda on every matter that must be decided by local authorities is in any way feasible. School admission arrangements, planning consent for a chip shop, capital expenditure approval for a new public lavatory. A dozen referenda a week. You simply can't replace Councillors and a system of representative democracy by anything that doesn't degrade and lessen our democratic power.
This is Richard North's idea for an annual, national referendum on the government budget. He's right in seeing that a government can't function without money - taxes - and wants to move the approval of that money from Parliament to the people.
Simply, my problem with this is that the budget cannot be a simple binary choice. Only binary choices are referendable (if there's such a word). Public expenditure is too complex and priorities too personal to make this a helpful or constructive option.
Power of Recall
Brexit has brought to the fore the problems of a Parliament based on representative democracy now we have moved to fixed-term Parliaments. Many constituencies are now faced with representatives in Parliament who vote precisely the opposite way to the majority of their electors, and there's nothing that voters can do about it for five years.
When I think of the options, I think about capital punishment, to which I am personally deeply opposed, but which I know would probably be approved by a national majority. MPs, as representatives, have consistently acted in opposition to the national mood in banning it. However, the bar would need to be high to enable a constituency's voters to unseat their MP on such a difference of opinion.
On balance, I favour a Power of Recall, on the simple basis that 'The voters of xxxxxxx have lost confidence in the ability of xxxxxxxxxxxx to represent the constituency in Parliament' BUT with a high enough bar to exclude vexatious motions.
Those of you reading this will by definition be part of a group able to use the internet to access democratic options and make choices. As a way of augmenting our fundamental democratic rights, the internet is invaluable. However, to extend it to replacing those rights is simply not possible. On just the matter of the secret ballot, how do you ensure secrecy in a household with just one computer? Or how, as a member of such a household, can someone explain that they want to walk down to the local primary school to cast a secret vote rather than click an on-screen box with the rest of the family? Think Tower Hamlets.
Finally, the Power Inquiry pleads for the nations' Electoral Quotients to be brought into line with the minimum standard for developed nations of + / - 5%. This was a problem in 2004, and it's still a problem. The nation has been here before; there was a time at which Oxford University elected two MPs but not a single one was returned by the whole of a newly-industrialised and vastly grown Manchester. The problem is the Labour Party - the Oxford University of the 21st Century - which will simply not relinquish its corrupt and anti-democratic seats. In its refusal to do so it insults British voters and degrades our democratic institutions.
Recommendation 21: Text voting or email voting should only be considered following other reform of our democratic arrangements.
Recommendation 22: The realignment of constituency boundaries should be accelerated.