There are two kinds of referenda – those that are for the benefit of the political class and those that are for the benefit of the public. They are quite different. When referenda are mooted, it is invariably the former kind. Political leaders only consent to holding a referendum when they are almost certain to win it, and even then only to try to resolve a political problem largely confined to themselves. Europe is the classic example of this. Wilson held a referendum on the EU in 1975 in order to settle the argument then raging in the Labour Party about leaving the Common Market (as it then was) and he won it, but 8 years later Labour then went to the country in the 1983 election pledged to exit once again. Plus ca change. Now the Tory party is going through one of its hissy fits over the EU and Cameron is forced to offer a referendum as the only way to calm down the hysterics. It is doubtful if it will ever be held, but even if it is and is lost (as is most likely), one can sure that the Tory Right after the minimum decent interval will be back again with the same demand. Politically driven referenda solve nothing, but electorate-driven referenda could have real value.
The reason why referenda are not offered more widely is that it takes power out of the hands of the political class. As Mandelson so unwittingly let the cat out of the bag a week ago, “the problem with referenda is that they’re so difficult to control”. Quite so, that’s exactly why they’re so important, especially to an electorate that has lost all confidence in its political elite. It’s also why all the New Labour hogwash about empowerment isn’t worth a bucket of war spit. At present all that politicians are prepared to offer, even if you can collect 100,000 signatures, is a debate on the floor of the House of Commons – and by the way there either then won’t be a vote or even if there is and the government loses, the vote will only be advisory.
There could be several issues on which the electorate expressed its view, not just once every 5 years in a composite and highly unfocused vote. At the present time that might include gay marriage, bankers’ bonuses, women bishops, social housing, a wealth tax, among many other options. But there are two immediate caveats. One must be a low limit on total expenditure permitted so that money could not swamp the result. The other is a radically reformed press which gives much more balanced airing to the full range of views within the country – not a media dominated by the State, nor dominated by private tycoons either, but rather a system of ownership based on independent trusts which is a reflector of opinion and debate, not a propagandistic organ for rich press moguls as so much is at present.