Better the devil you know?

J Clive Matthews
31 October 2007

Here we come to the fundamental problem with the EU's drive for democracy - getting true representativeness is seemingly impossible in a body as vast and diverse as the European Union. Even ensuring fair representation for the member states is well nigh impossible - let alone ensuring that smaller than national-level groups are also represented. There will always be complaints: where are the German Turks? Where are the French Basques? Where are the Russian Estonians? Where are the Afro-Carribbean British?

As noted by Paul Davies in the conclusion to his series on the European Parliament: "System-wise, there is no answer. However the MEPs are elected... the Union will still face a similar problem to the American Senate, where all 50 states have two senators despite the ratio of the largest state to the smallest state in terms of population being a whopping 70:1."

Because, let's face it, the only way to find out what the people want is to ask them. All of them. And the only way to avoid confusion is to ask them on every issue, on every policy. Direct democracy - the plebiscite/referendum - is the only solution to ensure that everyone feels that they have had their say on the issues that are dear to them.

But, of course, referenda also have their problems. The question can be disputed, as with the 1975 referendum on the UK remaining part of the EEC. The significance of the result can be disputed, as with those of the French and Dutch referenda on the EU constitution in 2005.

Plus, of course, referenda can't be used all the time. During Tony Blair's time as Prime Minister we famously saw seven new laws every day. Holding seven referenda a day would not only be hugely impractical, but insanely expensive.

But with seven new laws a day, 2,555 per year, for every law to be contained in a manifesto for a five year term (manifestos being the documents parties most often use to justify their policy agendas), such a document would need to contain policy positions of upwards of 12,700 laws and run to hundreds of thousands of pages. That's almost as impractical as holding seven referenda per day - but how else can the people give their consent to what their governments are doing without anyone complaining that they haven't been consulted?

The answer, of course, is simple. Representative democracy is all about delegation to get around the sheer impracticalities of governing according to the will of the people. But the people have to assent to the type of delegation, the type of representation being used. You have to get the people on board - and to do that, they have to be able to understand the system.

Any innovative method for public consultation, therefore - be they deliberative polls or citizens' juries - needs to spend at least as much time explaining the system as clearly as possible as it does on getting results. Yet Gordon Brown's citizens juries remain a methodological mystery, just as - arguably - does the Tomorrow's Europe poll.

Clarity is key - but are deliberative polls simply too complex to sell to the people? How to explain the selection process when statistical representativeness is so hard to achieve, depending on what criteria one looks for? How to convince people that the materials provided are impartial? That the moderators are fair? That the organisers haven't helped push participants towards the answers they want?

Professor Fishkin took issue with me picking the issue of attitudes towards the EU amongst the Tomorrow's Europe participants as a point of reference - but this is the first that eurosceptics will check. And with any new democratic system, unless you can win over the sceptics you are destined to fail - why else have we been waiting the best part of a century for the reform of the House of Lords? Why else is there still such resistance to proportional representation, even though the current British first past the post system is so patently inadequate?

With political systems, it seems, it remains a case of better the devil you know - because for new methods to be introduced usually takes nothing short of a revolution.

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