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Why the Referendum is a “Good Thing”

Continuing the OK Referendum Plus debate, the case for the AV referendum as a step towards replacing the 'sovereignty of parliament'

Whilst I agree with Stuart Weir that the referendum is ‘an ugly and undemocratic manoeuvre’, for all the reasons he has set out in his post of  11 August, it is nonetheless a “good thing”.

I say this for two reasons. Firstly, it represents an undeniable and irretractable acknowledgement (intentional or accidental) by the political establishment that ‘we’, a sovereign people, have the right to decide how ‘we’ are to be represented. In this respect it is a faint echo of the idea which flourished for a very short time during our civil war (before being extinguished by the ‘executive’) namely that ‘we’ are all born free and equal.

Secondly, because the Alternative Vote system (AV) on offer (for which I will vote), although an imperfect system, could have the desirable consequence of putting our main political parties on a slippery slope from which, hopefully, they will not escape and with the result that what I see as the real problem could eventually  be dealt with.

The real problem is not so much how those who are empowered to represent us are selected: it is more what, once selected, they do or can do.

There are two aspects to this: First, are representatives ‘entitled’ to give free rein to their own opinions or are they to be mandated to make potent the collective opinion of those they represent? Second, is it they who should appoint, and hold to account, an executive (the Government) to manage the nation’s affairs?

The answer to both questions, so far, is part of our very strange national history. It is the political parties, which determine what, in reality, the opinions of our representatives on national – as distinct from local – matters should be. It is to their political party that our representatives owe allegiance, not us. And, as a consequence, it is those political parties that  both who shall be in government and how far they are accountable to the peoples’ representatives.

The way in which the political establishment has achieved this power base is well known. It started in the eighteenth century when the power wrested from the Crown by the parliamentarians was stolen by the emerging political parties. Legislation that would have prohibited ministers from being MPs was frustrated, the practice of whipping began to emerge and so on. The possibility of the three powers – legislature, judiciary and executive – being separated and working within a constitutional framework determined in a popular and democratic way never got off the ground. It was the rebelling American colonists who created the system we could have had - some 150 years after our homegrown champions of freedom and equality had been incarcerated in the Tower for advocating it.

The grip the political parties is demonstrated by observing what someone who would like to serve their country by becoming a minister has to do. They must be ‘acceptable’ to a political party with the capacity to win an election. They must then be adopted as a candidate for a constituency – preferably a ‘safe’ constituency. They must serve an apprenticeship in Parliament, obey the whips and demonstrate a capacity to support the government. How likely is such an aspirant to ‘rock the boat’ by asking awkward questions let alone sticking to what he or she thinks best? The system stinks. But, naturally, the political parties can't want to wave it goodbye.

Although it will not happen quickly, the adoption of AV could result eventually in changes that will erode this situation. It could accelerate the rate at which we move to a multi-party system covering a wide range of political opinion and reduce the number of ‘safe’ seats. That in turn could lead to coalition becoming the norm. That could lead to an acceptance that ministerial careers can be different and separate from parliamentary careers. And that could lead to acceptance of the separation of powers and the need for a written constitutional framework blessed by us all. A lot of ‘coulds’ in all that? Yes, but it is worth going for.

Read more about the AV referendum in OurKingdom's Referendum Plus section.

About the author

John Jackson is a lawyer who has never practised the law professionally.  He is Chairman Emeritus of Mishcon de Reya and was a founding member of the Board of openDemocracy. He recently launched JJ Books.


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