A no vote for referendums

Change the House of Lords? Switch to a new election system? Stay in the European Union? Have an elected mayor? Any other issue on the horizon? Let's have a referendum - the cure for all democratic ills: take it out of politics!

Alas, the referendum has all the appearance of democracy but very little of its reality. And, in fact, when push comes to shove, the public agrees. Of course, if a pollster approaches you in the street and asks if you want a direct vote on your income tax or on dealing with crime, or on the monarchy, or on pretty well anything, the likelihood is that you will say "yes." After all, it sounds, well, democratic, but when it comes to an actual referendum the electorate is far from enthusiastic. At every referendum held in Britain the turnout has actually been lower than at the corresponding parliamentary election. In other words, even with politics in a miserable state, the electorate prefers to vote for politicians than in a referendum.

There are huge political and logistical problems with referendums which ought to rule them out completely. First, the phrasing of the question greatly influences the outcome. Take the current referendum in which to vote against an elected mayor requires the elector to vote for the current situation rather than a simple "X" against the proposed innovation.

Second, the vote at a referendum is much a more a vote on the popularity of the current government than on the question posed. Almost the entire campaign against the Alternative Vote last May was based on whether or not Nick Clegg was doing a good job in government. Similarly a government times a referendum for the most propitious moment to achieve the desired result.

Third, they are used to paper over party splits. The 1975 referendum on remaining within the European Common Market was enacted by Harold Wilson because he was unable to maintain a united party on the issue.

Essentially - and the most crucial reason against referendums - they undermine the fundamental basis of parliamentary democracy: that we elect Members of Parliament for a limited period of time to take decisions on our behalf. We ask MPs to put their experience, skills and specialisms to work to examine the complex issues facing us and to be accountable to us for the consequences of their decisions. Furthermore, in theory, we vote for our MPs from parties which represent a broad view of the kind of society they favour so that we are able to elect MPs who are in sympathy with our own views. Our MPs 'deputise' for us for the set period of their mandate - which is why the equivalents in France and Russia are actually called 'Deputies.'

If we go down the referendum path we will diminish still further the quality of representation in parliament and we will make it impossible for MPs to take necessary but unpopular decisions in years one and two of a government with the judgement that they will be shown to be justified by years four and five - in time for the next general election.

Historically the referendum has been the tool of the demagogue. Both Napoleons, Hitler and de Gaulle all used the referendum and the plebiscite to gain support over the heads of elected parliamentarians. We need better politics and better parliamentarians and we will not get them if we support an unwanted and ineffective sleight of hand.