Referendums and the people’s power to mismanage
by Jen Lexmond
Abuses of centralized power – most recently illustrated through the MP expenses scandal – should remind us that power should, as far as possible, reside with the people. It should originate there and should only be transferred upwards – to regions, to national governments, or international institutions – with strong justification. Political parties across the spectrum are embracing this principle, but the interesting discussion is about the conditions for the ‘strong justification’ to transfer it. Sometimes the state is the right place for power to be vested.
Giving the right of referendum is a powerful way to increase public involvement in politics. It’s a direct say in whether a law passes or not – the most straightforward form of democracy. In the Tories’ recent green paper on local government, Cameron calls for giving local people the power of referendum on local issues – particularly tax rises: “If there's a local consensus that a tax increase is unnecessary, people will be able to club together and vote it down”.
If Governor Arnie’s current plight is anything to go by, this is a disaster waiting to happen. California – the only state which grants its citizens carte blanche to govern through referendums or ‘ballot initiatives’ – is essentially bankrupt after citizens consistently voted down tax rises while voting for a host of expensive public services, with out any genuine understanding – or arguably interest – in the complicated financial maneuvers involved in balancing the books. And why should they? That’s what public servants are employed for. The result is that thousands of people will be laid off – firefighters, teachers, police, doctors – and funding will be slashed across welfare services, of course hitting the worst off the hardest.
Sometimes governing really should be left to those we elected to do it.