Douglas Carswell

05 SEP 2016

Referenda need less official interference, not more

How do you give people more control over government? I've always believed the answer is direct democracy: more decisions made by voters, fewer by politicians and officials. But the Electoral Reform Society seems to think the opposite. They want to give officialdom more control over direct democracy. Why?

The ERS's latest recommendations come from its scathing report on the referendum campaign. I also thought some of the conduct in the campaign was disgraceful. But much of their critique is misplaced.

There is, for example, barely any criticism of the Remain propaganda issued by Downing Street at taxpayers' expense. And no mention of the use of the civil service as an extension of the Remain campaign. Apparently, co-opting the organs of the State to gain an unfair edge is no big deal.

The report also says people felt ill-informed, and the campaigns provided disinformation. Yet there is no admission that many of the outlandish claims came from supposedly independent "experts" – many of whose warnings, especially on the economy, have already been proven wrong.

On the other hand, the report does complain that none of the big-name political figures had an earth-shattering effect on public opinion. But what does that prove? Many voters had already made up their minds. Undecideds tend to swing elections, but they rarely make up a majority of the electorate.

Yet on the basis of this flawed critique, the ERS say we need to overhaul the way we do referenda in future – in part by giving more powers to the Electoral Commission.

They want the Commission to issue an "official rulebook" for both sides. And to publish a "minimum data set" giving "the basic data relevant to the vote". And even to "intervene when overtly misleading information is disseminated by the official campaigns".

These recommendations are misguided, in several respects.

First, the idea that there is some perfect, objective source of information to call on is bogus. "Experts" – as we found out – very often have their own political agendas. They're certainly not divine founts of wisdom.

Moreover, making the Electoral Commission into the Ministry of Truth is bound to end badly. It would become the prime target for campaign lobbyists trying to get an unfair advantage. The effect would be counterproductive to the aim.

But the big problem with the idea of official arbiters for campaign information is not the practical execution, but the premise behind it. In a democracy, we already have an arbiter: it's called the people. The whole point of democracy is that voters analyse what they are told by the opposing sides, and make their own decision.

Underlying the ERS's report is the sense that people can't really be trusted to know what they are voting on, so instead we should let unelected technocrats decide for them. That's not the kind of electoral reform Britain needs.

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