Why referendums are bad for you

David Cameron's EU referendum promise might be politically popular, but he is exposing British democracy to a mechanism much more dangerous than initially meets the eye.

If Cameron is prime minister after 2015, he has made clear, his second term in Downing Street will feature a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU. Referendums are a good thing – or that's the knee-jerk reaction anyway. They're certainly wildly popular with voters, who like any opportunity to get their view across and feel like they have a say. The political classes instinctively welcome the idea. But those who have looked more closely at what referendums involve take another view.
"I tend to be very wary of referendums," says Lord Norton of Louth, who in addition to being an influential peer on constitutional issues is also professor of government at the University of Hull. He cites research showing that plebiscites around the world show they tend to be mainly used by autocratic regimes to get the answer they want. The underlying question is whether they're actually that democratic, after all. Not much has changed since Clement Attlee, the postwar Labour prime minister, famously dismissed them as being "devices for despots and dictators".

Cameron's EU referendum is certainly politically motivated, just as Harold Wilson's was in 1975. This partisan undercurrent takes on a more sinister note when you look at the ways the rules of the game can be subverted. In 1975, Lord Norton says, one side outspent the other by ten to one. In the 2011 electoral reform referendum, the eventual two-to-one ratio against the proposed change directly matched the two-to-one spending mismatch. At least debates in parliament provide both sides with an even platform on which to make their case: that "level playing field", as Lord Norton puts it, which simply doesn't exist in the rough-and-tumble of a hard-fought campaign.

A referendum's proclaimed ability to put an issue to bed for a generation should be treated with scepticism, too. Its legitimacy can be undermined by low turnout. A lack of voters blocked Scottish devolution proposals in the late 1970s from being introduced, but since then the lack of voters has created a big question-mark. The result itself is subject to interpretation, as negative voting can be seen as either an indication of satisfaction with the status quo or as a rejection of the politicians putting the idea forward. Often they fall foul of anti-politics sentiment, which helps explain why all the referendums Italy has held over the last 20 years have rejected. The point is further underlined by Nick Clegg's prominence as a hate figure in the alternative vote campaign.

Then there's another awkward question: where does it end? "There's no bottom line on how significant any issue has to be to go to a referendum," Chris Hanretty, lecturer in politics at the University of East Anglia, tells me. In Sweden they even had a referendum on which side of the road to drive on. "I'm sure it felt important to people at the time, but that is staggering."

Some issues are just too complicated for the public to cope with. As the wrangling over the wording and other nitty-gritty details of the Scottish independence referendum have shown, these details really matter. The 'devo max' option which the SNP had hopefully suggested just isn't acceptable when you're putting what should be a simple question to voters. The EU referendum Cameron is after is itself potentially compromised by the conditionality of the options: one is based on the PM's renegotiation.

Lord Norton asks: "Where do you draw the dividing line?" Hanretty adds: "The question then becomes, why the EU and not House of Lords reform? There's also a question about whether this is ever really going to settle anything? It's not like you're having a referendum on a new constitution, and if people vote yay or nay, everyone's fine and goes on living their lives."

All in all, then, there are a lot of problems with holding referendums. They are nowhere near the panacea which some campaigners claim.

Yet those campaigners nevertheless have a point when they argue, despite all these little problems, referendums can work wonders in clawing back the democratic deficit.

I interviewed Tory eurosceptic Douglas Carswell about Cameron's speech earlier this week He is a passionate advocate of more direct democracy, but when I suggested to him the prime minister had caved to pressure from his parliamentary party he approached the issue from another point.

"For goodness sake, why do we have elections and parliamentary democracy in the first place, if not so people can vote for people like me to put pressure on ministers?" he said.

"That's called democratic politics."

Ah, yes, I reply. But how does that tally with his desire to get voters more involved with the political process, through participatory democracy?

"I'm a strong supporter of more direct democracy," he says. "Yes, we need parliamentary democracy, you're always going to need some representative democracy. But I think it's possible to actually give the people a much greater direct say over their lives."

Times have changed since the Palace of Westminster was built, he argues. Back then communications were so restricted it was necessary to send someone off to parliament to represent them. "You had to elect a man to come to a Palace by the Thames to make decisions on your behalf. We just don't need to do that any more," he argues.

"Increasingly we can allow the people to make choices for themselves.

"I don't believe we should have referendums for every issue under the sun, but on the big issues – electoral reform, Lords reform, the European Union, I think it's right we do."

As with the rise of e-petitions, it's true the establishment-dominated British political model is being challenged by referendums. Lord Norton now thinks it's time for some more concrete rules to be laid down to try and reduce the impact of the problems already emerging. "There are objections in principle but we're now at a point where they are being used, they're now part of our constitutional machinery," he says. Time to get used to them, in short. Referendums are here to stay.