Confrontation or consensus?

Some commentators suggest that a referendum is a blunt yes or no instrument. They do nothing to encourage people to seek compromise. Whether or not this is the case depends on the system in which the referendum is set.

In Switzerland before a referendum petition is launched there is a great deal of debate amongst proponents as to what position to promote. For example a comprehensive ban on genetically modified organisms failed to win at referendum but a more modest proposal for a prohibition of GMO's in Swiss agriculture won. Initiative proposers will debate on whether to go all out for radical change and risk losing or adopt the middle ground and win. Once the wording of the proposal has been decided and the signature collected there is more debate within parliament. This debate is conducted in the knowledge that a referendum may follow. In practice, their Parliament often come up with a compromise counterproposal acceptable to the referendums proposers.

Under a representative democracy, Parliament has the responsibility to weigh up different interests and enter into debate bearing in mind the interests of different constituencies. The decision reached is meant to have weighed up the concerns of all those affected and steer a sensible course, trying to give everyone a little bit of what they want where possible.

In the UK where we have a two/three party system, many issues are addressed in idealogical terms. Issues themselves move into second place as the resolution of that issue becomes either a stunning victory for the policies of one party or a resounding defeat for the policies of the other. The relative position of a party vis a vis the other party tends to be the news. Why should referendums be any different the argument goes? The issue gets lost as the media and politicians turn the debate into a battle between parties.

The evidence from other countries shows us the problems and the solutions. There is some evidence that voters in referendums have voted in a certain way to give a party "a bloody nose", in the same way that British voters often use by elections to 'punish' a ruling party they are dissatisfied with, but it only happens when referendums are the exception rather than the rule. Voters often express a dislike of the pettiness and "yah boo" of British politics. In situations where referendums are held regularly, voters disassociate themselves from battle lines drawn by parties and the media and vote on issues.