Conservatism.

It is well documented that referendum voters generally tend towards being conservative (with a small c). A well known campaigning tool for opponents of measures is to use the argument, if you don't know, vote no. Many voters will do this anyway. If it is a big issue and they are uncertain as to the consequences of a new proposal, they vote to stay safe and maintain the status quo. Highlighting the uncertainty factor was successful in Australia over the referendum to become a Republic or retain the Queen as Head of State.

In Switzerland, from all of the 254 citizen's initiatives that were handed in between 1848 and February 2006, 77 were withdrawn by the initiators themselves, 161 were voted upon, but only 15 were supported at the ballot box.

In the US states, liberal laws passed by the legislature are often challenged by the right and subsequent referendums have resulted in the liberal law being scrapped.

Researchers on the Swiss system have concluded that direct democracy has favoured the mobilization of certain types of movements at the expense of others. Environmentalist movements have done especially well using the tools of direct democracy.

In a broad comparison of the UK and Switzerland over recent years, the UK tends to be more liberal concerning issues which could arguably be classed as social or moral judgements. In terms of the environment, Switzerland has more liberal legislation, with much of that legislation having been derived from the use of citizen's initiatives.

For example, Switzerland has had referendums on civil partnerships and stem cell research and although both these issues were approved of in referendums, the UK is more liberal in both of these matters. The Swiss "registered partnership" concentrated on practical affairs between gay couples such as visiting rights in hospital and inheritance. It stopped short of allowing gay couples to adopt or for gay women to have IVF. In the UK, Parliament opted for no discrimination, current legislation does not bar lesbians from IVF however one clause has led some fertility clinics to deny treatment on grounds of the clinic having to take account of the welfare of the unborn child, including "the need for a father". Moves are afoot to amend that clause to "the need for supportive parenting". This means that single women wanting IVF could also be in a better position.

In a referendum on stem cell research in Switzerland, one of the central arguments of the Swiss government for a yes vote was that it needed to discard a ban on stem cell research to keep up with rival scientific centres like the UK who is seen as a leader in the field. Switzerland has a number of very large pharmaceutical and biotech companies. In Switzerland, the four governing coalition parties and the powerful business community backed the law, which is similar to legislation in France and falls between relatively liberal laws in Britain and Belgium and more restrictive laws in Austria and Ireland.

The Swiss have also had referendums on GMO's. A wide ranging ban on genetic engineering failed at referendum largely due to people approving of medical research. A later referendum concentrated only on GMO's in agriculture and was successful in introducing a moratorium for five years on the cultivation of GMO crops and imports of genetically modified animals. The Swiss government, parliament, scientists and the business community were against the moratorium. A spokesperson for the proposers of the referendum said "I think this clear yes is proof of the political power of this alliance between farmers, consumers and environmental organisations." In the UK, although GMOs were much debated, only the debate in Parliament counted. The major parties posed no challenge to the biotech and supermarket industries.

We know this conservatism could be a problem but we also realise that the pragmatism that is part of this can be valuable. The problem is to enable our political system to evolve in ways that enable this pragmatism to be balanced with the pressure for change, sometimes quite radical change, that we need. This is one of the main reasons our system has a Constitutional Commission that needs fewer signatures than normal to enable proposals for reform to go forward to referendum.