Checks and Balances.

All political systems need checks and balances built into them to ensure that power is not abused, and direct democracy is no different from any other system in that it to needs to be set up carefully. Some of these checks have already been mentioned, the first being the requirement to have a minimum number of signatures before a proposal can go to referendum. This ensures that only proposals that have some reasonable chance of being passed go forward. If the barrier is to low then all kinds of ridiculous proposals could be put forward by very small groups which have no chance of being passed, and continually having to turn out to vote on unreasonable or flawed proposals would soon bring the system into disrepute. On the other hand if the barrier is set to high then the people of this country would be denied the opportunity to decide how they are governed. We are suggesting a figure of around 50,000 signatures. We see this as a starting point for discussion rather than a final figure, but we know that whatever number we finally decide is the best option, if it turns out to be wrong the mistake can be corrected by taking counter proposals to the Constitutional Commission.

A potential problem with the signature collection process can be seen in abuses of the system in some of the American states initiative and referendum processes. In some states only a very short period is allowed in which to collect signatures. This means that rich organisations wishing to promote a piece of legislation can use their financial power to pay people to collect signatures and buy lots of television and radio advertising. The remedy to the first problem is to ensure that campaigners have enough time to collect signatures. In Switzerland the citizens promoting a campaign have up to a year and a half in which to collect signatures thus reducing the advantage that a rich organisation might have. The second problem, the buying of television advertising could be easily solved in Britain by not allowing referendum campaigns to use this medium, in the same way as we do not allow political parties to buy television or radio advertising now.

It is sometimes suggested that the internet could be used to collect the required number of 'signatures' to enable a referendum to go forward. There are several problems with this, one being security but perhaps the biggest problem would be the speed at which signatures could be collected. One of the biggest strengths of a well run referendum campaign is that the process is educative. Those promoting the initiative have to prepare their case carefully because their ideas will be thoroughly tested by the public and the media during the time it takes to collect the signatures. They then have to inform and educate us about their proposals if we are to support them. The result is a better informed public, and a more involved public. Collecting support over the internet could drastically shorten the process but at the cost of leaving us less well informed about the decisions we would have to make. There is also the danger of bringing in ill considered legislation as a knee jerk response to a particular event. We would suggest that when we need to react quickly to an event these decisions can be handled by our elected representatives. We would suggest that the referendum process should be designed to be a longer, more deliberative process where the issues can be considered over a reasonable period of time.

A concern sometimes expressed by those arguing against direct democracy is the 'majority tyranny' argument. This is where a majority of citizens abuse their power to force unjust measures on smaller sections of the community, or withhold rights from a group. One example of this was in Switzerland where women did not get the vote until 1971 even though the Swiss parliament had been pushing for this change since 1953, (incidentally French women did not get the vote until 1948). The remedy for this is to ensure that all proposed legislation must conform to equal rights requirements before it can go to referendum, and this is what happens now in Switzerland. This correction meant that whilst the UK parliament recognised civil partnerships for homosexuals in December 2005, the Swiss got there first with a referendum in June 2005.