How democratic are the Liberal Democrats?

Not for the first time, I am perplexed by comments that have been made about ‘democracy’.  The Liberal Democrats have decided to put themselves forward for election on the basis that they will oppose Brexit, and that if they are elected into office they will seek to revoke Britain’s notice of leaving the EU.  Cue sound and fury.  Stephen Kinnock calls it ‘undemocratic’. David Starkey, never knowingly under-hyperbolized,  calls liberalism an “extremist, anti popular, undemocratic creed”, and throws in snobbery, contempt and intolerance for good measure.  Polly Toynbee, normally sensible, also describes the policy as ‘extremist’ and says this is ‘to hell with the will of the people’.   And a letter in the ‘i’ complains: “anyone who voted surely knows the principle of democracy is that whoever gains the majority in a vote is the winner! If we allow this to happen, where will it end?”

I wonder what we have wrought by not having civics lessons in schools.  First, as a matter of  general principle:

  • Democracies are systems of government that are open to argument.  The suppression of disagreement or opposition by a majority is no more consistent with democracy than the suppression of disagreement or opposition by a minority.
  • Neither majority voting nor the process of election is sufficient to produce a democratic outcome.  Many dictators in the world have been elected.  Many seek support through referenda – Mussolini, Franco, Marcos are illustrative.
  • “Winner takes all” is not a democratic principle.  That’s how you get Mugabe or Maduro.
  • The “will of the people” is not fixed.  People can change their minds.

Then, in relation specifically to the UK:

  • The UK has a system of representative democracy.  People vote for representatives, not for parties or leaders.  (Parties and leader can change.  If you voted in 2015 for a government led by David Cameron, or in 2017 for a government led by Theresa May, you were mistaken about what you were voting for.  If you voted in 2017 for Sam Gyimah, Sarah Wollaston, or anyone who joined the Independent Group, you are now represented by someone in a different party.  )
  • Referenda are not binding – the 2016 referendum was advisory.
  • Parliamentary elections, by contrast, are binding within the UK system.  Some of the advocates of Brexit believe that the referendum trumps parliamentary democracy; but the legitimacy of the parliament subsequently elected in 2017 is at least as great, if not greater, than the 2016 vote, and in due course the legitimacy of any parliament elected in 2019 or 2020 will supersede both.
  • Some  politicians work to the (debatable) principle that representatives receive a ‘mandate’ from the electorate to carry out their stated policies. The Liberal Democrat motion put the case that “the election of a Liberal Democrat majority government [would] be recognised as an unequivocal mandate to revoke Article 50 and for the UK to stay in the EU.”
  • Another view of democracy, put by Schumpeter, is that it is an institutional process where opposing parties compete for votes.  Failing all else, the Liberal Democrats are attempting to gain the votes of at least the 6 million people who signed a petition asking for revocation.

There is nothing remotely ‘undemocratic’ about standing for election on a commitment to change current government policy.  As to whether the position is popular, we’ll find out very soon.

4 thoughts on “How democratic are the Liberal Democrats?”

  1. Did the act of parliament not make the referendum law ? The European referendum act 2015 given royal assent surely made it law , I doubt something that was made lawful can then simply become advisory just because someone says so ? If it was advisory then no need to have the ballot paper written in Welsh for Welsh voters as is the case for parliamentary elections, it also had the power to modify section 125 of the 2000 act which includes the right to modify material , which is the same as any parliamentary election.

    If it then has become law then the result is therefore binding! Just as parliamentary elections are binding.

    The will of the people is fixed or we would have had a second referendum to join the then common market, it is surely fixed for a term of at least same that separated the two referendum’s, it certainly should be fixed to the term that we should at least leave first before any second plebiscite?

    Of those 6 million signatures how many were based in the UK ? I agree it is not undemocratic to go against government policy , but let’s not split hairs it is the British people they are going against and in a Welsh by election they teamed up to win it with other remain parties , yet did more people not vote Tory and Brexit party , if the Tories and Brexit party stand down for each other in Northern England at any election, then the Tories with Brexit party and DUP will be the majority after any UK election.

    1. No, the 2015 Act didn’t make the result of the referendum binding, and a legal action in the High Court
      confirmed that: “That Act falls to be interpreted in light of the basic constitutional principles of Parliamentary sovereignty and representative parliamentary democracy which apply in the United Kingdom, which lead to the conclusion that a referendum on any topic can only be advisory for the lawmakers in Parliament unless very clear language to the contrary is used in the referendum legislation in question. No such language is used in the 2015 Referendum Act.”

      The “will of the people” – which is a populist concept, not a democratic one – is not fixed for any set term; we have had an election since, and we are about to have another.

      As to whether the petition is really indication of potential electoral support – we’ll have to see. It’s what the LDs are banking on. The last polls before their conference put them at about 16% support; if they’re right, they’ll gain remainer votes from both Labour and Conservatives. The Conservative strategy is just as polarising: they are aiming to win their support from diehard leavers who might otherwise vote for the Brexit Party.

      1. Have to disagree , any election will only confirm what the people voted for in 2016, and will ultimately embarrass the Lib Dems, SNP and other anti democrats now including labour. We will not fall for MPs not standing by manifesto pledges again, deselection is good for local democracy.

        Playing with peoples votes as if they are meaningless as the anti democrats have done is not the way to go , now i am not necessarily a die hard who wanted to leave and I was nonplussed if remain won, but since 2016 I have become hard leave thanks to lib Dems, SNP and now Labour who I have always voted for.

        Not a fan of Corbyn or his shadow Chancellor anyway and it stuck in my craw somewhat voting for them last time, so maybe this election will do us all a favour and bring Brexit and rid us of the incompetence of Corbyn , McDonnell and Abbot and finally show those that the democratic will of the people is a thing and we want it implemented.

  2. Further thought , I do not find it very democratic that courts can now override a Prime Minister and a sitting cabinet.

    Why not just close Westminster and allow the judges to run the country, at least it would get rid of the idiots ignoring votes !

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