Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS, is going to make a speech today alluding to the idea that the government should live up to its promise, one made during the referendum, of an extra 350 million pounds a week that is supposed to be spent on the National Health Service in the event of Brexit. There is a problem, however: the government never made that promise to divert money to the NHS. Vote Leave, an entity which no longer exists, made it. And that’s the main problem with referenda: anyone can promise anything because there is no political cost to making promises that won’t come good.
In a representative democracy, parties make promises based on what they will do should they form a government. The public can then judge how successfully (or not, as the case may be) the party that does form a government lived up to said promises and then on that basis decide to either re-elect them to govern again, or relegate them to opposition. There is a mechanism in place for avoidance of overpromising, in other words: fear of succession via the electorate.
With referenda, such a threat does not exist. This is particularly the case when the issue the referendum is being held on cuts between party lines, like the EU referendum did. Yes, Vote Leave had Boris Johnson and other current members of this government involved at a high level; it also had Labour MPs like Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart involved at a similar level. Pretty much all of the messaging was created by people who work for no political party at present, including the 350 million a week “pledge”. Who is now to blame for that? Should the government be held to such a promise in light of the fact that they themselves never made it? If not, how do we stop people in future referenda making misleading and even completely spurious claims?
Some people will say that there are easy answers to all of those questions, but the truth is there really aren’t. How referenda intersect with representative democracy is really complicated and throws up complex dilemmas – I just wish we would have thought about all this a little more before diving headlong into an era filled with the things. For instance, the Electoral Commission rules around referenda are mostly just a cut and paste job from the rules surrounding political parties during a general election. But political parties are semi-permenent entities that will suffer inbuilt damage if they bullshit the public too often, as I’ve already said; fly by night operations like the companies setup to fight referenda are a very different kettle of fish. There needs to be a whole new structure built to deal with referenda if we’re going to keep having them all the time. Which it looks like we just might.