Is British democracy in danger? | University of Oxford

Is British democracy in danger?

In tonight’s Reuters Institute/BBC David Butler lecture, President of YouGov Peter Kellner will warn that Britain’s democratic system is 'in danger'.

His comments will follow a poll released today by YouGov, showing that nearly two-thirds (62%) of Britons believe that 'politicians tell lies all the time and you can’t believe a word they say'. The poll also shows that most people have a poor view of parliament and politicians, with only a quarter (24%) saying they believed that Parliament had done a good job in recent years debating issues of concern in a 'sensible and considered way'.

The annual David Butler lecture, in honour of Sir David Butler of Nuffield College, Oxford, was inaugurated in 2011 in recognition of the huge contribution made him to the academic study and TV analysis of elections over more than half a century. The lecture is sponsored by the BBC and organised by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, at Oxford.

Mr Kellner will say that MPs have collectively 'lost their nerve' in their own judgement and abdicated their responsibility by calling for more and more decisions to be taken by crude yes-or-no referendums. He also proposes that voters alone, and not politicians, should have the power to call referendums – but that the bar should be set higher so referendums are held very rarely. He says: 'We are drifting towards a political system in which a combination of modern technology, mendacious journalism and angry voters will undermine representative democracy.'

The title of Mr Kellner’s lecture, 'The Second Superpower', is drawn from an article that appeared in the New York Times just before the Iraq war, which identified 'two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion'.

As a pollster, Mr Kellner says he fears that the 'second superpower' is in danger of having too much of the wrong kind of influence, with MPs and journalists treating simplistic interpretations of public opinion with too much respect.

In the lecture, Mr Kellner argues: 'Representative democracy was never as strong as we thought. It survived as long as it did, not because it was ideal but because it enjoyed a technical monopoly. And as with many monopolies, it failed to notice when technology changed and allowed competitors to enter the fray.'

During the era of the technical monopoly, he notes, there was no practical way in which voters could access the same information as MPs at the same time, or make clear their views on a day-to-day basis. Recent advances in communications and survey research mean that voters can be as well informed as MPs, and the opinion of the majority of voters can be made known almost in real time. Now, he notes, in politics, as with many other businesses, 'technology has the power to transform the terms of trade.'

Mr Kellner proposes there is an urgent need for politicians to engage with public opinion more fully, to stop publicly abusing one another, and to speak more candidly and acknowledge the limits to their power. Without such changes, he argues, referendums will become increasingly popular. He warns that this would be a mistake, describing them as 'too crude', and 'likely to muddle lines of accountability', adding that they are too difficult to reverse when voters dislike the consequences of referendum decisions.

Politicians should be banned from calling referendums, Mr Kellner suggests, arguing: 'Referendums are not exercises in democratic purity, but deeply flawed devices that we turn to when politics fails and politicians lose their nerve.' Instead, he suggests a ‘people’s veto’ for those occasions when normal politics really does fail. If ten per cent of electors sign a petition opposing a particular Act or local council measure, then this would trigger a referendum; but to overturn a decision of the politicians, more than half the total electorate, whether national or local, would have to vote down the measure, he suggests.

The YouGov sample was 5,160; and the fieldwork was carried out between January 12 and January 21 2012.