Maybe, in This Case, the US Has a Point; We Many Not like Tony Blair's Seeming Infatuation with the US, but When It Comes to People Power the British Could Learn Some Vital Lessons from Our Cousins across the Atlantic. Here Chris Game, from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham, Asks If Its Time for Some Direct Democracy

The Birmingham Post (England), November 22, 2006 | Go to article overview

Maybe, in This Case, the US Has a Point; We Many Not like Tony Blair's Seeming Infatuation with the US, but When It Comes to People Power the British Could Learn Some Vital Lessons from Our Cousins across the Atlantic. Here Chris Game, from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham, Asks If Its Time for Some Direct Democracy


Byline: Chris Game

The Democrats' dramatic successes in the US Congressional elections inevitably swamped reporting of all the other votes that Americans cast. Which was a shame, for America is a direct democracy, as well as a representative one, and European countries are seriously considering whether they might have something to learn.

There are three main instruments of direct democracy - the referendum, initiative, and recall - and Americans, among others, employ them all.

By contrast, our approach to direct democracy - or, rather, that of our elected representatives - is one of deep suspicion, the most we can expect being occasional participation in a usually consultative referendum, the weakest of the three instruments.

Referendum is a general term for a direct vote in which electors accept or reject a policy proposal. Commonest are legislative referendums, where a legislature refers a measure to the voters for their approval.

Then there are 'popular' referendums, on measures that reach the ballot paper through a voter petition drive, voters gathering signatures demanding a popular vote on a law passed by the legislature. These are rare, but a hugely important one took place this month in South Dakota. In a vote with nationwide judicial implications, the electors overturned a law criminalizing all abortions except where the mother's life was in danger.

Older readers may remember 'plebiscites' and wonder what happened to them. The easy answer is that in everyday parlance they've effectively become referendums - plebiscites having fallen into post-war disrepute following the way they were deployed in the 1930s by Hitler.

Technically, though, plebiscites are also binding, typically involving a change in territorial sovereignty. The referendum in May, when Montenegrins voted to end their three-year union with Serbia, would formerly have been termed a plebiscite, both 'sides' accepting the outcome of Montenegro becoming a fully independent state.

Initiatives, the second main form of direct democracy, are like popular referendums, but on topics selected entirely by citizens. The process involves gathering a specified number of signatures in a set time period, and, if enough validated signatures are obtained, the question goes on the ballot paper - its passage then requiring a set percentage of votes.

There were 74 initiatives in the US this year, or over a third of the 204 statewide policy decisions taken directly by voters. Thirty six per cent were approved, many of them unambiguously 'progressive', reinforcing all the other defeats inflicted on the Republicans and their conservative causes.

For those who have assumed people will never vote against tax cuts, this year's results will have seemed extraordinary. All six measures proposing either tax cuts or spending limits were defeated, most by comfortable margins.

Conversely, minimum wage increases were approved in all six states where they appeared on the ballot paper - although even the new rates, ranging from the federal minimum wage of $5.15 (pounds 2.73) an hour (unchanged since 1997) to $6.85 (pounds 3.63), make our own distinctly modest pounds 5.35 an hour seem almost princely.

Progressive social measures had a more mixed reception than economic ones. …

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Maybe, in This Case, the US Has a Point; We Many Not like Tony Blair's Seeming Infatuation with the US, but When It Comes to People Power the British Could Learn Some Vital Lessons from Our Cousins across the Atlantic. Here Chris Game, from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham, Asks If Its Time for Some Direct Democracy
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