Are referendums the best way to shore up our feeble democracy? | Letters

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Boris Johnson MP with the EU leave campaign bus. ‘Referendums actually undermine democracy by reducing complex issues to a simplistic choice that is capable of being manipulated by one side or the other through emotive campaigning tangential to the main question posed,’ writes Michael Meadowcroft. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

I note that George Monbiot is as politically naive as ever (Referendums get a bad press. But they reboot democracy, 18 October). Referendums actually undermine democracy by reducing complex issues to a simplistic choice that is capable of being manipulated by one side or the other through emotive campaigning tangential to the main question posed, as we saw in the referendums on the alternative vote and on the European Union. If the powers that be could rule that those who were mis-sold payment protection insurance (PPI) could not be expected to understand its complexities and should be compensated, why should the electorate be expected to determine the even more complex issue of remaining in or leaving the EU?

What is more, recourse to referendums inhibits difficult political decisions being made. The increasing short-termism in representative politics is bad enough, but having a referendum hovering in the background would make the situation infinitely worse. Voting for members of parliament – more accurately “deputies” as in France and Russia – with a five-year mandate provides the opportunity for them to take unpopular but necessary decisions with the judgment that they will have been proved right by the following election.

Rather than referendums, what is desperately needed is an electoral system that enhances the status and task of MPs, ensures a more representative result and enables the elector to make a more considered and personal decision. Fortunately, the single transferable vote – as used in Ireland (north and south), in Australia and in Scottish local government – provides the clear answer.
Michael Meadowcroft
Leeds

• Referendums were often preferred by the late 19th-century labour movement as more democratic than representative democracy. That view changed when working-class MPs managed to get elected, but, as Ralph Miliband noted, the problem with the parliamentary socialism that followed was that it became obsessed by parliament rather than socialism. Fortunately there is a third way, which Monbiot often advocates but here ignores: extra-parliamentary activity. The petition, protest, campaign and strike can have more impact in changing things for the better than any number of speeches by MPs in the Commons, important though they may sometimes be.
Keith Flett
London

• George Monbiot was as invigorating and interesting as ever in his article. But he missed out one crucial element in this debate if we are to create what the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) would call an “educated democracy”, and that is the education bit of it!

Referendums based on knowledge, critical debate, real facts and understanding may be part of the answer to our inadequate democracy, along with other reforms (proportional representation, elected second chamber, written constitution, republic etc) but an initial requirement and priority must be for the government to support decent practical political education for all. The WEA, founded in 1903 at a time of great change, was a key player for this agenda then, and as the largest adult education provider today it remains well placed to continue to play its part in this.

I hope Monbiot and others will now take up the cudgels for this notion of an “educated democracy” and develop some thinking about an appropriate curriculum both in our schools and as part of a lifelong learning agenda. And if the government is really serious about stopping the rot in terms of political engagement and participation – as most seem to say they are – then words aren’t sufficient. Funding is needed.
Jol Miskin
Regional education manager, WEA

• George Monbiot’s proposal for a constitutional convention composed of citizens drawn by lot, with a small number of parliamentarians involved, suggests an answer to the future nature of parliament – vote for a government every four years, create a House of Commons by sortition every two.

The deepest problem we have in our first-past-the-post system is that government and parliament are usually of the same stripe. This leads either to absolute authority for one party or the sort of fragile, floundering government we have now. For an elected political party to form a government following a majority vote in an election is proper; what is improper is that power then vanishes from the electorate for years while parliamentarians squabble happily until the next election. If governments were elected and a reconstituted parliament composed of citizens drawn by lot from each constituency filled the Commons instead, party dominance would be broken.

The wisdom of crowds has been shown to better at problem-solving than the bickering experts. In our present system, long-serving elected members with whipped party loyalties generally do as they are told. A randomly selected citizen parliament, containing all parties or none, would be better able to hold the government to account, less open to political pressure and less vulnerable to lobbyists. They would only serve for two years, then be absolved from any future involvement. Should any wish to continue in parliament they could stand for election to government.

Were a similar system also introduced at local level, people everywhere would have their say in running their country.
Nigel Trow
Portskewett, Monmouthshire

• George Monbiot seems to think that democracy is just about voting. This is the same error as the Brexiter claim that democracy ended with the referendum result. Democracy is a continuous process, not a single event. It includes voting, but also much more. Clement Attlee once called it “government by discussion”, which is not a bad definition.
Tony Wright
Birmingham

• Democracies need to choose wise and intelligent people to respond to the opportunities and challenges faced by a community – but they need to protect themselves from foolish wheezes (such as the poll tax) and demagogues (choose your own). The Swiss do it by requiring that major decisions be endorsed by the expressed will of the people. This endorsement requires the majority agreement of individual voters and also of a majority of the cantons (provinces), so that, for example, Swiss-German speakers cannot dominate the Swiss-French, Swiss-Italians, or other groupings.
Howard Hilton
Audlem, Cheshire

• On 30 October MPs will be able to debate a motion calling for the adoption of proportional representation for UK parliamentary elections. Will the Guardian use its influence to encourage Labour MPs to support the motion, spelling out the case for a fairer electoral system?
Ian East
North Shields, Tyne and Wear

• To say, as George Monbiot does, that “only 650 people out of 66 million have a valid role in national politics, beyond voting once every five years” is to ignore the distinction between formal authority (voting) and real political influence. Your leader (The economy is providing increasing evidence against Brexit, 18 October) says “Public opinion may be starting to shift against Brexit a bit … though not enough yet to rely on”. This is what really matters, because all 650 MPs are constantly, obsessively concerned with getting re-elected in their constituencies, and their party forming the next government.
Alan Bailey
London

• George Monbiot makes some interesting points about the value of using referendums to engage the people in their own governance, but on balance I still prefer the expertise of well-informed legislators to the “wisdom” of the great unwashed. Abortion in Ireland is a good reference point in this debate. Thanks to the eighth amendment, added to the Irish constitution by referendum in 1983, a one-second-old foetus is considered by law to be of equal value to and have the same rights as a fully grown adult woman.

Ireland has a combination of citizens’ forums and representative democracy. For instance, we recently had an intensive citizens’ assembly and currently have a parliamentary committee examining the eighth amendment’s viability in a modern Ireland. Both forums have declared, or are in the process of declaring, it no longer fit for purpose. The citizens’ assembly in particular favoured a liberal abortion regime akin to the UK.

The problem is that all the opinion polls suggest that the much less well-informed general Irish public continues to holds quite socially conservative and religiously inspired views on abortion; the public’s position is not unlike the traditional position of the Catholic Church. For abortion, therefore. it takes properly informed professional legislators, or citizens who are unusually well-educated on the issue, to understand the recommendations of modern medicine and joined-up women’s healthcare thinking.

George Monbiot admits that the widespread use of referendums in Switzerland has led to depressingly conservative and unenlightened choices. I suspect the same would be true in most countries, and about most important issues, such as was the case with Brexit.
Joe McCarthy
Dublin, Ireland

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