Why we need a people's veto
Speech to Liberal Democrat conference, Bournemouth, 13 September 2008
I turned 50 a few months ago. It was a bit unexpected. I can’t say I saw it coming.
But it does mean I can peer back over the three decades I’ve been a member of this party, to local government in the early 1980s.
It was pretty bleak. No public question time. No scrutiny. No appeals of any kind.
One Labour councillor I knew used to chuck out letters from the public if they sent them to his home address. Or failed to address him in the pompous way he considered dignified.
Liberal and SDP councillors around the country were just introducing a right for people to ask questions at council meetings.
It doesn’t seem revolutionary now, but it did at the time.
Certainly when you heard our opponents raging because they had to explain themselves to voters in ‘their’ town halls.
If local government has changed in the last quarter century, it was because Liberal Democrats were, in a sense, God’s chosen instrument.
We had the opportunity, but we also had a history and tradition behind us.
Of pushing at the boundaries of what democracy is.
We did so in the teeth of opposition from an establishment that prefers to limit democracy to letting people vote every few years, and keeping quiet in the meantime.
We still do.
This motion is about carrying on that radical tradition, and tackling people’s disillusionment about democracy by letting them take part – not just by being consulted, but by giving them a role in Parliament.
Judging by the way these ideas are used elsewhere, they will be used rarely. But at least people will know they’re available.
That they’re not cut out of the system when it matters, fuelling the cynicism of the BNP.
They can act. They can petition and be heard. They can force their proposals to be debated. They can vote and know it will have an effect.
They can also force a cosy, inward-looking political system to think again. Force them to take account of the public, as they failed to before the war in Iraq, because there could be a people’s referendum if they don’t.
These issues are controversial. We’d be the first to recognise that.
But for goodness sake don’t reject a boldly democratic proposal because referendums only support populist measures.
Nevada made abortion legal with a referendum. Birmingham and New Orleans built trams because of referendums.
California held back the expansion of Wal-mart with a referendum.
If only we had that power in this country.
And for goodness sake, don’t reject the idea because somehow it isn’t the British way.
That’s always been the argument the establishment used against democracy right back to the Great Reform Bill.
Parliament is sovereign. You can’t trust people with complex decisions. We have the best possible constitution already, the envy of the world.
That was the Duke of Wellington in 1830. Don’t let ordinary people in. They don’t get it.
There are many reasons (and heavens, don’t we hear them) why total direct democracy can never work. The fear of the mob runs very deep in the British establishment.
But democracy is more than that.
It means the right to information, holding our representatives to account, taking power into our own hands, making things happen.
And it means the right to demand of our establishment, however elected, that they think again.
When these aspects of democracy atrophy, or are discouraged because the systems that allow them are empty, then the rest of democracy grinds to a halt too.
People don’t vote; they buy into bizarre conspiracy theories, or take it out on scapegoats.
That’s the real danger of populism. Too little democracy not too much.
That’s why Lib Dem Kingston introduced the right of a hundred local citizens to call in decisions and re-think.
That’s why Lib Dem councils have pioneered local power and participatory budgeting.
These are controversial ideas, even today, especially for the New Labour and Tory establishment.
Since the Duke of Wellington the establishment has put the outward trappings of our institutions, and their dignity – not their effectiveness – before the people they serve.
None of these reforms are risk-free. None of them are guaranteed to reach the right decisions.
But they are not half as guaranteed to reach the wrong decisions as a pompous political system that’s insulated against the public.
They represent the best of our Liberal tradition. And they are the translation into our own generation of Gladstone’s famous maxim.
Toryism means distrust of the people tempered by fear; Liberalism means trust in the people tempered by prudence.
Please be bold and Liberal enough to pass this motion as it stands.