Politicians are not delegates. They are not elected in order to uncritically relay the ‘will of the people’. They are elected to follow their own conscience and exercise their own judgement. If their constituents disagree with the decisions they take, then they can be replaced during an election. However, they are more than just a mouthpiece for their voters.

Modern representative democracy entrusts politicians with the autonomy to take decisions on our behalf. In a parliamentary democracy, MPs are able to take the time to listen to all sides in a debate, consider the options, understand the complexities, and make an informed decision once they have all the facts.

At least, that’s the theory. Critics, however, argue that politicians care more about getting re-elected than they do about making the right decision. They argue that MPs are too easily-swayed by corporate lobbying, and listen closest to those with the deepest pockets. In fact, some believe that direct democracy – in the form of regular and binding referendums on policy questions – is the only true form of democracy.

What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Thomas, who seems sceptical of referendums. He believes that the average citizen isn’t informed enough to properly engage with complex questions of policy. Is his scepticism warranted?

We also had a comment from Christos arguing against referenda because he fears that citizens would always use them to punish the government of the day instead of voting on the real issue. Is this a legitimate concern?

To get a response we put Thomas and Ivan’s comments to European political analyst Ulrike Liebert, Professor of Political Science at the University of Bremen and author of the book “Europeanisation and Renationalisation: Learning from Crises for Innovation and Development”. You can see her response in the video above.

Do referendums undermine representative democracy? Do they oversimplify complicated issues into binary ‘yes-no’ decisions? Do most people use referendums as an opinion poll on the government? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: (c) BigStock – Alexandru Nika
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12 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    EU-Reform Proactive

    The great DE debate during 2015 continues! What was the majority opinion outcome?
    A simple Y or N & % would do. It is too cumbersome for me/us to analyse. Guess it was a majority of NO?

    That would suffice as a “national opinion poll”, but It could further be developed to pave the way towards a national referendum and the sum of all 27 national referendums could put enough pressure or “direct guidance from the voters” on the EUP to act accordingly. I acknowledge there are pages of existing EU rules & legalities in place.
    Political theories (fallible opinions by a few?) are different from mathematical or physics theorems. What would dearest Einstein advise?

    “Politicians are not delegates”?

    Ok- that seems what the EU theory tries to teach us and is followed by its political representatives cum delegates- never mind political EU semantics!

    Sorry, I might have my sequence wrong- believing that any “social activist” showing good & ethical leadership, will or have to pick first to join one of several political parties on a national level. Not EU ‘anointed’ yet!

    Further- depending on popularity, engagement & respect- rise up the ranks in that party (“obliged” to follow truthfully its set party agenda- but no oath- therefore no angel yet) until eventually, and maybe ending up in any of the 27 national parliaments- as one of several by that party selected & earlier elected representatives.

    Usually, any ‘distinguished’ & EU deemed “suitable” parliamentarian can further be seconded to the next higher level/assignment/job= supranational or international level.

    I dispute the genuineness that anyone so seconded can suddenly claim autonomy, and neutrality from his original political home & country- despite an “EU oath” & do what his personal conscious and the EU laws dictate. Surprise, suddenly “they” become anointed EU angels after repeating the EU oath?

    Simply, such a person has chosen a (paid) career solely in “politics” and is therefore referred to by me & others as a (professional?) politician, usually
    without holding or attending any specific academic degree course called (professional) “politician”. To my limited knowledge, no such specific qualification does yet exist.

    It might be time to professionalize the work/job of a “Politician” with a degreed university course- not simply an oath to an ideology! Maybe food for thought for another opinion poll?

  2. avatar
    Wolfgang Pape

    In multi-level governance, the higher the level — from local, national, regional to global — the less direct democracy is possible and filtration (e.g. by elected parliaments, legitimate stakeholders) becomes necessary to deal with the issues at stake (from simple building permits to complicated climate change). There is a ‘Village B” but no “Planet B”!

  3. avatar
    JT HK

    If referendums can solve the question, why needs to have party competition and election? Referendum is the tyranny of majority. How can minority interests be secured? Anyway, democracy emphasises individual rights rather than collective, gathering more minority rights is able to destroy all traditions and to turn right to wrong and vise versa. This is how all valuable traditions and values have been destroyed. The so-called progressive forces or value-oriented politicians way to power is through gathering different interests for one single role to win election. People of different interests would think that once these bewitching politicians can be elected, all their interests would be realized. As a matter of fact, these values-oriented politicians would lose all orientations once elected. Because they are representing a great diversity of interests and they cannot satisfy all interests at the same time. The only way they can do is to avoid the real problems while divert attention to an imagined external threats which have no real immediate effect. In this way, domestic issues remain unsolved, discontent grows and foreign policy growing aggressive. It is perceivable that value-oriented politicians would not contribute any good governance but only towards growing populism such as the growth of Nazi and Hitler Germany.

  4. avatar

    Maybe the answer is in your text already: “Yet what happens when they don’t?”. Is there any other way of re-validating any action they consider taking between elections, as before any damage is done? To my knowledge representative democracy is more than elections every 4 yrs- that is not a ‘do what you want all inclusive mandate’. It can become with right laws of referendums a proof that the ones elected apply democracy by organising many many referendums followed by writing laws to sustain the citizens. An administration should pass a law to prove they sustain democracy: for example if they pass more than 4 laws without referendum they do abuse, or make it by law so more law changes need referendums. And then if in 4 yrs have been 5 referendums that is a valid administration democracy wise- now is less expensive also with the internet.

  5. avatar
    catherine benning

    Do referendums undermine representative democracy?

    Undermine?… Referendum is imperative for a functioning and genuine democracy. Without this observational check and active scrutiny of political leaders on a regular basis, democracy moves from the expectation of the voter dramatically. Take the difference between Switzerland and the UK.

    Take the UK for example. Very rare referendum and certainly not by demand as in the Swiss system. So years of deviation from what its public believed they were voting for. The present UK government is not running close to a Conservative political policy. It is working on what is termed a ‘Woke’ or ‘left wing’ form of administration. It was voted in as it promised a halt on mass immigration and a quick Brexit toward sovereign rule. To date Immigration is running at a million people a year entering and a pretence at Brexit. There is barely a move toward removing GB from the political noose of Europe in any form since the six years of voters request to be out of it. Which is creating stagnation in our economy and fear to be rid of political dwarves as what is on offer as alternatives is further from democratic wishes than the unscrupulous seated in office presently.

    From the 1950’s onwards the voters of Britain made it abundantly clear they wanted to end immigration into the UK. This policy over the decades since was completely ignored. The end result realising what was feared by the and expected by the population. A detrimental and drastic change to the indigenous culture and way of life enjoyed by its voters. This dreaded defiance of repeated deviant leaders, expressing obedience to the wishes of the people when running for office, whilst taking sinister opposing action once elected to govern. I believe this goes against the Human Rights Act and its principal, to enforce change of cultural practice by population replacement is one of the listed no no’s of that political dogma, is it not? Yet here it is carried out under a pretence of democratic rule. Would this have been possible had the ideology of Swiss style political referendum been the practice throughout the relative recent history of the UK? Somehow, I don’t think so.

    Referendum is assurance of Democracy. As close to it as you can get.

  6. avatar

    thanks to Debate Europe am glad to know things about this topic i would just like to join this forum and be part of this great discussion
    Thanks am from Africa,SouthSudan

  7. avatar

    We don’t have representative democracy. More often than not we only have a choice between the lesser of two evils. We don’t vote for manifestos because all of them contain things we don’t agree with. We vote for pledges and promises that never materialise and see laws and taxes introduced that weren’t in manifestos. The people in power generally have no concept of what it’s like to live on low income or how certain policies affect ordinary people who don’t have private healthcare or send their children to private schools etc.
    When people vote in referenda it’s something they have formed an opinion about and more acurately reflects the will and mood of the majority on that particular issue.
    There are many issues on which governments are completely out of step with the people and there should be a better way than protesting for people to make themselves heard.

  8. avatar

    Referenda too often turn into neverenda.we elect politicians on the basis of their manifesto…we should expect the winners to enact the policies upon which they campaigned & in turn the electorate need to respect the result.

  9. avatar
    JT HK

    Referendum and representative democracy are issues highly depending on which side people are standing. No third party should be qualified to judge. It should be up to the people of the UK to settle the dispute.

  10. avatar
    JT HK

    It depends on whether those representatives democratically elected are representing PEOPLE’s interest or narrow political interest. Apparently, both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are indirectly elected representatives who had been irrational and almost crazy US sanctions of the Russia in this proxy war in Ukraine have been threatening the social and economic security of the UK people. Now, it is not the time engaging in ideological debate on political issue but to negotiate on minority concerns of the Scotland people within legal framework.

  11. avatar
    JT HK

    If referendum is organized according to the legal framework, it is a legal and constitutional right to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.

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