For the avoidance of doubt, I hate them, and regard opposition to them as an activity to which every democrat should give the highest priority. I've said why at some length here and think that the dangers associated with the gradual process of normalisation that they have undergone over the past quarter-century is being hugely underestimated.
Though democracy is supposed to be central to our way of life - advocacy of liberal democracy unites mainstream opinion in a way that it perhaps never has done before - we're seeing it being degraded in a range of different ways without a squeak from anyone.
Alongside the normalisation of referendums, I'd include the crude way in which political transparency has been demanded as another example of how the political class (nominally, I suppose, the guardians of the principles of liberal democracy) have fallen asleep at the wheel.
Another way they were degraded was with the way that media-ownership rules were torn up in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. I while ago, I wrote about how the impact of the broadcasting of Parliament had been felt as an example of this, but there will be plenty more to cover once the history of the AV Referendum, the acceptance of semi-subliminal political advertising or campaign funding in the US or the Tories preference for elected officials here is assessed by history.
But for Social Democrats, democracy should be our method. Every single thing we set out to achieve can be done in the most effective and sustainable way by simply advocating the highest standards of democratic practice. Striking the right balance between a high level of public participation, the protection of minorities and good policymaking. Labour is the only party that has nothing to lose from this - yet the party is always perfectly happy to sidestep these standards whenever the opportunity for a short-term tactical victory is on offer.
Here are some questions that I think Labour should have automatic short answers for:
- Should MPs communicate - even indirectly - with lobbyists of any kind?
- Should lobbyists and pressure groups be obliged to meet much higher standards of regulation, governance and scrutiny?
- Should MPs have a budget that allows them to commission research that will act as a counterbalance to the biassed and inductive findings of lobbyist-funded 'research'?
- Should Labour press for a maximalist approach to reducing the concentration of media ownership?
- Should Labour seek to apply global best-practice in the promotion of media pluralism as a high-profile priority when it next enters government?
- When the issue of a referendum comes up in connection with a particular policy area, should the party support such a vote if the outcome is likely to result in Labour's broad aims being adopted?
- Should Labour make it a priority to ensure that an economically sustainable free press exists - and should it take steps to ensure that the media can reverse it's increasing failure to be able to investigate or even report things - even if this means some state intervention to make the funding available for this?
- Should we have a fully elected second chamber?
- Is the democratic deficit one in which active citizens have too little influence - or one where inactive ones with mild preferences and unformed opinions are under-represented?
- Should a Labour government seek to devolve powers to local councillors wherever possible?
- Should a Labour government promote a higher standard of representation at local level as a priority?
- Elected regional assemblies for every UK region without the need for ratification by a referendum; For or against?
- Elected police chiefs - for or against?
- Do MPs have a duty to go out of their way to find out the unexpressed and lightly-held views of their constituents as a counterweight to the views that are readily and repeatedly sent to them?
- Should MPs ever read or respond to petitions? Should they ever change their position on something in response to one?
- Should corporate governance rules be introduced to minimise the ability of commercial organisations to exert influence over policy? Should they be obliged to declare all lobbying - and should the lobbying services they pay for be fully labelled?
- Should Civil Servants or MPs advisers be allowed to work for pressure groups or lobbyists without a 'decontamination period' of (say) five years?
- Should Trades Unions be able to coerce Labour MPs to adopt policies against their better judgement on where the public interest lies?
- Should Trades Unions ever be given the impression that they can exercise special influence over Labour policy?
- Should Labour create whatever checks and balances will most effectively ensure that party high-ups or officials can't influence local selection processes?
- Should the Labour Party leadership seek to coerce MPs to adopt particular policies in their parliamentary work?
- Should the Labour MPs continue to tolerate colleagues who don't conduct their policy deliberation in an inclusive and rigorous way?
- Should Sir Stuart Bell have the whip withdrawn from him immediately? Or will next week do?
I suppose I could go on like this all day, but I think that anyone who has seriously thought about what a good democracy should look like would have a fairly instant answer to all of those questions. Labour's answers should be the same.
Naturally, it's easy to read all of this as a set of demands for pie-in-the-sky. In all cases, these are questions of balance that need to be taken into account. You can't curb the influence of Unions without first taking measures against lobbyists and pressure groups. I suspect that a Labour Party that could answer these questions properly would be a lot more attractive to trades unions than the current situation in which the party takes the money and pays lip-service to Union expectations.
You can't introduce any of these ideas without first paving the way for them. You can't promote party pluralism without first making it difficult for other parties not to follow your lead.
It doesn't make sense to underestimate our ability to introduce any of these approaches unilaterally without damaging the party
My problem with Labour is that most of our party don't even think we should be preparing the ground on this. The last Labour government certainly had no interest in these questions and I don't see too many signs that the current leadership are pouncing on very good opportunities to advance these positions at the moment. Doing so would give many of the approaches we want to advocate a good deal more credibility.