citizens' initiative and referendum

Direct democracy "on the fringe" of ESF*

Report by Michael Macpherson mm @ iniref.org, INIREF, a campaign for direct democracy in Britain http://www.iniref.org/

Having tried for several years now I know that it is difficult to ignite, even to warm up, a public debate about direct democracy in and for Britain. Marcus, from Denmark, told of  similar experience in his country. He illustrated with the following anecdote that politically-based biases stunt the growth of direct democracy. After it had become known in Marcus' family circle that he had started a campaign for direct democracy, he was soon contacted by two quite  different family members. An aunt, staunchly conservative, told him sternly, Marcus, I'm shocked to discover that you have gone back to being a communist revolutionary. Marcus' sister, well to the left of centre 'phoned him in dismay, asking how it could be that he had shifted so far towards the radical right?

I was reminded of Marcus' story during my efforts to put on a seminar in the recent European Social Forum (London, October 2004). This time I could not firmly diagnose the malady of bias  against direct democracy but suspect that the ESF programme group was heavily infected.  Silence. Despite several proposal letters and appeals in public ESF forums ­ blockade.

So we landed "on the fringe" of ESF, through the hospitality of Solidarity Village, in an  academic venue of the London School of Economics at the Aldwych. The direct democracy meeting was included in a colourful  array of events with esoterica, a Mark Thomas show, African dance and "Life despite (what else!) capitalism".

Our conference showed how direct democracy (DD) works in several countries of western Europe and one of eastern Europe. Many were surprised by the revelations of our invited speakers: Citizens' initiative and referendum (I and R) introduced in Amsterdam; many recent Polish campaigns and protests which used DD; numerous successful law-making initiatives at country level in Italy; increasing use of DD at communal (cities, districts) level plus Land (federal state) level in Germany; long established, rich experience of DD at all levels of governance in the confederate Swiss mountain idyll which combines direct with indirect democracy.

For Britain a proposal to introduce elements of direct democracy such as citizens' initiative (law-proposal), ordered debate of endorsed proposals in parliament or council, and citizen-triggered referendum for decision-making, was presented. Having learned how things are done elsewhere, we held a workshop to discuss the future of direct democracy in Britain. Those who came were interested, had good questions and made some proposals for further action.

A documentation with short reports from the conference is online at http://www.iniref.org/conf.html
Minutes of the workshop: "Direct democracy GB" are available on request to info@iniref.org

The author has worked as a general medical practitioner and clinical scientist, co-founded Physicians for Social Responsibility in Britain, is director of Psycho-Social and Medical Research PSAMRA and founded the campaign Citizens' Initiative and Referendum I&R.

* European Social Forum, London, October 2004