citizens' initiative and referendum

A conference about direct democracy
London October 2004

Report by Michael Macpherson mm@iniref.org, INIREF, a campaign for direct democracy in Britain http://www.iniref.org/
A morning seminar and afternoon workshops were held "on the fringe" of the European Social Forum, with eight invited speakers from Britain and five other countries of Europe. Space for our meeting was provided by Solidarity Village at the London School of Economics, Sunday 17th October 2004.

The conference had two aims, firstly to supply knowledge about how direct democracy works in places where it is established or at least well known. The examples chosen were four countries of western Europe and one "post-communist" country of eastern Europe. The history of direct democracy, levels of governance involved and legal regulation of direct democratic procedures vary among the different countries. The second aim of our conference was to stimulate a debate about the future role of direct democracy in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Why did we select the countries and democracies chosen as examples?

The Netherlands because it is quite similar to Britain, e.g. it is a "constitutional" monarchy. The Dutch, like the British, have little experience of direct democracy. But, in contrast, there has been some direct democratic innovation in the large, capital city, Amsterdam, whose parliament recently voted unanimously to introduce citizens' initiative and referendum.

Poland because, even under the rapidly changing social and political conditions of the last decade, significant components of direct democracy have been available to citizens, and are being used, from the country level to the village.

The development of post-war Germany has been heavily influence by lessons of history. One indication of this is the importance given to their "basic law" of constitution, which regulates governance and democracy. For many outsiders it is surprising to learn that there is extensive practice of direct democracy in the federal states (Lands), cities and districts. There is a strong movement to protect these democratic rights and to improve them, prime examples being Bavaria and Hamburg.

Italy's direct democracy is special and in one way shows citizens' direct democracy in its strongest form. It is special for instance because it is "only" abrogative, that is the referendum cannot be used to make a new law ("propositional") but can only strike out an existing one, or part(s) of it. It is strong because here we have the best example, at least in Europe, of legally binding, citizen-initiated law-making at the country level.

At all levels of governance Switzerland combines the direct with the indirect. A wealth of experience of over a hundred years shows direct democracy as public participation, with widespread deliberation of proposals and laws, a strong sense of civic stake-holding plus a reliance on the ultimate and in some cases direct authority of the people in matters of state. There is a tradition of consensus seeking among citizens' groups, non-governmental organisations, lobbyists, trade-unions, parliaments and governments. All of this can fascinate and astound some of us who take our main experience of political life from purely indirect ("representative") democratic, or from frankly undemocratic, systems. Thousands of political problems, proposals  and conflicts, from the federal constitution to village traffic, have been deliberated and decided upon in procedures such as citizens' initiative and facultative referendum ­ the veto.

During Sunday we heard talks by experts and practitioners of direct democracy from all of these countries. 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.