Letter: Voting rights

I READ with interest Alex Orr's article (Platform, 27 December) on provision for citizen-initiated referendums in the new Localism Bill. While his recommendation that referendums could be held on topics as diverse as education policy and healthcare reform as seen in Europe makes such a system seem a tempting import, he misses a key point.

Large-scale referendums such as for devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland attract turnouts that are comparable to (if not greater than) similar order elections. However, most local referendums held on issues like directly elected mayors and setting council tax have suffered from very low turnouts. Indeed, research demonstrates holding referendums after a petition does not increase participation in the actual vote. Instead, the main factor that drives turnout is what is at stake.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that increased frequency of referendums revitalises the democratic process in general. Rather, the only people who get involved are those who are already politically engaged.

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The Localism Bill is for 5 per cent of the electorate to be the amount of signatures required to trigger a poll. If this were to be increased to 20 or 30 per cent, then as a consequence participation is far more likely to be meaningful.


School of Politics and Sociology, Birkbeck College,

University of London