direct democracy

Switzerland is the most direct democracy in the world. Does it work? If so why and would it work in other countries?

Athenian Democracy is seem as the origin of democracy and an example of direct democracy

The Independent Commission on Referendums was set up after the 2017 EU vote because of widespread criticism of how and why the referendum had been conducted.

Main recommendations:

Referendums should be run fairly with agreed processes- oversight of spending and fundraising

Referendums should be clear about the consequences of a choice- and if necessary a second referendum should clarify the first- In 2017 Brexit meant different things so once leave had won there needed to be a referendum on what kind of leave.

More use of citizens assemblies

Direct democracy

A description of a type or style of democracy where the people make important political decisions or are consulted before key decisions are made.

The term 'direct democracy' effectively means two things:

1 The people themselves make important decisions rather than leaving decision making to elected or appointed representatives.

2 The people are directly involved in political decision-making. This suggests they are consulted and their opinions are sought regularly.

Link to Direct Democracy USA: Direct Democracy

Types of direct democracy

There are a number of ways in which direct democracy is used in modern democracies.


A referendum is the most common form of direct democracy. The characteristics of referendums are as follows:

A referendum occurs when an important decision is put to the people, rather than being determined by government

In the UK the results of referendums are not binding on government or Parliament. This is because Parliament is sovereign. However, it is almost unthinkable that Parliament would overturn a referendum decision.

The first UK-wide referendum was held in 1975 on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Community (European Union).

    • 8 March 1973: Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland (yes to remaining part of the UK)

    • 5 June 1975: UK – Membership of the European Community referendum on whether the UK should stay in the European Community (yes)

    • 1 March 1979: Scotland – Scottish devolution referendum on whether there should be a Scottish Assembly (40 per cent of the electorate had to vote yes in the referendum, although a small majority voted yes this was short of the 40 per cent threshold required to enact devolution)

    • 1 March 1979: Wales – Welsh devolution referendum on whether there should be a Welsh Assembly (no)

    • 11 September 1997: Scotland – Scottish devolution referenda on whether there should be a Scottish Parliament and whether the Scottish Parliament should have tax varying powers (both referendums received a yes vote)

    • 18 September 1997: Wales – Welsh devolution referendum on whether there should be a National Assembly for Wales (yes)

    • 7 May 1998: London – Greater London Authority referendum on whether there should be a Mayor of London and Greater London Authority (yes)

    • 22 May 1998: Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement referendum on the Good Friday Agreement (yes)

    • 3 March 2011: Wales - Welsh devolution referendum on whether the National Assembly for Wales should gain the power to legislate on a wider range of matters (yes)

    • 5 May 2011: UK – referendum on whether to change the voting system for electing MPs to the House of Commons from first past the post to the alternative vote (no, first past the post will continue to be used to elect MPs to the House of Commons)

    • 18 September 2014: Scotland – referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country (no, the electorate voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent in favour of Scotland remaining within the UK.

    • A referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union took place on 23 June 2016, when the UK voted to leave the EU. (remain 48% Leave 52% Turnout 72%

Initiatives occur most famously in some states of the USA, such as California, but are rare in the UK and have only been held at a very local level. Since 1972 Parish Councils can organised a referendum if triggered by a petition. Since 2011 the Localism Act gave councils the power to hold referendums on local issues if triggered by 5% of the local electorate in a petition. However local referendums are not binding. .An initiative is when groups of interested citizens organise a petition on a specific issue. If enough people sign, the government is forced to hold a referendum on the issue. The point here is that it is the people who have taken the initiative, rather than the government itself.

Public consultations

It is increasingly the case that governments at various levels carry out a public consultation before making important decisions. Local authorities, for example, often ask the community how they would prefer funds to be allocated between different services. Central government too is increasingly using this device. Important housing schemes or planning projects may involve local 'consultation'. The internet makes such exercises easier. The Localism Act 2011 also requires local authorities to hold local referendums if they plan to increase the Council Tax by more than 5%.

Is this democracy if the consultation does not make the final decision?

Could these be exercises in sham democracy where the process ticks a box and arrives at exactly the same decision as would have happened without the apparent consultation?

Petitions & e democracy

Although most (see Localism Act) petitions are not binding, they may be influential. Large numbers of citizens may sign a petition on a particular issue. In the UK Parliament, e-petitions of over 100.000 are reviewed by the Petitions Committee and time can be allocated for a debate on the issue. In the Scottish Parliament, there is also a committee to consider such petitions and the more supported ones have to be debated by the whole Parliament and have some impact on Scottish government. .

The Recall of MPs Act 2015 is an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that makes provision for constituents to be able to recall their Member of Parliament (MP) and call a by-election. It received royal assent on 26 March 2015 after being introduced on 11 September 2014.

Unlike recall procedures in some other countries, the act does not allow constituents to initiate proceedings. Instead, proceedings are initiated only if an MP is found guilty of a wrongdoing that fulfils certain criteria. This petition is successful if at least one in ten voters in the constituency sign. Successful petitions force the recalled MP to vacate the seat, resulting in a by-election.

To date, three petitions have been made under the act; two of these received sufficient signatures to trigger a by-election.

Firstly, in North Antrim after Ian Paisley (DUP) was suspended by the House due to his expenses. The 10% threshold was not reached so he retained his seat without election.

The second use has featured heavily in the news. This occurred when Fiona Onasanya (Labour) was convicted for 3 months for perverting the course of justice. The 10% petition threshold was reached and the by-election campaign in Peterborough began. Fiona Onasanya did not stand but the Labour party managed to retain the seat with Lisa Forbes becoming the new MP.

The most recent use was in Brecon and Radnorshire (Wales) where the Conservative MP Chris Davis was convicted under the Parliamentary standards act. A by-election took place, Chris Davis was re-selected by the local Conservative association. He, however, lost the by-election to Lib Dem Jane Dodds.