Politicians shouldn't avoid difficult questions by asking voters to decide the answers

Referendums are never the end of the matter. They hold out the prospect of addressing thorny issues, but never do so
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The Independent Online

During an earlier managerial crisis at Tottenham Hotspur football club a radio phone-in host asked his listeners, "If Christian Gross is the answer, what was the question?" For those of you who do not follow the managerial crises at Spurs I should explain that under Mr Gross's brief leadership the club was almost relegated.

There have been several crises since then at Spurs, including one in recent days. But for now I am interested more in the wider implications of the question posed by the phone-in host. Presumably the Spurs' board asked itself: "Who do we want to revive this club?" For reasons that were never clear, the board came up with the answer "Christian Gross". Evidently the question was more complicated than it seemed and the apparently definitive answer resolved nothing. Before long Mr Gross was sacked and the question was posed once more.

In British politics the same grim sequence applies to the apparently simple and democratic use of referendums. On the surface they appear to resolve everything. A simple question is posed and voters respond with an equally straightforward answer. In reality referendums resolve nothing. Even last week's decisive "No" vote in the referendum for the North-east regional assembly was not as clear as it seemed.

One common explanation for the result is that voters wanted an assembly with more powers. They feared that the Government's version would be little more than a talking shop. In other words, the "No" vote arose because voters were so keen on an assembly they could not stomach a relatively weak institution. On this basis the "no" vote was a triumph for regional democracy.

Others in the North-east tell me that the outcome was an unavoidable consequence of the prevailing "anti-politics" culture, with voters deeply suspicious of any initiative coming from Westminster. This explanation is even more contorted. It implies that if ministers from Westminster seek to devolve powers, the voters will stick two fingers up at them. They would prefer to be ruled by the national politicians they mistrust rather than accept the offer to take some powers away from them.

The third explanation offered to me for last week's outcome is that some voters feared Newcastle and possibly Gateshead would benefit to the detriment of other parts of the region. Again this does not imply a rejection of devolution, but of this precise form of devolution.

So the vote in this particular referendum could not have been clearer and yet the implications of the result are a muddle. Referendums are never the end of the matter. They hold out the enticing prospect of addressing thorny issues, but never do so.

In 1975, the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, declared that the referendum on Britain's continuing membership of the Common Market would decide "once and for all" whether this country was in or out. Within five years of an overwhelming "Yes" vote the Labour party was pledged to withdraw from Europe. Similarly the issues that surrounded the referendum campaign in the North-east will not subside, nor should they.

Ministers must grapple once more with the still unresolved questions: How do they deliver services effectively at a local level and address inequality between regions? Ministers have discovered that they cannot do it all from Whitehall. Downing Street and the Treasury, institutions condemned too simplistically for their "control freakery", are greatly exercised by these questions and will continue to be in spite of the result last week.

The introduction of mayors has been a more successful experiment. Mayors are visible and therefore accountable. Incompetent councils rely on their virtual invisibility as a form of protection from their local voters. No doubt it makes life easier for them. Anonymity is not available to high-profile mayors. If the government dared to give them substantial powers, mayors would be in a position to lead a much-needed revival of local government.

But the mayoral initiative has been blocked in some areas by the use of these clumsy referendums. In the campaigns I have followed, the "no" vote largely arose from a desire to give the Government a kicking. If ministers had faced some initial flak and legislated for the introduction of mayors across England I suspect voters would now be hailing the constitutional innovation.

Instead referendums are an excuse for postponing or avoiding awkward arguments - and the electorate is alert to a lack of ministerial self-confidence in a policy. Indeed the granting of referendums is often in itself a sign a weakness. We are not having a referendum on the European constitution because the government is confident of the pro-European sentiment in Britain. We are having one for precisely the opposite reason, that it lacks confidence about the pro-European case or at least in putting the case until another election is safely out of the way.

As far as the referendum on Europe is concerned the lessons from the North-east are contradictory. Voters sensed that the government was half-hearted, offering an assembly with limited powers supported by only a few cabinet ministers. Such a perception suggests that ministers should be focusing now on the European referendum, planning an energetic campaign backed by a wildly enthusiastic Cabinet.

Yet the result in the North-east also conveyed a wariness and lack of trust over any initiative coming from national politicians. The "No" campaign on the European Constitution has been quick to recognise this. Do not expect Conservative politicians, including the Conservative leader, to play a prominent role. In its latest Weekly Bulletin, the "No" campaign on Europe draws this lesson from the North-east: "One of the main reasons the Government lost so badly is that it was seen as a contest between ordinary people versus politicians. The Government will have exactly the same problem in the referendum on the EU Constitution. Again it will rely on veteran politicians, while the "No" side will involve business people, community leaders and other people from outside the Westminster bubble."

The "No" campaign is on to something. But confusingly the Government has also been criticised in some quarters for failing to send enough "veteran politicians" to the North-east.

There is only one clear lesson from last week's poll, the big "No" votes in some of the mayoral referendums and the raging debates that continue about Britain's membership of the European Union: in the future, political leaders should avoid the promise to hold referendums. The promise gets them out of short-term holes, but the prospect of holding the unpredictable polls creates bigger problems that do not go away. Would a close "Yes" victory on the European Constitution end the debate? Would the Government give up in the event of a "No" win on the European constitution? In either case, they would do what Spurs did under Mr Gross. Very quickly they would look for a different answer.