Democracy and the Hypocrisy Threshold

This morning in his interview on the Today Programme the Mayor of London blustered about a ‘tiny minority’ of the workforce on the tube being able to call a strike. He claimed to know that 70% of RMT members did not support a strike. He said it would be ‘reasonable’ to have a 50% strike threshold.

What gives him the right to make assumptions about what those who abstained think?

In fact, on a 40% turnout, 76% of RMT members who voted, voted in favour of action. By contrast, in 2012 on a 38% turnout, 52% of Londoners who voted in favour of Boris Johnson for mayor. So that’s 20% of London voters who were in favour of having him as mayor. Note that, unlike him, I don’t presume to know what all those who abstained wanted – or I’d have said 80% of Londoners did not support Johnson for mayor (as opposed to just pointing out the fact that 80% of Londoners did not vote for Johnson as mayor).

Johnson attempted to justify the distinction “I just think there’s a difference between a local election – a political election – and a vital public service” but this is ridiculous. Whether you support the move or not, you have to admit closing tickets offices will have an impact (and a longer term one) on Londoners so shouldn’t there be a 50% vote in a referendum, or a politician who can claim a mandate based on the votes of 50% of Londoners, before this can happen?

In 1979 referenda were held in Wales and Scotland on devolution. In Scotland, 52% of those who voted (the same proportion who voted for Johnson as mayor in 2012) were in favour. The turnout was 64% (hugely higher than the 2012 London mayoral election) but an amendment to the Scotland Act 1978 required a 40% threshold and this was only 33% of the electorate. In 1997 there was no such threshold; devolution in both Wales (where the 40% threshold wouldn’t have been met) and Scotland (where it wouldn’t have been met for tax varying powers) was voted in by the majority and has been a huge success.

Low turnout is a problem and it needs to be addressed. Whether it is a result of contentment/resignation or alienation, high participation is always better. But thresholds are anti-democratic because they are always designed to inhibit taking action.

This is very similar to requiring local government to hold a referendum on any council tax rise above 2%. In doing so, central government undermine local democracy by removing one of the major decisions elected representatives can make (and therefore a reason for the electorate to engage in selecting them); but they do so strategically. They do not want to see a rise in tax. Note that they do not impose requirements for referenda in other areas: they do not, for example, demand that the local electorate are balloted before there is fracking in a county (I’m not anti-fracking, by the way, but it’s a convenient example because the government are pro-fracking). Similarly, the government have not imposed any thresholds on themselves (such as a 40% threshold in favour of reforming the NHS, for which they hold no electoral mandate whatsoever).

Thresholds are a used as a mechanism to confine democracy or as a justification to ignore it. But only by those who already have power, and only when it suits them.

It’s simple hypocrisy.

About Simon Wood

E-learning officer, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See for more...

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