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

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See for more...

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