News Column

Nigel Farage wants to give voters a greater voice by extending referendums

June 24, 2014

Patrick Wintour, theguardian.com



Nigel Farage has said that his party will be an advocate of direct democracy by giving voters the power in a referendum to block local housing, environmental or transport schemes. He also said he wanted voters to be given a more direct say in foreign affairs issues, arguing that Swiss-style referendums can bind countries together.

In his first setpiece speech since his party's successes in the European elections, the Ukip leader also said he supported direct recall, whereby MPs charged with misconduct can be answerable to their voters. The government is introducing a recall mechanism, but critics, including Farage, claim the hurdle before voters can demand a constituency referendum (10% of voters) is too high and is set by MPs themselves.

Addressing the Institute for Government, Farage said "the political class has got to realise they are public servants and the public are in charge" .

He also questioned why wider referendums in the UK have been largely confined to constitutional issues, such as the future of the voting system, relationship with the European Union the creation of national and regional assemblies and whether to have elected mayors. A referendum can also be held if a local authority proposes to increase council tax by more than 3%.

He questioned why electorates can restrain council tax, but "not major planning decisions that can completely change the character and and shape of the environment".

Asked in what circumstances he envisaged a referendum being held, the Ukip leader said people should be able to call a vote "to stop something from happening" to which they objected.

He suggested this could be triggered if 5% of the electorate about 2.3 million people signed a petition over a fixed period of time, such as four to six months. He claimed "frivolous causes and ideas won't generate the organisation, media attention or money to secure enough petition signatures within a set time".

There would have to be a "big diversion of views" on a major issue for there to be a referendum, he added, to ensure that a vote was not called frivolously "every Thursday".

He said "I see direct democracy working as a valuable safety net when the political class have got too far out of touch with political opinion.

"By giving people the chance to call a major national referendum or sack a rotten MP, people might feel more empowered and more favourable to government and what they are doing."

On recall, Farage said the "bar would have to be set at the right level" for a byelection to be triggered for a sitting MP to ensure that any process was not "open to abuse".

He admitted direct democracy could lead to risks on policy areas such as nuclear power but, he said, it was a risk worth taking.

Ukip had always been a supporter of small government, he added, arguing that in 1940, when Britain was facing its greatest crisis and at the outset of a long and arduous war, the government had only nine cabinet ministers; the figure now is closer to 30, he said.

Farage also set out ideas to reduce government spending, including simplifying the tax code and reducing the foreign aid budget. He also promised to reform the appointments, funding and powers on quangos. He said arm's length bodies have been used as a way to reward members of the political class.

Such tsars, he said, are ministers' personal choices. "They are drawn from a narrow circle, because ministers choose who they know or know of," he said. "They are not diverse 85% are male, 98% are white, 71% aged over 50, 38% have titles. Despite the label tsar, officially these people are called advisers, advocates, ambassadors, chairs, champions, commissioners, coordinators, envoys, representatives, reviewers, the most common by far."

He said such people are not subject to democratic scrutiny in either their work or the manner of their appointment.

He also questioned why some non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace and Oxfam have relationship far too close to government. Decrying what he described as fake charities, he said any charity that received more in government funding than public donations is not a genuine charity, but an arm of the state.

He revealed that he is nervous about involvement of private companies in delivering public services, saying he regarded himself as a traditionalist in terms of the relationship between business and government.

He also said as part of devolution he would like to see English-only days in the House of Commons.


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Source: Guardian Web