The idea that calling for a referendum is a good strategy for winning significant reforms often crops up in campaigns. It seems logical, as a referendum is a chance for the population to directly make a decision on the issue to hand. But the reality is that the demand for a referendum is seldom, if ever, the best way to build a struggle for a reform. Here are five reasons why:
Under the Irish constitution a referendum can only be held after a bill has been passed by the Dail and the Seanad setting out the proposed amendment to the constitution. In other countries and some US states a referendum can be called if enough people sign a petition. That is not the case in Ireland. So in Ireland a referendum will only happen if you convince the government parties to call one while allowing them control over the wording that will be voted on.
The nature of a referendum debate is such that it will be almost completely dominated by those with money, power and influence. Independent media group, which owns the Evening Herald, Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Sunday World and the Irish Daily Star, as well as 14 regional titles and two free newspapers, has been dominated by the O’Reilly family since 1973 and has the ability to put the equivalent of a long leaflet in everyone’s hand every day.
The nature of referenda is that we make our decisions in the isolation of the ballot box, an isolation designed to amplify the influences of the political parties and media. Outside of family & pub arguments there is no process of collective debate and discussion. We observe the opinions of the wealthy 1% and their hirelings and then choose between them.
The nature of a referendum is that once the vote has happened the vast majority of people will consider that issue to have been settled for a number of years. That means referenda are not good ways of building a struggle because if you fail to win them many will see it as being all over. From that point of view, there is no point in a referendum being called unless there is reasonable confidence of winning.
A referendum is only another state process by which we face the power of the 1% and, like all the other processes of that type from court cases to elections, has been designed to maximize the influence of those who have power and money over the results. All these processes are designed to give the impression that all are equal before them but in all cases this is not true.
Our struggles for change that are based around using tools designed by the masters will be weak and powerless. We need to develop and use tools that do the opposite, that build on our strength and make us powerful. These are the sort of tools that are based on mass collective discussion and action rather than either listening to or following the actions of the few.
Our tools are the strike, mass demonstrations, assemblies and mass organisations that we build and have some control over. When we fight for reforms it may well be that when we show our strength, the state will seek to compromise and diffuse that through offering referenda but, if so, that is something we have won not through seeking a referendum but by frightening them into calling one.