Europe leads the way on direct democracy


We’ve long known that the Swiss are big-fans but now it seems the Germans too are getting the hang of direct democracy. The Economist reports on the enthusiasm of campaigners for Tempelhof airport, who urged Berliners to vote yes in a referendum to keep open the airport; (which is seen as a symbol of the Berlin airlift of 1948-49). On the same day the citizens of Schwerin voted to oust their mayor for mishandling an investigation into the starvation of a five-year-old girl, while the Bavarian branch of the trade union confederation started collecting signatures on May 1 for a referendum on a minimum wage.

Supporters argue that direct democracy is stepping in where traditional democracy has failed. Membership of political parties has collapsed, as has trust in politicians – trends that should be recognisable to any student of British politics. A 2006 survey showed that nearly half of Germans think elections give them no say over government policies and that some 80% wanted referendums at national level.Yet in spite of such figures opposition still remains; most states do not allow votes on such issues as spending and taxation, and legislatures can sometimes overturn referendum results or have them modified in the courts.

The Swiss model certainly indicates that direct democracy improves decision-making. Lars Feld of the University of Heidelberg claims that Switzerland's taxes and spending are lower than otherwise, and its labour productivity higher, precisely because the Swiss can vote on fiscal issues. Now that Germany is adopting similar solutions in reponse to voter apathy, the qustion surely is, when will the UK catch up?