Use Of Focus Groups And Referenda In

Uk Essay, Research Paper

Pete Robinson

Does British and foreign experience support the view that the greater use of focus groups and referenda today are signs of a healthy democracy? Alternatively do they undermine the role of parliament?

Increasingly in Britain today the use of focus groups is becoming more and more common, not just by research institutions but by the government. A focus group is a small selection of people who represent the country, as there will be people present from all areas in Britain, all ages etc. The focus group is then asked questions to which it is to discuss and then to provide answers to the questions. More often than not these opinions are used simply to reassure the government, but more recently they have been used to form the new policies in areas that would have been otherwise neglected by the government. Referenda are now also taking a larger role, with several being held in the last few years. It may not be long before all important decisions are taken by holding referenda such is the case in Switzerland. Is this democracy gone mad or a new wave of ultra democracy ?

The party most responsible for the introduction of focus groups into Britain is Labour. When Tony Blair took over as leader of Labour in 1994 after the death of John Smith they were still seen as the left wing party of the 70 s and 80 s. Blair realised that their views were outdated and that they would never win the next election unless they changed the majority of their policies. Labour used over 500 focus groups between 94 and the election of 1997, in which they gained a very large majority. The focus groups provided them with a clear indication of what the British public wanted and consequently Labour changed their policies to fit in with this. Unsurprisingly the Labour Party of 1997 bore a huge resemblance to the Conservative Party, and it appears that the only reason people voted for Labour was because they believed the propaganda poured upon them by Blair et al, change for changes sake, if you will. However the Labour victory did highlight the role of focus groups and the massive influence that they can have on political parties. One can only assume that in such cases this is good for democracy because it gives people the opportunity to express their views and in a small way have a bearing on how the country is run. There is also a negative side towards the use of focus groups and that is that a government may use them too much and become far too reliant on them. An indication of this overuse is the 5000 strong People s Panel set up by Labour to give the public reaction to Labour/ government proposals. If the people on the panel respond negatively to an issue the government will probably not go ahead with it, for fear that they will fall out of favour with the electorate, even if the issue is of massive long-term importance. Equally as likely is the scenario that the government will introduce policies that are detrimental to the country in the long run but introduce them simply to gain support for upcoming elections.

The continued use of focus groups by the government will have many effects, some positive, but most importantly several key negative points. In future the government will be far better informed of public opinion and will be able to take care of the major issues more quickly and effectively. This will also lead to a government that is unlikely to make huge mistakes, such as poll tax and, in all honesty, the Millennium Dome. By having such a well informed government finance could be allocated to the right sectors, and money that would have been wasted e.g. the 650m for the Dome, could be spent on more worthy causes.

The increased use of focus groups in British politics would have serious side effects, most importantly of all the reluctance of governments to make decisions that at first are unpopular with the public. This would make governments afraid of taking snap decisions, in times of crisis for example, without first consulting focus groups. It would also lead to them putting off major decisions for the next government to deal with, which would be potentially dangerous, and would turn parliament into a huge public relations exercise. Party politics would also die out because each party would only institute policies that are popular with the public. Therefore the parties annual conferences would become obsolete, as would bodies such as the NEC. If all the parties were essentially the same democracy as a whole would suffer because there would be no real choice when it comes to an election. Pressure groups would also suffer, as there would no longer be a need for them because if the public wanted change then they would probably get it. Eventually politics would become very bland or non-existent, as there would be no clash of basic ideologies because focus groups or peoples panels take all of our decisions.

If idea of using focus groups was taken to the extreme then democracy would obviously have gone too far, but as long as it is used in moderation then it can only improve the role of our government.

Another factor that has crept into our lives of late is the referenda. A referendum allows part, or the whole, of a country a vote on a single issue. Referenda are usually only held on major issues, such as Scottish and Welsh devolution, but in the USA and Switzerland many issues are voted on.

As general elections are usually only held once every 5 years, there are many issues which come to a head during that time which the public do not get their views heard. Referenda are a good solution to this because it provides an opportunity for the electorate to have their opinions made known. This can only be good for democracy as the majority s verdict is always taken into account, something that has not happened in any general election since the war, as the winning party always gains around 40-45% of the popular vote.

The use of referenda is also very useful concerning subjects that are very sensitive and are moral judgements rather than political ones, such as abortion, capital punishment and more recently in Wales, Sunday opening for pubs. These are subjects on which the government may be split, or on which they feel they are out of touch with public opinion. In such a situation a referendum would be the perfect solution, as it would take responsibility of such a precarious decision away from the government. Referenda concerning very important issues should also be used because the government does not really have the right to make such a huge decision that may affect everybody s lives, such as the Good Friday peace agreement for those living in Ireland. So far much of the evidence for using referenda has been concerned with delegating decision making to the public, it can, however be used to give the government a bigger mandate. If, for example, Labour decided now was the right time to join the Euro, there would undoubtedly be a big outcry from the sound-minded Conservative Party. Labour, instead of pushing through the necessary legislation with its grossly undemocratic majority in the Commons, could chose to hold a referendum on the issue. If the public voted yes to the Euro, (did I just see a pig flying?), then Labour would have a mandate for introducing such reforms if they voted no , as is likely, then Labour would probably withdraw it s proposal.

The final worthy reason for introducing a policy for regular referenda would be that it would involve the public in local politics. This would make them more knowledgeable about their own area and would regenerate interest in how they are governed locally and hopefully nationally. An example of a local referendum would be the one concerning grammar schools, and whether or not they should be replaced by a comprehensive system.

Of course there are also many reasoned arguments against the regular use of referenda. There would be far too much influence given to the majority, while the minorities are ignored, this could lead to oppression of the minorities and a strong movement to the far right. The increased use of referenda could also lead to irresponsible voting, such as the slashing of tax rates, whilst still expecting to see a high quality of education, health care etc. an almost too obvious reason for not holding regular referenda is that of cost. Each one cost in excess of 10m (1984), meaning that there would either have to be a rise in taxes or a cut in government spending in other areas. In the argument for referenda it suggests that voters will become more involved in politics, this argument could also swing the other way, with voters not bothering to vote, rendering the result meaningless. Referenda results are also very volatile, if the Good Friday Peace Agreement had been voted on a day after a huge terrorist attack it is likely that the deal will be rejected, however if it had happened the day before then it may have been accepted.

Referenda are much the same as focus groups, if they are used in moderation then they can prove extremely useful, however overuse can lead to distortions of democracy. Of course referenda can only be used for the right reasons and to use them to avoid responsibility is to weaken the position of government. A healthy democracy should have focus groups and referenda but only if they are not over/misused.


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