5.4.1.2 Public Influence on Legislation

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/5412.htm)

Involvement of the public is essential if legislation is to be seen as more of a benefit than a restriction.  The legislature itself, though, is composed of politicians in most countries – so people’s influence on the legislative process is, at best, indirect.  People have varying degrees of influence on legislation in democratic societies, as in these examples:

  • The American Affordable Healthcare bill in 2010 was introduced after being a major factor in the preceding election campaign; a democratic election allowed people to express their views.
  • It is also possible to conduct negotiation without such a clear electoral mandate. In England, a low-profile example came from the desire to renegotiate the relationship between landowners and those who wanted to ramble on the land.  There are clear economic advantages in having legislation to protect property rights, including the need for farmers to have some incentive to work on the land (3.2.1), but there are social benefits in allowing public access to areas of natural beauty.  The Countryside and Rights of Way Act was introduced in 2000 to create a compromise, resulting in the published Rights of way and accessing land.  The Labour government had made a manifesto pledge to introduce a “right to roam”, and had then won an election, but the interests of the landowners were catered for in the House of Lords by revising the legislation prior to its approval – as reported by the BBC: Right to roam bill under scrutiny.
  • The American right to own guns is seen by some people as a constitutional right, and by others as increasing the incidence of gun crime and threatening everyone’s security. This is a contentious issue, which arouses strong feelings, but political debate was suppressed in a divided Senate – as reported by the Washington Post on 17 April 2013, in an article entitled Senate bill to extend background checks killed by filibuster.

There are few mechanisms for properly assessing political support and facilitating legislative negotiation on particular issues – even in democratic countries.  The decision to vote for a politician might be for any of a number of reasons in the Political Dimension (6.3.2.2) so people’s votes do not accurately represent public opinion on every item of proposed legislation.  People’s votes played a different role in the three examples above:

  • Healthcare is a central issue in the difference in viewpoint between individualists and collectivists on socio-economic rights (4.2.4.3), which is reflected in support for the Republicans and Democrats respectively – so the American election in 2008 could have been regarded as a reasonable indicator of public support for President Obama’s healthcare legislation.
  • The Countryside and Rights of Way Act, in contrast, was not central to the government’s programme so people’s votes could not be assumed to indicate their support for that particular issue. It was a manifesto pledge, though, so the negotiation was launched.
  • Gun control, although an important issue, has not been central to either political party’s programme so elections haven’t provided a basis to launch a renegotiation.

As these examples illustrated, people’s democratic votes are not an adequate mechanism for them to influence legislation.

Irrespective of whether the political system is a democracy, it is appropriate to include an element of consultation and negotiation during the drafting of legislation.  Mechanisms can be made available in the Political Dimension of governance, to influence legislators (6.8.3.1) and to ensure meaningful negotiation (6.8.4).

In the absence of consultation processes – as is the case with religious law, and in some authoritarian countries – laws risk being tools of oppression.

Back 

Next