IT’S not often us Brits get asked what we really think. We get to vote in national, local and European elections every few years, and in the meantime our views might be gathered for an opinion poll or focus group.
But rarely are we given the chance to put our cross in a box on a specific issue.
If campaigners have their way, that could change in Hampshire.
Since South Central Strategic Health Authority (SHA) voted to approve fluoridation for Southampton, along with parts of Eastleigh, Totton, Netley and Rownhams, there have been claims that public opinion was being ignored on the subject.
More than 10,000 people had their say during the 14-week public consultation last year, with 72 per cent of responses from those in the affected area opposing the scheme.
In a separate phone poll of 2,000 people, 38 per cent said they were against fluoridation, compared to 32 per cent in favour of it.
The SHA insists it followed the legal guidelines required of it before making its decision, but campaigners now argue the only fair way of allowing it to go forward is if there is a majority in a public vote.
Those calls have been backed by some of the area’s high-profile MPs and councillors, but others – namely Southampton’s two Labour MPs – have argued it is not practical or appropriate.
So how feasible an idea is it, and would it be worthwhile? Graham Smith, professor of politics at the University of Southampton, said that while single-issue public votes are rare, they are not unheard of.
Because of the way the law works, they are never legally binding, but can send a powerful message.
A vote could be carried out through a postal ballot, online, through phone polling or text messaging, or a combination of all of them, but it would cost.
The SHA spent almost £25,000 on its 2,000-people survey, and although polling companies said they could not guess at amounts because of the different options available, all said a larger vote would be “expensive”.
But for any vote to have legitimacy, it is important it is done properly.
“The less professional it is the less people will know about it and the lower turnout, so the lower the legitimacy of it,” said Professor Smith.
“We don’t have a history of referenda in this country – it’s not something used very often because the Government sets its stall in parliamentary sovereignty and nothing else should detract from that.
“We have seen votes on whether we should join the European Union, and on setting up Scottish and Welsh assemblies, but they have always only been advisory, although the Government said it would follow the will of the people.
“But anyone can run an advisory referendum, it’s just how can you make sure everyone who legitimately can vote, can vote?
“How would you check people aren’t voting six times, and people aren’t coming down from Basingstoke or somewhere else to vote?
“Any public vote would send a signal, and there are examples of where just the threat of a referendum has led to policy change.”
There has only been one time when the whole of the UK was given a vote on a single subject, in 1974 when the country was asked if it wanted to stay a member of the European Economic Community.
Since then, there have been votes on the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, regional assemblies, the future of Northern Ireland, the creation of mayors in London and other major cities, and congestion charging.
But there are signs that could change.
“Switzerland and the USA have initiatives, where it goes to a ballot if there’s enough support for something, but in this country we’re very behind in this sort of public involvement,” said Professor Smith.
A similar system to that in some American states would mean if ten per cent of the population feel strongly enough about an issue, they could ask for a public vote on it.
Hampshire Against Fluoridation has already collected more than 15,000 names on a petition calling on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to step in and force the SHA to reconsider its decision. And Professor Smith said the nature of the decision on fluoridation, and who made it, makes a vote more relevant.
“This is clearly an example where the legitimacy of a referendum is increased because it’s not a national policy being dictated by a democratically elected authority,” he said.
“We’ve got this quango who are making this decision on scientific evidence without a systematic public voice – they’re a bunch of technocrats making a decision almost in political isolation, and that’s a reason for a referendum.”