It’s time to think about how we do referendums in the UK

Referendums are now a thing in Britain. So we need to get better at them.

Will Brett
1 September 2016

Spectator EU debate. Image: Rathbones.

Those committed to improving our democracy can no longer ignore the elephant in the room: referendums have become a central feature of our politics in Britain.

Since 2011 we have had two UK-wide referendums (on voting reform and membership of the European Union), a Scottish independence referendum, and a Welsh referendum on devolution of powers.

That represents a significant acceleration from previous years – there was only one prior UK-wide referendum (on membership of the European Community in 1975), and other referendums on devolution to the nations were mainly concentrated into the two years after the 1997 Labour government came into power with its promises of devolution.

The UK is in an extended period of constitutional flux, and is showing few signs of coming out the other side any time soon. The terms of Brexit must be decided, and conceivably ratified by parliament, the public or both; Scotland looks ever closer to independence; devolution of power to more local levels of government than Westminster is widely supported, but the path is unclear; the question of English governance remains live; and so on. Given this state of uncertainty about our constitution, it is a fairly safe bet that we will see referendums again in the near future.

So there are serious questions to be asked about the place of referendums in our politics: should there be an agreed trigger for referendums? How should they be conducted and regulated? And how do we ensure high quality public information and debate before people actually get to the polling booth?

The Electoral Reform Society have now made an initial attempt at addressing some of these questions, through a detailed analysis of this year’s EU referendum. These are the main findings:

1. Information People felt consistently ill-informed – yet not for lack of interest: voters expressed high levels of interest throughout the campaign.

2. Personalities – The ‘big beasts’ largely failed to engage or convince voters to their side, with many voters appearing switched off by the ‘usual suspects’.

3. Negative campaigning – As the race wore on, the public viewed both sides as increasingly negative. It is not clear that either side gained from this approach.

4. The need for real deliberation – There is an appetite for informed, face-to-face discussion about the issues, but this can only be nurtured within the context of a longer campaign.

Above all, our analysis has demonstrated the need for a much greater level of citizen involvement and deliberation - not only during referendums themselves but throughout the workings of our wider democracy. An informed and engaged electorate is the first step towards a political system that can tolerate the divisive aspects of a binary referendum debate. We should therefore do everything we can to foster higher levels of deliberation and engagement, both during referendum campaigns and in our wider political culture.

Given the findings, we need a root and branch inquiry into the conduct of referendums in the UK. Within that inquiry, we’re asking for these nine recommendations to be considered:

Laying the groundwork

  1. Mandatory pre-legislative scrutiny for any Bill on a referendum, lasting at least three months, with citizens’ involvement
  2. A minimum six-month regulated campaigning period to ensure time for a proper public discussion
  3. A definitive ‘rulebook’ to be published, setting out technical aspects of the vote, as soon as possible after the passing of any referendum Bill 

Better information

  1. A ‘minimum data set’ or impartial information guide to be published at the start of the regulated campaigning period
  2. An official body should be given the task of intervening when misleading claims are made by the campaigns, as in New Zealand
  3. Citizenship education to be extended in schools alongside UK-wide extension of votes at 16

More deliberation

  1. The government should fund a resource for stimulating deliberative discussion/debate about referendum
  2. An official body should be tasked with providing a toolkit for members of the public to host own debates/deliberative events on the referendum
  3. Ofcom should conduct a review into an appropriate role for broadcasters to play in referendums, with aim of making coverage/formats more deliberative rather than combative/binary

In one sense, a referendum offers the clearest possible indication of the popular will. But in another, the waters are easily muddied. The EU referendum result was decisive, formally unchallenged and with a relatively high turnout. The public’s decision was clear. But there are many concerns about the way the campaigns conducted themselves, the nature of the question being put to the British people, and the relationship between the result of the referendum and the ongoing proceedings of Britain’s parliamentary democracy.

Given the increasing frequency of the use of referendums in the UK, it is more important than ever that we look at the EU vote and ask how do we make sure the mistakes that were made during the EU campaign are never repeated again? We’ve laid down the foundations in terms of how we start to answer that question. Let’s hope they’re built on.

This article is an extract from ‘It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently in the Future’. Read the full report and recommendations here

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