Doing referendums differently

1 Sep 2016

There’s no denying it: referendums have become a central feature of our politics. So it’s about time we started thinking seriously about how we should run them.

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. The UK is in an extended period of constitutional flux - and is showing few signs of coming out the other side any time soon.

As passionate believers in democracy, we wanted to see the best possible referendum debate during the EU vote. We tried to ensure the debate was as high-quality as possible, and learn important lessons in how good deliberation can be stimulated in living rooms, community centres and workplaces across the country.

Sadly though, the wider debate let voters down. So it’s essential we ensure that the mistakes made during the EU referendum debate are never repeated again.

That’s why we’re pleased to launch our landmark EU referendum report into the conduct of the referendum, ‘It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote’.

This report shows without a shadow of a doubt just how dire the EU referendum debate really was - and what we can do about it.

The state of the referendum debate

There were glaring democratic deficiencies in the run-up to the vote, with previously unreleased polling showing that far too many people felt they were ill-informed about the issues; and that the ‘big beast’ personalities did not appear to engage or convince voters.

The polling also shows that voters viewed both sides as increasingly negative as the campaign wore on. Meanwhile, the top-down, personality-based nature of the debate failed to address major policies and subjects, leaving the public in the dark.

It’s clear that the EU debate was in stark contrast to the Scottish independence referendum, which for all its faults undoubtedly featured a vibrant, well-informed, grassroots conversation that left a lasting legacy of on-going public participation in politics and public life.

There are so many lessons to be learned from the EU campaign – from the effect of a too-short campaign period to the fact that misleading claims could be made with impunity. This report lays out both the facts, and the way forward.

Where next?

Now that the dust is starting to settle, we need a complete rethink about the role of referendums in the UK. Instead of jumping from referendum to referendum at the whim of party politics, we should think carefully about how referendums fit into our wider democracy.

So it’s time for a root and branch review of referendums, learning the lessons of the EU campaign to make sure the mistakes that were made in terms of regulation, tone and conduct are never repeated.

We’ve made nine key recommendations to improve the conduct of future referendums. They are:

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

We think our new report, ‘It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote’, will be a useful resource in tackling the big questions about where we go from here when it comes to referendums. We hope you agree.

More than that though, we hope the recommendations we suggest lead to some genuine change so that the public get the referendum debates they deserve in the future.

Comments

118 Responses to Doing referendums differently

hcl 2 Sep 2016
4:26pm

Surely now is the time and opportunity to make Voting Compulsary for all over 18.
Then a requirement in a Referendum to a minimum percentage (which I personally think is sensible), would be ,not only meaningful, but achieveable.

hcl 2 Sep 2016
5:38pm

Is this not the time to introduce the 'Pluralist' system into British politics?
The Referendum proved, if nothing else, that the present (almost) Two Party method of Government, is dead in the water.  Sometimes our Political system is like a kiddies playground - 'yah boo'; 'I don't like you' is the order of the day.  Not reasoned debate about a particular issue but more a case of 'you're for it, so i'm against it';   Nothing at all about whether it's good for the country (or not, as the case may be).

Jess Ferguson 2 Sep 2016
5:56pm

I haven't read this report yet, but I totally agree that an impartial data sheet or set of facts should be published prior to campaigning.  I was really shocked when it dawned on me that we weren't getting one (only that partial one from the government).  The whole referendum was completely uncivilised, with half of the public debate time spent arguming about whose 'facts' were real or made up.  Massive FAIL for the government.

Ron Glatter 2 Sep 2016
9:14pm

A key area for rule-making relating to referendums is surely what threshold must be achieved for the result to be binding.  According to international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, writing in the Guardian on 28 June: "Many countries, including Commonwealth nations, have provisions for change by referendums, but these are carefully circumscribed and do not usually allow change by simple majority.  In Australia, a referendum proposal must pass in all six states (this would defeat Brexit, which failed in Scotland and Northern Ireland).  In other countries, it must pass by a very clear majority, usually two-thirds".
Interestingly, the only two other UK-wide referendums to have been held - on whether to remain in the then European Economic Community in 1975 and whether to adopt the alternative vote system in general elections in 2011 - both resulted in the winning side achieving this two-thirds threshold, and therefore gaining a clear and decisive outcome.  Contrast that with the very small majority for Brexit based on just a 52 per cent vote.  Robertson points out that that kind of result is technically "merely advisory" to parliament "whose members are entitled to vote according to conscience and common sense".
But this was not just a referendum: Brexit was a proposal for fundamental constitutional change.  Even a local golf club or dramatic society with a half-decent constitution will only allow major change to its basic rules and operating procedures on the basis of a substantial majority of its governing board or management committee.  For such a transformative change to be based on such a slender majority, and apparently with no expectation for review, seems extraordinary and shows yet again the dangerously archaic nature of our ad hoc constitutional arrangements.  The ERS is quite right to highlight this issue of major national importance in the way it is doing.

Ron Glatter 2 Sep 2016
9:16pm

A key area for rule-making relating to referendums is surely what threshold must be achieved for the result to be binding.  According to international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, writing in the Guardian on 28 June: "Many countries, including Commonwealth nations, have provisions for change by referendums, but these are carefully circumscribed and do not usually allow change by simple majority.  In Australia, a referendum proposal must pass in all six states (this would defeat Brexit, which failed in Scotland and Northern Ireland).  In other countries, it must pass by a very clear majority, usually two-thirds".
Interestingly, the only two other UK-wide referendums to have been held - on whether to remain in the then European Economic Community in 1975 and whether to adopt the alternative vote system in general elections in 2011 - both resulted in the winning side achieving this two-thirds threshold, and therefore gaining a clear and decisive outcome.  Contrast that with the very small majority for Brexit based on just a 52 per cent vote.  Robertson points out that that kind of result is technically "merely advisory" to parliament "whose members are entitled to vote according to conscience and common sense".
But this was not just a referendum: Brexit was a proposal for fundamental constitutional change.  Even a local golf club or dramatic society with a half-decent constitution will only allow major change to its basic rules and operating procedures on the basis of a substantial majority of its governing board or management committee.  For such a transformative change to be based on such a slender majority, and apparently with no expectation for review, seems extraordinary and shows yet again the dangerously archaic nature of our ad hoc constitutional arrangements.  The ERS is quite right to highlight this issue of major national importance in the way it is doing.

david 3 Sep 2016
2:38pm

 Where next? root and branch reform? YES of the current electoral system.
The Electrorate feel disenfranchised, there is a pathetic turnout at elections. More Political parties and lower turnouts mean even lower % needed to be 1st past the post. Tories engineering th system so that they have an even better chace of getting in with a lower majority, and for 5 years.
To be truely democratic go for proportional representation as the fairest(Greens 11m votes = just one seat).  Voting to be compulsory.
Then worry about sorting referendum rules, it was a straight choice, won by 4% of voters, not the electorate - but still a far higher turnout than any election for years.
All 16yr olds to have the vote? I spend a lot of time with Youth, and there are many I woudn't trust with a pencil, never mind the responsibility of making a reasoned decision as to where to put their cross.
Meanwhile OUR Political Representatives are still shilly shallying about what, when, if? Running around like headless chickens with their knickers in knots the two yer deadline for activating Article 50 is steadily disappearing. No sign of any planning, or attempt to move forward. We are almost 2.5 months in, at this rate there wont be much progress by June next year and it will all be a mad uneemly scramble to cobble something together in the last 12 months, and WE all end up being shafted by OUR Political Representatives, yet again.
Time for another referendum!
Do WE Trust OUR Political Representatives to look after OUR interests?
Simple YES or NO, 50%+ of the vote to win

David Scott 4 Sep 2016
9:33am

HELP STOP ANOTHER DISASTEROUS REFERENDUM! We live in a representative democracy, where our elected politicians are meant to make the decisions on our behalf. A referendum should not be used lightly and we have just seen how a narrow result can be confusing and divisive, and just how difficult it can be to provide the public with enough accurate information to come to a sensible decision. There have only ever been three nationwide referendums in Britain, and two of those were held under David Cameron. We must stop politicians using referendums as a way of avoiding making the difficult decisions they are elected to make. Let’s encourage this process by making it harder to use a referendum to introduce changes that should more properly be made by parliament by raising the barrier so that any future referendum requires a 2/3 majority to make it mandatory. This would bring referendums into line with the requirements that most organisations (including the main political parties) have in order to make constitutional changes. Please will you support this and PLEASE SHARE this so we have a chance of getting the requisite 10,000 signatures to force a response!
The link is:
https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/163494
 

Keith 4 Sep 2016
10:16pm

I think you concentrate too much on theoretical processes and too little on actual practice. Comments on the Scottish referendum refer to the intimidation of No voters by the Yes camp, to the point where they wouldn't display election materials etc. Similarly, in the EU Referendum, theft and vandalism of Leave election materials was rife and many employers (and others in a position of power) issued a series of threats to their employees about the dire consequences of voting Leave.
Of course they are being steadily shown up as wrong, having lost the Referendum - but the bile, bitterness, blame and denial persists. There are some people who feel they are above democracy and above the law - and that they can use any means at their disposal to obtain the election outcome they prefer. This is a very steep and slippery slope into anarchy, if left unchecked, and such illegal, abusive, bullying, groupthink bahaviours must be confronted with the full force of available laws whenever they emerge.
If we fail to do that, there will be no proper democracy left to reform.

Chris Kennedy 5 Sep 2016
2:22pm

Having been involved in both Scottish and Brexit referemndums, I think one of the key issues being missed is that what was framed in both was "Change Vs Status Quo". What the change was was never defined, so it allowed people to campaign together for "Change" who had very different ideas of what the change would be. People voted Yes/Leave with different visions for how the country would be.

For example in the Scottish referendum there were just as many people voting for Scotland to become a scandanavian style social democratic utopia as were wanting it to become a tax haven. "Yes" was all things to all people, it changed depending on the audience. It's very hard for people arguing the status quo to fight against that. Whereas after the vote, when we see what the Brexit result will be, it could well be that many who voted "leave" with the different vision in mind would have voted "Remain" if they had known in advance exactly what type of Brexit we were looking at.

With this in mind I'm half tempted to suggest doing constitutional change referendums in two stages. The first to vote on several proposals and decide roughly what vision of the country we would go for (obviously can't get all the details, due to various things needing to be negotiated, but we could see ball-park calculations at least).  The second stage would be whatever won stage 1 Vs the Status Quo. ie. only the most popular of the visions for change would face the status quo. That way we'd know better what the will of the people actually is.

Quite frankly "Any Change vs No Change" is a ludicrous vote.

Sheila Ash 5 Sep 2016
7:03pm

Political campaigns adverts and claims need to be subject to same to the same scrutiny and controls as commercial ads

Ant 6 Sep 2016
10:10am

The 9 proposals can be boiled down to just 2 as follows:
1. Get the government to set things up to police the government
2. Get kids with no life experience to decide the future for everyone.
Genius.

John B 7 Sep 2016
12:58pm

So presumably the ERS would want thresholds for refenda on changing the voting system and abolishing the House of Lords?

Andy Leighton 10 Sep 2016
3:19pm

<blockquote>A six month campaign period</blockquote>
Have you no mercy?
I thought we were trying to engage the public, not bore them to death.
 

Rambo 21 Sep 2016
12:07am

It's 2016, it's never been easier for the public to access simple factual information to help them make decisions - if the media don't provide it, someone else usually does.
As for these misleading claims, again, it has never been easier for people to fact check stuff, and for major things like the £350bn claim, well, let's just say if you followed the news or current events media at all, you knew everything you could have wished to know about how to go about assessing it.
These c!aims that people had no information, or didn't know which of it to believe, have the ring of responsibility dodging excuse making about them. I suspect these people are only saying it to assuage guilt about either not putting the necessary time or effort in, or simply going with their gut.

4caster 22 Sep 2016
11:46pm

The standard of debate was appalling and the arguments were almost invariably negative.
The Remainers had nothing positive to say about remaining in the EU, always warning of the perils of leaving. This was epitomised by George Osborne's promised "Emergency Budget" in which he would raise income tax, VAT, etc., thus ensuring the deep recession he promised. "Operation Fear" would become "Operation I-told-you-so". He rightly deserved to be kicked out of government. At least Cameron had the good grace to resign for being PM, but now he has abandoned his constituency. 
The Leave side were equally bad. They could scarcely utter two sentences without introducing "Border Controls" and promising to slash immigration. They don't understand the contribution immigrants make to the UK economy. Immigrants are more likely to have jobs than native Brits; they are less dependent on welfare payments, and this comparison applies over all age groups. Also immigrants who earn money pay taxes, and spend money, which maintains jobs for many other people in all walks of life. The jobs they fill are identifiable, but the jobs they maintain elsewhere in the economy, though many, are not identifiable. The Leave side complain that immigrants are a drain on the NHS, but in fact they are more likely to work in the NHS than to use it. The NHS would be in a mess without all its foreign doctors, dentists and nurses.

K.P.E.Lasok QC 7 Oct 2016
1:00am

I have drafted amendments to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 designed to prevent referendums from being conducted on a misleading basis. Are you interested in seeing them?
 
K.P.E.Lasok

Hilary Saunders 27 Oct 2016
1:09pm

Thank you for some very good suggestions. I would like to add two more:
The EU referendum remains hugely divisive, because the vote was so close.  On such a big and complicated issue, I think the mandate for change should depend on securing at least 60% of the vote.
Your recommendations include the provision of impartial information and a requirement to correct or highlight misinformation - all of which is good.  However, this would not stop our celebrity-obsessed media from treating any future referendum as a personality contest.  (One BBC reporter actually asked people "Who would you trust - David Cameron or Boris Johnson?" - no wonder people were turned off).
Nor do your recommendations require public service broadcasters to record and broadcast the key statements made by leading protagonists.  Yes, I know that is implicit in their remit to provide independent and impartial coverage, but the media coverage of the EU referendum certainly did not live up to those standards.

Duncan Lyons 29 Oct 2016
9:40am

The Report's recommendations should be applied in future and whoever organises referendums in the UK should aim to allow voters to make up their own minds.
Having read the report what struck me most was ERS' intention to treat voters as adults who should be treated with respect.
This is in stark contrast to the somewhat patronising approach by both campaigns in the EU referendum that sound bites which sounded like tabloid headlines were all that the public would need or want to decide which way to vote.
 
 

Add new comment

118 Comments