For some, referendums are a means for demagogues to undermine parliamentary sovereignty. For others, they’re a vital exercise in engaging citizens on crucial constitutional issues that can’t be settled by parties alone.
Yet referendums aren’t good or bad in themselves; they are a democratic tool with positives and negatives. The quality of information and debate can vary enormously.
It’s Good to Talk
Referendums have become a more regular feature of our democracy, yet our thinking has barely gone beyond ensuring the question is fair.
In our report It’s Good To Talk, we analysed the EU referendum campaign, focusing particularly on how the campaigns were received by the public and on alternative methods and platforms for public engagement.
We also looked at the recent history of referendums in the UK to create a list of recommendations for future referendums.
People felt consistently ill-informed – yet this was not for lack of interest. In future, we need extensive public information campaigns and vibrant deliberative debates around the country, including the possibility of holding official Citizens’ Assemblies during the campaign.
The ‘big beasts’ largely failed to engage or convince voters to their side, with many voters appearing switched off by the ‘usual suspects’. We need a strong narrative based on policies, not personalities, which inspires people to debate the issues for themselves.
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.
A Better Referendum
Our Better Referendum online toolkit, organised with university partners, took advantage of digital technology to enable free, deliberative discussion to be a part of the EU referendum. Find out more in our report It’s Good to Talk.