Doing referendums differently

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 1st September 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.

Read the report

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