Referendums are in vogue – so let’s get them right

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 5th September 2016

Referendums are becoming increasingly popular, internationally and domestically. Since the first UK referendum in 1975, the UK has held three nationally, and 11 in UK countries or English regions, with even more at a local level. And since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, two national referendums, a Scottish Independence referendum, and a Welsh devolution referendum have all been held. It seems they’re in vogue.

Despite this, the position of the referendum within our democracy is a source of some controversy. There are those who argue that referendums are contrary to Britain’s traditions of parliamentary democracy. Nevertheless, in an age of increased disenchantment with political elites, parliamentary democracies are increasingly struggling with difficult, existential questions – many of which are getting put to the national ballot.

Given this, it’s vital we put some serious thought into how we do referendums.  We have to understand citizens’ experience of referendums in order to understand their desirability.

For this reason, the ERS commissioned a series of five polls from BMG Research regarding the referendum, from the start to the last week of the campaign.

The polling shows that despite the high turnout, many voters seemed to find the EU referendum an unedifying experience. Some 69% described themselves as interested in the referendum as far back as April. Yet just six days before the referendum only just over a third described themselves as well informed or very well informed.

And the public found the tone of the campaign negative, on both sides. At the end of the campaign 51% thought the Remain campaign was negative or very negative, with 39% thinking the same for the Leave campaign, though in the latter case there was noticeably higher numbers calling the campaign positive, with 31% calling it positive or very positive, rather than 9% for the Remain campaign.

The evidence therefore shows a gap between voters’ interest and their actual engagement with the campaign.

We also asked about the effect of big personalities on respondents’ voting intention. In each case the majority of respondents said the personality in question had made no big effect on their vote, with more saying they’d made them likely to vote Leave than Remain. This may be a signal of dislike of those same elites – either way it does not suggest that people felt particularly interested in the ‘big beasts’.


These negative feelings suggest respondents were unhappy with the tone of the campaign. It seems that voters found the campaign to be a turn off and felt uninformed.

The short period of the campaign no doubt helped to contribute to that sense of disengagement. Whereas the Scottish referendum campaign gave voters two years to mull details, build campaign infrastructures, attend meetings and properly think about the issues, the EU referendum campaign lasted a mere four months – with local and devolved elections, unhelpfully, in the middle of it.

Institutions also need to be built and reformed in order to create the conditions for a better debate. New Zealand’s Electoral Commission shows that regulation of claims by referendum campaigns is possible. And by holding wider, deliberative consultation with citizens through Citizens’ Assemblies and other tools, we can create a more deliberative tone from earlier in the campaign.

It is vital that from this campaign we learn how to do referendums better. This will not be the last referendum we see in Britain. With big constitutional votes likely to become more frequent in the future, it’s important that we make sure future referendums resemble what we need them to be – large-scale deliberative events that engage citizens with the real issues. Voters deserve no less.

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