We can do referendums better in the UK. Here’s how.

Katie Ghose, former Chief Executive

Posted on the 30th June 2016

This article was first published by Times Red Box

Last week’s referendum raised some serious questions about the nature of the democracy we have – and the type we want to create.

Unlike other countries, in the UK we do referendums on an ad hoc basis, often to resolve (or try to resolve) internal party rifts. Nowhere was that more clearly seen than with the EU vote.

But given the current post-referendum confusion, now’s the time to revisit the purpose and value of this particular type of public decision – and what makes for a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ referendum.

So here are three reforms for future referendum campaigns:

First, education and awareness-raising need to be an integral part of every campaign – especially early on (we gave this a good go with our Better Referendumtool). That means changing the rules and funding plans to creating a commitment to do just this. More money for unbiased public information would equip the public better to evaluate the campaigns’ claims. The formal campaigns could also be rewarded for activities that focus on capacity-building and time spent with the public – rather than simply talking at them (for example providing speakers at local debates). Incentives to the campaigns to encourage registration could also help.

Second, accuracy of information should be safeguarded – with tough sanctions for knowingly misleading the public. Referendum campaigners know they can get away with wild exaggerations or offensive visuals; they are extremely unlikely to meet any sanction – something which, alongside other elements of the campaign, University College London’s Constitution Unit will be launching an inquiry into in the coming months.

The shock value of the ‘No’ campaign’s baby unit posters in the Alternative Vote referendum, or the Leave campaign’s Breaking Point’ poster of a long queue of migrants show that, under the current free-for-all, campaigners find that courting controversy is worthwhile if there are votes to be won. New Zealand’s Electoral Commission has an important role in monitoring and judging accuracy of campaigns’ claims during a referendum, and a comparable role could be handed to Electoral Commission or another regulatory body to fairly govern all sides.

Third, we need to think about the timing of when to hold a referendum. For Scots, the two year campaign allowed time and space to move through different phases of debate, giving people the chance to digest and get to grips with issues themselves rather than rely solely on the formal campaign mouthpieces.

The EU referendum was much shorter, and whilst journalists may have grown weary of reporting the issues, for most people it was simply not long enough to being to get underneath a complex package of topics – issues such as the implications of the vote for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, for the Union and other aspects of Britain’s constitution – now quasi-federal, the Union, the environment and the voices of younger people were eclipsed from debate. Feeling uninformed or confused were common complaints.

And timing was also a cause for complaint in Wales and Scotland, where it was felt that the EU referendum would overshadow national parliamentary elections. Overall, there was a feeling that after an exhausting election period, party activists would struggle to be out in force.

These and every other aspect should form part of a root and branch review of the conduct of a referendum. Everything from the practice of how the official campaigns are picked, who gets to vote in each referendum (Lords were explicitly permitted to vote in this referendum unlike other referendums or elections, while 16 and 17 year olds were excluded – unlike in Scotland), how each campaign is funded; how to best get information out and to regulate advertising more generally; and the role of the media in each vote – all this should be examined in the light of distinct experiences in the Scottish and EU referendums, and practical changes accepted, before another referendum comes around.

Referendums evoke strong emotions – encouraged by their division into two binary camps and the insistence that every fact or argument be corralled into one or the other. For some, the particularly nasty and negative aspects of this referendum will invoke a feeling of ‘never again’. Others will feel closer than usual to real political debate – and invigorated by it.

Whichever camp you fall in – and most will be on the fence, able to see both benefits and flaws – referendums should be seen for what they are: they are one means among many for stimulating informed public debate and decision-making on matters of national significance.

What would be a fitting legacy? To ensure the conduct of the next referendum campaign bears no resemblance to the last. And to ensure that referendums are treated as the beginning not the end of public engagement when it comes to shaping our future democracy.

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