Doing referendums differently

On 24 June, the morning after Britain voted to leave the European Union, the number of people in the UK googling information about the EU, including the phrase ‘What is the EU?’, soared. Image taken from the ERS report, ‘It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote’ 

The Head of Campaigns for the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) explains where the EU referendum went wrong, and how we can get things right in future

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, the ERS wanted to see the best possible referendum debate during the EU vote, with grassroots, informed conversations 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. 

Firstly though, what went wrong? 

The state of the referendum debate 

There were glaring democratic deficiencies in the run-up to the vote, with our polling showing that far too many people felt they were ill-informed about the issues. It wasn’t for lack of interest – 69 per cent 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. 

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. 

A better approach is possible 

Internationally, there are also examples of countries doing referendums better: in recent years, for example, there has been an increased role for citizens’ assemblies to improve and inform referendum debates. 

Assemblies of randomly selected citizens have been used in Canadian provinces, Ireland and other states to deliberate on constitutional issues. In Iceland, a directly-elected, non-partisan assembly was used when redrafting their constitution. While these assemblies were charged with deliberating on major constitutional issues, a ratification process was still required. In the Canadian and Irish cases, referendums were written in from the start, whereas the Icelandic convention called a vote on six areas of their deliberations. 

This process of formal deliberations offers an environment more conducive to a good referendum campaign, as the issues are teased out before the referendum, while the deliberative nature of this process also means that the structure and subject of a referendum will be less politicised and have more direct legitimacy with the public, as well as providing an alternative source of expertise. We can learn from these examples in the UK. 

Where next? 

Now that the dust is settling on the EU vote, it’s time for 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 they fit into our wider democracy. 

So, we need 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. 

The ERS report, ‘It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote’, makes nine key recommendations to improve the conduct of future referendums in three key areas – ‘Laying the groundwork’, including requiring pre-legislative scrutiny with citizen involvement and a six-month, regulated campaigning period; ‘Better information’, including an official body to intervene when misleading claims are made, as in New Zealand, extended citizen education and a UK-wide extension of votes at 16 (a policy supported by the Greens); and ‘More deliberation’, including an Ofcom review into the appropriate role for broadcasters, with aim of making coverage more deliberative rather than combative/binary. 

As the UK is in a period of constitutional flux, and plebiscites are becoming more common, let’s push for some genuine change so that the public get the referendum debates they deserve in the future.  

The ERS report can be read at: bit.ly/2c2S13v