Monitor 65: Testing constitutional times

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has included the High Court and Supreme Court rulings in the Article 50 case, the unveiling of Theresa May’s Brexit plan and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

monitor-65-coverPolitics remains fast-moving. Its unexpected turns have raised fundamental questions about the constitutional order, in the UK and beyond – including the rightful place of voters, elected legislators, governments and judges in political decision-making – as well as the media’s role in questioning those decisions.

Here, Brexit remains the dominant preoccupation. The previous issue of Monitor reported how ‘ministers have repeatedly insisted that they are in charge of the Brexit negotiations and that to reveal their hand to parliament in advance would weaken their negotiating position’. A lot has changed since then.

Following rulings by the High Court on 3 November, and Supreme Court on 24 January, ministers had to accept that they require parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50; at the time of writing, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill has now passed through the Commons and awaits scrutiny in the Lords (see page 3). Even before the bill’s introduction, the government had conceded (in December) that its Brexit plan would be published prior to triggering Article 50, and (in January) that this would include a white paper – commitments necessary in order to see off potential Commons defeats. With help from the courts, parliament has rediscovered some of its teeth.

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We’re taking back control – but who’s going to wield it?

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Britain voted to ‘take back control’ from the EU, and Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech made the repatriation of power to Westminster a priority. But it is far from clear what kind of Brexit Britons want, nor how many of these powers will go to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rather than the UK Parliament. Katie Ghose argues that with direct democracy on the rise, citizens’ assemblies would help people grasp the trade-offs at stake and have a voice in these monumental decisions.

Theresa May has now fleshed out her plans for Britain to leave the EU and become an independent, self-governing nation. With more detail emerging about the economic plan, it’s time to look at the democratic implications.

Serious thinking about democracy can all too often get left behind and the public shut out of these debates, as we’ve seen with English devolution. How our democracy actually takes shape after Brexit goes beyond the two-year negotiating window, and it has to mean the public will have a strong say. After all, given the focus on ‘where power lies’ during the campaign (summed up the powerful slogan ‘take back control’), it would be ironic if this wasn’t a priority.

Theresa May says the vote was about restoring parliamentary democracy by bringing back sovereignty to the UK Parliament. This is uncontroversial – after all, many people identified the issue of laws ‘being made in Brussels’ as part of a more general unease. But it is only part of the picture. The transfer will take place at the same time as the ongoing transfer of powers from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and NI, as well as devolution within England. In other words, it will happen just as power is shifting between and within the nations of the UK – with obvious ramifications for our Union.

People feel a physical remoteness from Westminster, Holyrood and the Senedd, but that distance is knitted into a growing anti-establishment sentiment. So now is an opportunity to capitalise on the positive political interest stimulated by the vote, and convert it into a sustainable mode of political engagement – with genuinely powerful citizens.

So the first question is this: what is the public role in shaping the form of Brexit?

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The results of the Electoral Commission’s latest survey are in – here’s what the public thinks about voting

thumbnail_phil-thompson-4The results of the Electoral Commission’s latest public opinion survey on the experience of participation in elections have been published today. Phil Thompson, the Commission’s Head of Research, outlines the results. Overall the findings are positive, with confidence that elections are well run increasing by from 66 per cent to 76 per cent in the last year. Satisfaction with the voter registration system has also increased, from 75 per cent to 80 per cent. However, satisfaction continues to be lowest among younger age groups which are the least likely to be registered to vote.

The Electoral Commission aims to put voters’ interests at the centre of everything we do. To achieve this, it’s essential to find out how people think and feel about the electoral process. Like many organisations, we use public opinion research to help us do this.

We conduct a public opinion survey after every poll held in order to monitor the experience of participating in specific elections. In addition, we conduct the ‘Winter Tracker’, an annual UK-wide survey, every December. This covers a range of electoral issues and is designed to provide an overview of public sentiment towards the process of voting and democracy in the UK more broadly.

After the significant polls of 2016, the results this year show that confidence in and satisfaction with the system overall have improved. Three quarters (76 per cent) are confident that elections are well run in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, compared to 66 per cent in 2015. In line with this, 77 per cent said that they are satisfied with the process of voting at elections, up from 68 per cent in 2015.

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As might be expected, those that participate in the electoral process tend to have a more positive view of it than those that do not. Those that say they ‘always vote’ are significantly more likely to say that they are confident that elections are well run (82 per cent) than those that say they ‘sometimes vote’ (62 per cent) and never vote (48 per cent).

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The role of referendums in the UK: the question of balance

blog-photoOn 22 November the Constitution Unit and the Committee on Standards in Public Life hosted a joint seminar on ‘The Role of Referendums in the UK’. Bringing together eminent speakers from across academia, the media, government, and elsewhere, the seminar examined possible problems with the conduct of referendums in the UK, focusing particularly on two issues: how to ensure high-quality information; and how to maintain balance during the campaign. In this, the second of two posts on the event, Alex Quirk outlines the discussions on the second of these areas.

The discussion of balance during the seminar can be broadly divided into two areas: how to improve balance in the media, both traditional and online; and how to address imbalances created by the legislative framework for holding referendums.

Media balance

Bob Posner of the Electoral Commission began the day by reporting on polling conducted after the referendum, which showed that over half (52 per cent) of respondents thought that the conduct of the campaign was not ‘fair and balanced’. Various perspectives emerged over the course of the day on how well the media did in ensuring that they reported the campaign in a ‘balanced’ way. Although the print and online media have no duty to report the arguments with any sort of balance, all broadcasters have a statutory duty to act with ‘due impartiality’. The BBC, in common with other broadcasters, considers the appropriate interpretation of ‘due impartiality’ for each referendum and election campaign, and produces guidelines for programme-makers. Sue Inglish, former head of political programmes at the BBC, and Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, argued that the BBC interpreted ‘due impartiality’ in the context of the referendum correctly. In their view, the BBC did not create a false balance between experts on each side, but simply reported the arguments of the campaigners in a balanced way. Inglish stressed that broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky did not simply report misleading statements without question, but did their best to point out that they may be misleading.

This perspective was challenged by Professor Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster, who argued that broadcasters like the BBC had failed ‘catastrophically’ during the EU referendum campaign. He contended that they followed too slavishly the press agenda, which was especially problematic given the amount of misleading information in national newspapers. He also argued that the BBC’s interpretation of ‘due impartiality’ was incorrect, as it involved balancing the coverage given to arguments from both sides too mathematically, rather than interpreting the arguments in a more interrogative fashion. Further criticism of the ‘due impartiality’ interpretation came from Dr Oliver Daddow of the University of Nottingham. He argued that, despite notional ‘balance’ in the BBC’s coverage, there remained in-built structural biases in the media as a whole, which are more difficult to counteract. Symptoms of these biases included the preponderance in coverage of Conservative party figures and a lack of time dedicated to challenging statistics used by campaigners. However, Sue Inglish and Ric Bailey disagreed with these criticisms, suggesting that broadcasters also influenced the agendas of newspapers, and that they took great care not to produce artificial balance.

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The role of referendums in the UK: the question of information

blog-photoOn 22 November the Constitution Unit and the Committee on Standards in Public Life hosted a joint seminar on ‘The Role of Referendums in the UK’. Bringing together eminent speakers from across academia, the media, government, and elsewhere, the seminar examined possible problems with the conduct of referendums in the UK, focusing particularly on two issues: how to ensure high-quality information; and how to maintain balance during the campaign. In this, the first of two posts on the event, Alex Quirk outlines the discussions on the first of these areas.

It is widely accepted that both the Remain and the Leave camps were guilty during the EU referendum campaign of seeking to manipulate voters’ opinions through the use of misleading statistics – such as the Leave campaign’s assertion that we send the EU £350 million a week’ and the Remain side’s claim that ‘families would be £4,300 worse offif Britain left the EU. None of the participants in the seminar questioned this viewpoint. There was lively and illuminating discussion, however, around what – if anything – should be done about it.

Controlling the truthfulness of campaign claims

The most direct method for seeking to control misleading claims would be to establish a process for identifying and challenging them. Since the referendum, a petition and an early day parliamentary motion have called for the creation of an official body that would ‘verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns’ and ‘issue fines and factual clarifications’ where there were breaches. Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit pointed out that systems of this kind exist (though with limited reach) in South Australia and some American states. Among seminar participants, Professor Sarah Birch (King’s College London) gave the strongest support for this approach, proposing an electoral offence for referendums, analogous to the defamation and libel laws that apply during elections. Under the Representation of the People Act 1983 it is a criminal offence to make a false statement about the character of an election candidate, and to make a false statement that a candidate has withdrawn from an election. If these offences were to be adapted so as to apply to referendums, they could deal with at least a proportion of misleading campaign statements. Professor Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit argued that the debate on the regulation of statements during political campaigns should be seen as akin to any other debate on free markets versus regulated markets. In a goods market, we don’t trust either the consumers or the producers to regulate themselves. Why, therefore, do we trust politicians to regulate their own statements during political campaigns, when the stakes are exponentially higher?

Many participants, however, were skeptical. Professor Stuart White (University of Oxford) voiced concerns about the ‘chilling effect’ such an offence could have in discouraging political speech. This sentiment was echoed by Bernard Jenkin MP, a prominent Leave campaigner, who argued that those calling for regulation of truthfulness underestimate the ‘wisdom of the crowd’. Sir Peter Housden (formerly Scotland’s most senior civil servant) and Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky also expressed the view that such interventions would be undemocratic.

There was, however, interest in less stringent versions of the same approach. Will Moy (Director of Full Fact) highlighted the importance of independent fact-checking. Another option discussed was an official fact-checking body with advisory power, which could initiate investigations into the truthfulness of claims and quickly issue statements calling on campaigners not to make them. As highlighted by, respectively, CSPL Chair Lord Bew and Alan Renwick, Ireland’s referendum commissions and the New Zealand Electoral Commission already perform this function, and the evidence is that their work has produced positive results. Ed Humpherson of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) discussed this body’s role during the referendum campaign. He pointed to its important work in highlighting misleading statistical claims, but also said that the organisation will be keen to learn lessons and develop its practice further for future cases. In particular, he mentioned the need to react to concerns more quickly. Speed, he emphasised, is especially important during a referendum campaign, because the vote provides a final cut-off, and the campaign groups do not have future reputations to defend in the same way as political parties do during elections.

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Improving the conduct of referendums: there are better options than a ‘truth commission’

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Following the EU referendum there have been demands for a ‘truth commission’ to be set up to oversee future referendum campaigns. In this post Paul Kildea argues that there are significant practical difficulties to the establishment of such a body. These include the possibility of a ‘chilling effect’ on speech, the fact that the accuracy of many controversial campaign statements would be impossible to assess and the probability that the interventions of a ‘truth commission’ would become political flashpoints in themselves. It would therefore be better to focus on other changes that can be made to better prepare voters for their choice at the ballot box such as improving the design of official pamphlets and the increased use of deliberative mechanisms such as citizens’ assemblies.

One of the many talking points to have emerged from the EU referendum in June is whether a ‘truth commission’ should be established to oversee future referendum campaigns. Numerous commentators have expressed frustration at the misleading claims made by both Leave and Remain campaigners, and feel that something must be done to protect voters against the wilful spread of misinformation. In a high profile report, the Electoral Reform Society recommended that ‘[a]n official body – either the Electoral Commission or an appropriate alternative – should be empowered to intervene when overtly misleading information is disseminated by the official campaigns’. At around the same time, a change.org petition called for the establishment of ‘an independent Office of Electoral Integrity (OEI) to factually verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns…with powers to issue fines and factual clarifications’. That petition, which attracted over 165,000 supporters, has received 49 signatures since being published as an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons.

The objectives of improving the quality of referendum debates, and assisting voters to make informed choices, are worthy ones. However, the establishment of a body to monitor the content of campaign statements would be misguided. Efforts to foster informed voting should be directed elsewhere.

Concerns about false and misleading campaign statements

It is understandable why the idea of a truth commission emerged in the aftermath of the EU referendum. In a hard fought campaign, both sides were accused of misleading voters through exaggerations, distortions or outright lies. The Leave campaign was widely criticised for claiming that the UK sent £350 million a week to Brussels, and intimating that it could instead be spent on the NHS. Remain, meanwhile, was singled out for exaggerating the economic impacts of leaving the EU, including a claim that households would be on average £4,300 worse off. Other flashpoints included the release of UKIP’s anti-immigration poster, featuring a huge queue of migrants and refugees and the tagline ‘Breaking Point: The EU has failed us all.’ A survey conducted near the end of the campaign found that nearly one-half of voters (46 per cent) thought that politicians from both sides were ‘mostly telling lies’, while only 19 per cent thought that they were ‘mostly telling the truth’.

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The regulation of the EU referendum: lessons to be learned

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On 25 October the Constitution Unit hosted a distinguished panel to discuss the regulation of referendums in the UK in light of the EU referendum. The panel, chaired by the Unit’s Dr Alan Renwick, consisted of Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission; Ric Bailey, Chief Adviser, Politics at the BBC; Sir Peter Housden, former Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, and Dr Paul Kildea, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of New South Wales. Alex Quirk reports.

The EU referendum in June raised many questions about how referendums in the UK should be conducted. Electoral Commission research showed that 52 per cent of voters felt that the referendum campaign was not conducted in a ‘fair and balanced’ way. How is it that we can best strike the balance between allowing campaigners to speak freely to voters, and preventing a cloud of misinformation from obscuring peoples’ judgements? Is it appropriate for the government to be able to use public funds to campaign for one side of the debate? This event provided insights on these questions from experts from across a wide range of perspectives.

Jenny Watson

Jenny Watson is currently the Chair of the Electoral Commission, which is responsible for overseeing referendums in the UK, and was also the Chief Counting Officer for the EU referendum. She focused her introductory comments on the ways in which the legislative framework surrounding referendum campaigning should be altered to provide increased clarity and fairness, particularly regarding campaign spending rules.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA), currently provides only the bare bones of the regulatory framework for referendums in the UK. This structure then needs to be fleshed out by specific supplementary legislation for each referendum such as the EU Referendum Act 2015. Watson argued for the augmentation of PPERA, to provide a more solid legislative platform in advance of a referendum. She especially recommended reform of section 125, which covers government spending of public funds. This section, she argued, needs to be altered to further restrict the ways in which the government can use public money, as there is currently an imbalance between restrictions placed on government spending, and those placed on spending by other campaigners. Making these changes will help to rectify the perceived campaigning imbalance that results from such heavy government involvement.

One function of the Electoral Commission that came under particular scrutiny during the referendum was its statutory role as designator of the ‘lead campaigner’ groups. This was the first time the legislation had been properly put to the test, as there had never before been multiple well-funded applicants in the running to lead a campaign (the Commission was required to choose between Vote Leave, eventually the successful applicant, and Grassroots Out for the Leave designation). In light of this experience, Watson argued that the statutory timetable for designation of lead campaigners, which currently allows four weeks for applications to be submitted and two weeks for the Commission to decide, does not allow sufficient time for this important process. She also suggested that the designation should happen further ahead of future referendums to allow the lead campaigners more time to secure funding. Continue reading