Reforming referendums: how can their use and conduct be improved?

jess.sargeant.resizedalan_renwick_webThis week’s turbulent political events represent the fallout from a referendum where the consequences of a ‘change vote’ were unclear. This is just one of many concerns raised about recent UK referendums. To reflect on such problems and consider possible solutions, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums. Here Jess Sargeant and Alan Renwick summarise the Commission’s conclusions and recommendations.

The Independent Commission on Referendums has published its final report today. This sets out almost 70 conclusions and recommendations, all agreed unanimously by the 12 distinguished Commissioners, who span the major divides in recent referendums. The report is the product of eight months of discussion and deliberation amongst the Commissioners, backed by comprehensive Constitution Unit research into referendums in the UK and other democracies. The Commission has also consulted widely with experts and the public, including seminars in each of the four constituent countries of the UK. We hope that, like the work of the Constitution Unit’s previous commission on referendums, this report will set the agenda for debate about the future use and conduct of referendums. 

Background

The use of referendums internationally has increased dramatically over the past three decades. This has been driven partly by changing public expectations of democracy: deference has declined and public desire for input in decision-making has grown. The UK experience has mirrored this trend. Following the first non-local referendum in 1973, there were three further such polls in the 1970s. A further nine non-local referendums have been held since the late 1990s – two of which were UK-wide.

Unlike many countries, the UK has no formal rules regarding when or on what a referendum should happen. As explored in an earlier blogpost, decisions to hold such votes have been driven by a mixture of principle and pragmatism. Nonetheless, conventions have emerged for holding referendums on fundamental questions to do with devolution and the European Union; in some cases, these conventions have even been codified in law. Referendums provide a mechanism for entrenchment in the absence of a codified constitution: decisions explicitly endorsed by the electorate are hard to reverse without further reference to the people.

The role of referendums in democracy

Referendums can enhance democracy: they can answer fundamental questions about who ‘the people’ are, strengthen the legitimacy of major decisions, and allow the public a direct say on major issues.

But referendums can also in some ways inhibit democracy. Voting is central to democracy, but so are processes such as deliberation, compromise and scrutiny. Binary referendum campaigns don’t necessarily create space for these: rather, they can encourage polarisation and division. Badly designed referendum processes can also risk undermining the institutions of representative democracy, which are essential for democratic governance across the board. There are also some topics, such as those affecting minority rights, where using such a majoritarian device may be inappropriate.

Thus, the Commission recommends that referendums be used with caution. Engaging the public in policy-making processes is essential, but there are often better ways of doing so. Continue reading

How online quizzes could improve information during election campaigns: lessons from Germany

m.paleseOngoing Constitution Unit research is exploring how quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. In recent years, voting advice applications have been promoted as a way of providing impartial, good-quality information on salient issues and parties’ positions thereon. Michela Palese outlines the debate on this topic and relates early thoughts from a research trip to Germany, where the state-sponsored Wahl-O-Mat was used 15.7 million times during the 2017 federal election campaign.

Since last May, Dr Alan Renwick and I have been working on a project to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. In this context, I have been examining ‘voting advice applications’ (VAAs): online tools that aim to assist users in their voting decision.

In this post, I briefly contextualise the emergence of VAAs and consider the debate on the role of such tools in the UK. I then report initial findings from a research trip to Germany, where the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung; hereafter BPB) develops and promotes a voting advice application – the Wahl-O-Mat – for all federal and most state elections.

The origins of voting advice applications

The first VAA, the Stemwijzer, was developed in the Netherlands in 1989. Available on paper or on a diskette, it aimed to increase secondary school students’ knowledge of the differences and similarities among parties, and to aid the formation of party political choices. VAAs became available online in the mid-1990s in Finland and the Netherlands.

VAAs have spread particularly since the early 2000s, and almost all European countries now have at least one. While they take varied forms, all VAAs present users with statements to agree or disagree with and then match these responses to the positions of political parties. Developers generally use party manifestos or prior statements as a starting point, and often engage parties directly in the development process. Continue reading

The future of referendums: what role should they play and how should they be conducted?

me-2015-large-e1485255919145.jpgTwo decades have passed since there was last a serious consideration of how the UK uses referendums. For this reason, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums to examine whether and how the way in which referendums are regulated in the UK should be changed. Ahead of a public event in Edinburgh, the Commission’s research director, Dr. Alan Renwick, explains its terms of reference. 

The referendum is now entrenched as a part of the UK’s political system. The principle that a referendum is needed before some fundamental constitutional changes – notably in relation to sovereignty – are made has become well established. It seems likely that politicians will continue from time to time to find it useful to manage conflicts by proposing to put certain decisions to the people.

Yet, crucially important though referendums are, there has been little concerted thinking of late about how they should be conducted. Two inquiries carried out in the 1990s – by the UCL Constitution Unit’s Nairne Commission and by the Committee on Standards in Public Life – led to the creation of some basic rules, laid down in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. But these rules were always incomplete: for example, they say nothing about who is entitled to vote in a referendum. They are also now two decades old. Much has changed in the intervening years – not least through the rise of the internet and social media. Four major referendums have also been held in that period – on Welsh devolution (2011), the Westminster voting system (2011), Scottish independence (2014), and EU membership (2016) – from which lessons can be learned. Many observers have been dismayed by the conduct of those referendums, whether they agreed with the results or not. A careful review of whether we could do better is therefore overdue.

That is the task of the Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit last autumn to examine the role and conduct of referendums in the UK and consider what changes might be desirable. Comprising twelve eminent individuals with diverse perspectives on referendums, including current and former parliamentarians, journalists, regulators, and academics, the Commission is due to report this summer. It is keen to hear as many views as possible, it is holding seminars in all of the UK’s capital cities. The Edinburgh seminar is the next in this series, co-hosted with the Royal Society of Edinburgh next Monday. Continue reading

The Independent Commission on Referendums: who, what, why, and how

jess.sargeant doneOn 17 January, Jess Sargeant attended a Constitution Unit seminar entitled The Independent Commission on Referendums: who, what, why, and how. The aim of the event was to discuss the work of the Commission, which has no affiliation to any political party or campaign groups, but which does receive research support from the Constitution Unit. The session sought to identify some of the referendum-related problems that the Commission would have to grapple with. This post sets out the main talking points of the seminar. 

The Independent Commission on Referendums was established by the Constitution Unit in August 2017 to review the role and conduct of referendums in the UK. The Commission consists of 12 distinguished members representing a range of political opinions, with expertise extending across all the major UK referendums of recent years. The Commission first met in October 2017 and meets monthly to deliberate on the issues. It will produce a report and detailed recommendations in summer 2018.

On Wednesday, the Constitution Unit held a seminar about the work of the Commission. Speakers included the Commission’s Chair, Sir Joe Pilling; its Research Director, Alan Renwick; and Sue Inglish, who is both a Commission member and former Head of Political Programmes at the BBC. The aim of the event was to inform the audience about the key issues that the Commission aims to address and to gain audience members’ feedback on them. Sarah Baxter, Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times, also spoke, giving an outsider’s perspective of the Commission’s task along with her reflections on past referendums. Continue reading

What new challenges does the changing nature of campaigning pose for referendum regulation?

me-2015-large-e1485255919145.jpg jess-sargeant-resizedEarlier this year, the Constitution Unit established an Independent Commission on Referendums to review the role of referendums in British democracy – whose work will be discussed at a public seminar next week. In this blogpost, Alan Renwick and Jess Sargeant examine some of the difficult questions the commission will have to consider. Their focus is on the way in which political campaigning has changed since 2000, when the current legislation regulating referendums was enacted.  

The UK’s current legislation regulating the conduct of referendums – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000 – was designed and introduced almost two decades ago. Since then, technological innovations have led to new ways of campaigning and communicating. These changes create new challenges for referendums regulation. While most of these challenges are not unique to referendums – they apply equally to elections – one key task of the Independent Commission on Referendums is to assess how well the existing rules work in the context of new digital developments and to consider solutions to some of the problems posed by the modern world. This blog post explores just some of those challenges.

Financial regulation doesn’t reflect the modern world

Increasingly, political campaigners are using social media to communicate with voters. We know this because we can observe political adverts on Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram during elections and referendum campaigns. However, we have very little information about how much money they are spending to do so. This is because financial regulation of political campaigns, first designed in 2000, has yet to be updated to reflect the nature of campaigning in the modern world.

Registered referendum campaign groups are required to submit returns of referendum expenses. The purpose of these transparency requirements is to allow campaign spending to be scrutinised by both the Electoral Commission and the public. Financial transparency requirements apply equally to expenses incurred for online and for offline campaigning. However, how this is reported makes scrutiny of online spending difficult. There is no separate category for spending on social media: such spending is reported as either ‘advertising’ or ‘unsolicited material sent to voters’. Furthermore, within this category it is only identifiable if spent directly with the platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Spending through agencies remains opaque, with no breakdown of how money is used. In this area, it could be argued that transparency requirements are rendered meaningless.

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Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit full report: launch events

The full report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit was launched last week with well-attended events in parliament and at UCL. Speakers included members of the project team, two Assembly members, an MP and leading EU experts. Hannah Dowling and Kelly Shuttleworth report on what was said.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit gathered together 50 members of the public, who were broadly representative of the UK population in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, where they lived, and how they voted in last year’s referendum. They met over two weekends in September to deliberate on what kind of Brexit they wanted to see.

On 13 December, events were held in parliament and at UCL to launch the Assembly’s full report and to discuss the recommendations the Assembly reached. At both events Dr Alan Renwick, the Director of the Assembly, gave a quick introduction to what the Citizens’ Assembly entailed, outlining the two key aims of the project. These were, firstly, to provide evidence on informed and considered public opinion on the form that Brexit should take, and secondly, to gather evidence on the value of deliberative processes in the UK.

The Assembly members considered two key aspects of the future UK–EU relationship: trade and migration. The majority of members of the Assembly wanted to pursue a close, bespoke relationship with the EU. If such an agreement proved impossible, the majority of members preferred the option of the UK staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union rather than leaving the EU with no deal on future relations. This is a significant recommendation considering the current rhetoric from some Brexit supporters on the possibility of no deal.

Present to speak about the Assembly from different perspectives were Sarah Allan, Suella Fernandes MP, Professor Anand Menon, Professor Catherine Barnard and two members of the Assembly.

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Why it’s time to reduce the voting age to 16 in Wales

Last week an expert panel published recommendations for reform of elections to the National Assembly for Wales. Among its recommendations was that the minimum voting age should be reduced from 18 to 16. Panel member Alan Renwick makes the case for this, citing evidence that suggests that voters are more likely to turn out when they first get the vote if that happens when they are 16 or 17 than if they are 18 or 19.

The Expert Panel on Welsh Assembly Electoral Reform reported last week. Besides the size of the Assembly and its electoral system, the Panel was asked also to examine the franchise for Assembly elections. Our clear recommendation is that the minimum voting age should be reduced to 16 with effect from the 2021 election.

As a member of the Panel, I found it fascinating to examine the debates over the best voting age. The evidence for reducing the minimum age to 16 is very strong. But the arguments of both proponents and opponents of this change often fail to hit the mark. I hope our report may help to reset the terms of debate in Wales and across the UK.

The commonest argument offered by advocates of votes at 16 is that a later voting age is inconsistent with the rights and responsibilities that young people gain earlier in their lives. They point out that we can marry, join the army, or change our names at 16. The principle of ‘no taxation without representation’ is often invoked: 16 and 17-year-olds are liable to pay tax, so should not be denied the vote.

When we delved into the evidence, however, we found such arguments to be inconclusive. Young people acquire different rights and responsibilities at all sorts of ages. They are liable for some taxes – such as VAT and inheritance tax – from birth. At 16, they can marry or join the army only with parental consent. Only from 18 can they enter a legally binding contract, buy tobacco, or get a tattoo. There is no one age when we are recognised in law as adults.

Arguments about the compatibility of different rights and responsibilities therefore cannot ground a decision on the voting age. Rather, what matters is how the voting age affects the level and quality of participation in electoral politics. Everyone wants to boost democratic engagement. If lowering the voting age would help with that, it is worth doing.

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