Why the UK holds referendums: a look at past practice

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Since the first referendum in the UK above the local level was held in 1973, there have been three UK-wide referendums and ten referendums covering parts of the UK. In order to inform its recommendations about the circumstances in which referendums should be held, the Independent Commission on Referendums is examining the circumstances in which UK referendums have been held. In this post, Jess Sargeant explores the political history of referendums in the UK.

1973 Northern Irish Border Poll

The first non-local referendum in the UK, the 1973 Northern Irish border poll, followed the sharp deterioration in the security and political situation in the preceding years. When the UK government imposed direct rule, it pledged to hold a referendum on Northern Ireland’s future status within the UK. The purpose was to demonstrate public support for the Union, which would act as baseline for future negotiations. Although the referendum was largely boycotted by the Catholic population, the overwhelming vote (98.9%) in favour of remaining part of the UK was used legitimise the continuation of the constitutional status quo.

1975 European Economic Community membership referendum

The UK’s first national referendum was held just two years later, in 1975, on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). The UK had joined the EEC in 1973. In opposition, Labour was deeply divided on this. A referendum was first proposed in 1970 by Tony Benn, who opposed EEC membership. The idea gained little traction at the time, but future Prime Minister James Callaghan described it as ‘a rubber life-raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb’. Labour adopted the policy of putting EEC membership to a public vote in 1973, and this occurred after the party’s return to power in 1974. 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

Could tactical voting dilemmas in 2015 revive calls for AV?


The growth in minor party support in the 2015 general election looks set to create very difficult tactical voting dilemmas in some constituencies. Meg Russell reflects on how a move to the Alternative Vote (AV), which was rejected in a referendum in 2011, might have eased such dilemmas – suggesting that a messy election result could unexpectedly put AV back on the political agenda.

Almost exactly four years ago the British public rejected the option of changing the electoral system for the House of Commons from ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) to the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV). The May 2011 referendum result was decisive, with fewer than one in three voters backing AV. This made the prospect of Commons electoral reform look distant, and particularly the prospects for AV. Nick Clegg had famously described it as a ‘miserable little compromise’ between FPTP and a more proportional system – a quotation used ruthlessly against him by opponents of reform in the referendum campaign. And indeed most electoral reformers, before and since, have been more focused on introducing greater proportionality. Hence many ‘yes’ voters did see AV – which retains single-member constituencies and simply introduces preferential (1, 2, 3) voting, with second and subsequent preferences redistributed as necessary until a candidate has 50% support – as a compromise. This half-hearted attachment even by some supporters of change probably did little to further its referendum prospects.

But in the increasingly multi-party environment of 2015 – as most visibly reflected in the TV leaders’ debates – it’s worth considering how things might have been different had Britain voted yes. One of the notable features of AV is that it greatly reduces the dilemmas of tactical voting. And in 2015, those dilemmas seem greater than ever before.

Continue reading

Consequences of an AV failure for the coalition and Lords reform

Press Release

The Constitution Unit has issued warnings for the past year that the AV referendum was likely to be lost. The government allowed far too little time for public information and debate on a subject which generates little interest or enthusiasm. Recent referendums on electoral reform in Canada were also defeated, but the UK government learned nothing from those defeats.

Director of the Constitution Unit Prof Robert Hazell said: “Research has long shown that the public know little about electoral systems, and care even less. It was always going to be difficult to get people interested in electoral reform. This was made worse by the government’s rushed timetable; and by the choice of AV, which is little different from first-past-the-post”.

Prof Hazell added: “A further difficulty resulted from the government’s decision to hold a referendum on the same day as elections. The political parties understandably made the elections their first priority. The public were left ignorant and confused. This was not helped by the mud slinging and exaggerated claims from both the Yes and No campaigns. It is no surprise that when voters feel confused, they either abstain or cling to what they know”.

Impact on the coalition

The coalition will survive the referendum defeat. But the result is inevitably a setback for Nick Clegg. He cannot blame the Conservatives: they wisely left him in charge of the referendum bill, and the timing of the referendum. To keep the Liberal Democrats happy the Conservative leadership will now be pressed to offer strong support for his next big constitutional reform, an elected House of Lords.

Prospects for Lords reform

But the Conservatives cannot necessarily deliver support for an elected second chamber in either the Commons or the Lords. Any package will contain numerous controversial details, from the electoral system, to the bishops, to the powers of the second chamber and the threat to Commons’ primacy.

Dr Meg Russell, the Unit’s deputy director and expert on the House of Lords, said “Nick Clegg may press David Cameron to give him Lords reform as a consolation prize, but this is not in Cameron’s gift to give. There will be strong resistance to the government’s proposals in the Commons, as well as in the Lords. Many Conservatives in both chambers oppose this reform, while support from Labour is unlikely. Rejection of electoral reform by the people may be a blow to Clegg, but a parliamentary ‘death by a thousand cuts’ for his Lords reform proposals may come next.”

Prof Hazell added: “If Nick Clegg had wanted to overcome resistance in Parliament to his proposals, he should have taken more time. He might also have gained from a ‘democracy day’ referendum on both issues: electoral reform for the Commons, and elections to the Lords”.

Watch Robert Hazell’s video predicting the outcome of the AV referendum

Notes for Editors

  • Robert Hazell is discussing the referendum on BBC News Channel at 8.30am on Friday 6 May, and from 10.15 to 12 noon, and at 16.45. Our Press Officer, Brian Walker, can be contacted on 07802 176347.
  • The Constitution Unit first predicted in June 2010 that the AV referendum would be lost. These warnings were repeated in the Unit’s newsletter Monitor in October 2010, January 2011, and on the Unit’s blog (‘Five reasons why the AV referendum will be lost’ 2 April 2011).
  • In Canada, referendums on electoral reform were held in British Columbia (2007) and Ontario (2009), in circumstances more propitious for a Yes vote than in the UK, and both voted no.
  • The government plans shortly to publish a draft bill on Lords reform (which was initially promised by end of 2010). This will first be considered by a joint committee of both chambers of parliament, before being formally introduced.