Is a second referendum on Brexit possible? Seven questions that need to be answered

jess_sargent.000alan_renwick.000Meg.Russell.000 (1)Two years on from the Brexit vote, the benefits of a second referendum are being hotly debated. In this post, Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell identify seven questions that should be considered before parliament decides whether a second Brexit referendum will take place.

Last week a Sky poll suggested that 50% of the public would favour a three-way referendum on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. This follows calls from key figures including Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, and Tony Blair, as well as a campaign launched by The Independent for the public to be allowed a vote on the final deal. Number 10 has categorically rejected these calls, stating that there will be no further referendum on Brexit ‘in any circumstances’. Nonetheless, talk of a second referendum is likely to continue. Whether you are a supporter or an opponent of that proposal, there are some big important questions about the practicalities of such a referendum that need to be explored. This post sets out some of the most crucial questions. In further posts over the coming weeks, we will begin to explore some of the answers.

1. Would it be possible to hold a referendum in the time available?

To hold a referendum in the UK, parliament must first pass primary legislation, which clearly takes time. To complicate matters, during the bill’s passage through parliament, the Electoral Commission must assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the proposed referendum question – which usually takes ten weeks. There are then other key steps after the bill has received royal assent. The Electoral Commission and the local authorities that must run the poll need sufficient time to prepare. Campaigners on both sides must be designated, and the current legislative framework – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) – sets out a ten-week regulated campaign period.

The time taken to go through these steps in actual referendums has varied. The legislation for the 2016 EU referendum was introduced 13 months before polling day. For the 2011 AV referendum this was nine and a half months, with only 11 weeks between royal assent and the poll. If the UK is to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 (exit day), such long timescales clearly are not feasible. A big question is therefore, in the current exceptional circumstances, whether the time needed for each step can be compressed – and if so, by how much and with what consequences? For a new referendum to have public legitimacy, these are crucial questions demanding careful answers. Continue reading

Making referendums fit for a parliamentary democracy: Lords debate responds to recommendations of the Independent Commission on Referendums

On 19 July, a debate took place in the House of Lords on the impact of referendums on parliamentary democracy. During the debate, several speakers drew upon the recently published report of the Independent Commission on Referendums, which was established by the Constitution Unit last year to review the role and conduct of referendums. Jess Sargeant and Basma Yaghi summarise the debate.

On 10 July the Independent Commission on Referendums (the Commission) launched its final report; just a week later the pertinent topic of the role of referendums in parliamentary democracy was debated in the House of Lords. Discussion echoed many of the key points of the Commission’s report, which was regularly cited in support of speakers’ arguments.

Referendums and parliamentary democracy

A major theme of the debate was the tensions that can arise between referendums and representative institutions. In opening the debate its sponsor, Lord Higgins (Conservative), argued that allowing people to vote directly in a referendum diminishes the ability of elected representatives to employ their own judgment regarding the issue at hand. Lord Bilimoria (Crossbench) raised the predicament of MPs whose constituencies voted leave but who believed that it was in the UK’s best interests to remain in the EU. By way of example, he mentioned the difficulties some MPs had experienced when making their decisions as to how to vote on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act, an issue discussed by the Unit’s Director, Meg Russell, on our blog. Continue reading

Responding to the challenges of digital democracy during Ireland’s abortion referendum

com.google.Chrome.eocx2f (1)On 25 May, Ireland voted by a two-to-one margin to allow its parliament (the Oireachtas) to change the constitution in a way that would legalise abortion. In this post, Liz Carolan discusses the role of digital media in the referendum campaign, the challenges it poses for democracy, and potential solutions to the problems she observed.

Background

When it was announced that there was to be a referendum on abortion in Ireland, not many people anticipated a landslide; I certainly did not. I had spent the previous five months trying to monitor the financial and information flows behind digital political advertising, witnessing attempts at overseas interference, disinformation campaigns, and unregistered spending. With a tight result predicted by both polls and campaigns, I thought it was naive to think that the digital campaign would not be a deciding factor.

The Irish vote had real and concrete implications at home, but there were international stakes as well. Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion was held up by activists in the US and elsewhere as an example to be emulated. Pro-choice advocates globally were watching too, as Ireland’s vote to legalise same sex marriage in 2015 had emboldened equal marriage activists around the world.

So long before polling day, threats to the proper functioning of the referendum were evident to those of us spending time thinking about technology and democracy. The first threat was that overseas or untraceable financing would be used to try to influence the vote. The second was that deliberate disinformation campaigns could spread untruths, disparage campaigners, and polarise or isolate voters. The last was that a large amount of campaign spending could happen under the radar.

Digital advertisements are particularly interesting because they bring together money, information, and the algorithms that determine who sees what, and importantly who doesn’t. They are often only seen by those targeted with them and they are ephemeral, with the ability to appear and vanish without leaving a trace. They had been an avenue for the alleged overseas interference and deliberate disinformation campaigns during the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election.

The work of the Transparent Referendum Initiative

Looking at the ongoing investigations into these cases, it appeared that investigators and legislators alike were having challenges even knowing what had happening online during the voting period. So in February some colleagues and I launched the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI). We decided to build a database of as many ads as we could, to make it available to as many people as possible, in as close to real-time as possible. We did this so the ads could be exposed to scrutiny, fact-checking, and source-tracing, so that any media or regulatory response could be swift and contemporaneous, rather than retrospective. Continue reading