The EU referendum, one year on: public debate

Today is the first anniversary of the EU referendum. To mark this the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative and Political Studies Association have published a collection of essays titled EU Referendum: One Year OnAlan Renwick‘s contribution, focusing on the continuing weakness of public debate around Brexit and how it might be strengthened, is re-produced here. 

This month’s general election was supposed to be about Brexit. In her Downing Street statement on 18 April announcing her intention to seek the dissolution of parliament, Theresa May spoke of little else. She suggested that, without an early election, her opponents would have both the will and the ability to disrupt her efforts to negotiate the best possible Brexit deal. The vote, she hoped, would deliver a secure majority for her favoured Brexit plan.

Brexit’s low profile

In the end, however, Brexit did not dominate. It was mentioned on average 580 times a day in the main UK-wide newspapers in the week following May’s statement. But that fell below 500 for the following two weeks, then below 400 for the four and a half weeks between then and polling day – dipping to just 155 a day in the sixth week of the campaign, immediately following the Manchester bombing. When the BBC’s Andrew Neil interviewed the Prime Minister on 22 May, his questions turned to Brexit only in the last few minutes. Interviewing Jeremy Corbyn four days later, he asked nothing directly about Brexit itself, though he did enquire towards the end about immigration. The other main television debates and interviews gave Brexit more attention, but still it did not dominate.

There were at least three reasons for this. One, as just suggested, was the unforeseen and tragic eruption of terror into the campaign caused by the attacks in Manchester and London. This inevitably shifted the agenda towards the terrorist threat. It raised deep questions about both Theresa May’s record on police funding and Jeremy Corbyn’s record of opposition to counter-terrorism legislation and seeming friendship with certain terrorist organisations.

A second reason was the spectacular misfiring of the Tory campaign. Conservative strategists intended to focus on one core message: that Theresa May, not Jeremy Corbyn, was the person to provide the ‘strong and stable leadership’ needed for successful Brexit. But the Conservative manifesto introduced controversial policies – most notably on social care – that distracted attention away from that core message. The Prime Minister’s forced u-turn on social care undermined the credibility of the message. Veteran election watcher Sir David Butler tweeted (sic) that ‘In the 20 general election campaigns I’ve followed, I can’t remember a U-turn on this scale’.

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How can we improve discourse during elections and referendums?

The Constitution Unit has recently launched a year-long project, which seeks to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. In this blog post, Alan Renwick and Michela Palese set out the motivations and plan for their project, along with some initial findings.

Following the 2016 EU referendum campaign, concerns over the quality of political discourse have been raised by people of all political persuasions. For example, the Electoral Commission’s report on the EU referendum found that only 34 per cent of respondents agreed that the campaign had been conducted in a fair and balanced way, with 52 per cent disagreeing and 34 per cent disagreeing strongly. The most common reasons given were that the campaign had been ‘one-sided/unbalanced/biased/partial’ and that the information provided was ‘inaccurate and misleading’. Similarly, the House of Commons Treasury Committee reported that ‘The public debate is being poorly served by inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims’. Efforts to tackle the spread of misleading statements and so-called ‘fake news’ have recently been increasing in the run-up to the UK general election on 8 June.

Despite such widespread concerns over the prevalence of misinformation and the need for fair and balanced debate, little research has been conducted on the quality, as opposed to the quantity, of electoral participation and deliberation. Our project, which is generously funded by the McDougall Trust, aims to fill this gap by examining measures for improving the quality of public discussion during election and referendum campaigns. If appropriate, we will conclude by making reform proposals for the UK.

We have begun our work by surveying existing practice across a wide range of democracies, which will allow us to identify areas and options deserving of more detailed investigation. Through this preparatory research, we have tentatively identified three sets of options:

1/ Interventions designed to prevent misinformation by directly banning campaigners from making false or misleading statements. 

So far as we are aware, the most developed application of this approach is in South Australia, where the Electoral Act of 1985 states that ‘A person who authorises, causes or permits the publication of an electoral advertisement … is guilty of an offence if the advertisement contains a statement purporting to be a statement of fact that is inaccurate and misleading to a material extent’. Similar measures can also be found in New Zealand and some US states, such as Oregon. This option gained some traction in the UK after the EU referendum. Last July, for example, 50 MPs signed an early day motion calling for the establishment of an ‘Office of Electoral Integrity (OEI) to factually verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns, with powers to issue clarifications and fines where appropriate’.

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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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Many referendums on constitutional change on the horizon for Ireland

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If Ireland’s new government can stay in power, its term looks set to be dominated by one referendum after another. Five referendums have been promised, with the possibility of even more. David Kenny discusses the issues that Irish voters are set to be consulted on over the next few years. He writes that recent experience suggests that referendum fatigue is likely: whilst high-profile issues will continue to generate significant interest, many of the proposed referendums are unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm by the electorate.

Any change to the 1937 Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann) – however minor – requires ratification by a majority of voters in a referendum. In the term of the previous government, the Irish people voted on six such referendums, on issues as diverse as the abolition of the upper house of parliament; the provision of same-sex marriage; and reduction in the pay of judges in line with other public servants.

This has not sated the desire for constitutional reform; Ireland’s new government has promised five referendums within its lifetime, with the possibly of several more besides.

In early May, after months of negotiations, a deal was formed to return Fine Gael – the major party in the previous coalition government – to power as a minority government. The result of these negotiations for the support of several independent TDs (MPs) and the acquiescence of main opposition party Fianna Fáil was a detailed Programme for Government, as well as memorandums of understanding between the major parties. These are designed to avoid political conflicts that would threaten the stability of the government. Only time will tell if they will succeed; recent disagreement between Fine Gael and independent cabinet ministers over a Private Members’ Bill on abortion raised doubts as to the lifespan of the government.

If the government lasts, however, we will see many constitutional referendums. The Programme for Government pledged referendums on four discrete subjects, to be held at some point during the government’s term: the constitutional crime of Blasphemy; the ‘women’s place in the home’ clause; the Unified Patent Court; and the constitutional standing of the Ceann Comhairle (the chairperson of the lower house of parliament).

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A long time coming: the formation of Ireland’s new minority government

The formation of Ireland’s new government following February’s general election took more than two months. In this post John O’Dowd discusses the reasons for the delay, the role played by the President and the agreement that was eventually reached to allow Enda Kenny to be reappointed as Taoiseach at the head of a minority government.

Partly on account of its possible repercussions for the slow-motion Eurozone crisis and partly because of its sheer length, the formation of the most recent Irish government attracted more international attention than usual, as well as much domestic puzzlement and frustration. The process began with a general election on 26 February 2016 and ended (perhaps) with the nomination of Enda Kenny (leader of the largest party, Fine Gael) for reappointment as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) on 6 May.

A delay of more than two months in forming a government is unprecedented by Irish standards and lengthy enough internationally. The government that has emerged is also somewhat odd. A minority coalition government is not without precedent in Ireland, but it is unusual in a parliamentary system for an administration to consist of parties and groups accounting for less than 40 per cent of the members of the house to which it accounts – Dáil Éireann; of the 157 votes, 59 were for Enda Kenny’s nomination, 49 against and 49 abstained. A further peculiarity is that, as well as the government depending on a formal agreement with the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, this support is conditional on Fine Gael obtaining sufficient support through a Programme for Government agreed with other parties or groups to enable it to govern on the basis of Fianna Fáil’s abstention. In the event, Fine Gael could not attract any other parties into a coalition, so the current government consists of Fine Gael plus nine independents.

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The Chilean constituent process: a long and winding road

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Chile’s current government is committed to the replacement of its 1980 constitution. To formulate a new constitution it has instigated a unique bottom-up process, focusing debate in the public sphere through local meetings and citizens’ assemblies before any discussion in traditional institutional venues begins. Alberto Coddou Mc Manus offers an overview.

Chile is undergoing a unique constituent process. A longstanding aim of several social movements, the idea of a new constitution now dominates the agenda, and is one of the main commitments of the current government. The commitment to replace the Constitution of 1980 stems partly, but not exclusively, from its origin in dictatorship. In an era where structural reforms have been at the forefront of centre-left governments around the region, various constraints put in place by the 1980 Constitution have assumed a central place in the Chilean political public sphere. It seems that Chileans have to discuss, design and implement every policy under the shadow of Pinochet’s constitution, which was carefully crafted to preclude the institutional articulation of progressive political projects. Several critiques of the current constitutional arrangements have emerged: the powers of the Constitutional Court, which has threatened to strike down major reform packages; super-majoritarian laws that regulate fundamental issues (like education, local government, or the organisation of the armed forces), which were mostly enacted during the dictatorship and to which any reform can be blocked by a congressional minority of 3/7ths; and, echoing a problem that is widespread in the region, a hyper-presidentialism that relegates Congress to a secondary role.

In this scenario, and under the pressure of social movements that during the last presidential election called on people to mark their ballots in order to support a Constituent Assembly, President Bachelet committed her political forces to launch a constitutional process that would comply with three standards: respect for the current institutional arrangements, in order to motivate the participation of sceptical sectors of the political establishment; active participation of the citizenry, that for the first time in the Chilean history has been invited to be the main actor of this process; and inclusiveness, which implies being aware of different groups that have been historically and structurally excluded from political debates. What was drafted in general terms in her political manifesto is now being implemented, and the precise articulation and design of the constituent process is something that may attract the interest of broader regional or global audiences. Three features of the current constituent process should be highlighted.

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Politicians from seven parties endorse citizens’ assemblies to combat democratic inequality and improve the quality of decision-making

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The Democracy Matters project, which ran two pilot citizens’ assemblies late last year, launched its report at Westminster on 13 April. The launch was celebrated with a panel discussion featuring representatives of seven political parties. John-Paul Saleh reports on the event which saw all of the politicians present voice their support for the citizens’ assembly model.

Politicians, members of the public, academics and journalists gathered in the Palace of Westminster on 13 April for the launch of the report of Democracy Matters, a project that ran two pilot citizens’ assemblies late last year. The report charts the project from its inception through to its completion and includes discussion of its findings and potential implications for constitutional reform. It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in democracy in the United Kingdom, and participatory politics in general.

The pilot citizens’ assemblies took place last autumn in two locations: Assembly North in Sheffield and Assembly South in Southampton. The project sought to encourage public participation in a time of increasing democratic inequality, using current developments in devolution as a test case for discussion. It posited that, in order to combat democratic inequality and improve the quality of decision-making, any new constitutional settlements or devolution proposals should build on deliberative discussions among citizens and between citizens and politicians based on information provided by devolution experts and advocates of different viewpoints.

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