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

The campaign and general election in review

David-Ireland

This year’s general election result took almost everyone by surprise, including the pollsters, forecasters and other experts. On 3 June, Joe Twyman, Dr Ben Lauderdale, Dr Rosie Campbell, Professor Justin Fisher and Professor Matt Goodwin took part in a roundtable to discuss where the predictions went wrong and lessons for 2020. David Ireland offers an overview of the event.

The exit poll that came out at 10pm on 7 May took almost everyone by surprise. Over the course of Friday morning, the scale of the Conservative majority revealed itself, showing that even the exit poll had underestimated the Conservative support. What happened? How did the polls get it so wrong and what are the lessons for 2020? This blog highlights the key issues from a recent roundtable on GE2015 hosted by UCL’s Department of Political Science and the Constitution Unit and chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson. 

Joe Twyman, Head of Political and Social Research, YouGov

As one of many pollsters who had long predicted a hung parliament, Joe acknowledged YouGov didn’t get it right this time. He also, rather humorously, showed the range of Twitter abuse directed at him as a result.

Voting intention remained tightly balanced in the months leading up to the election, but YouGov’s polling revealed that the ‘fundamentals’ may not have been given enough weight in predicting vote share.Importantly, no party had ever come from behind on the economy and leadership to won an election before, and this election was not to be the first. The economy remained the single most important issue, and here, the Conservatives were significantly ahead. Similarly, Miliband never got close to Cameron on party leader ratings.  Continue reading