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

Intimidation of candidates and others during political campaigns: the report and recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Photo.001Following December’s publication of the Committee on Standards in Public Life report on Intimidation in Public Life, the Constitution Unit hosted a panel on 21 March to discuss the Committee’s findings and recommendations. The seminar was chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, Associate Professor in Political Behaviour at UCL and leader of Parliamentary Candidates UK (PCUK). The list of panellists included Lord Bew, who serves as Chair of the Committee. Overall, the seminar aimed to reflect on the Committee’s report and its wider implications for the nature of British public life. In this post, Lotte Hargrave summarises what was said.

Following the 2017 general election, the Prime Minister asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to conduct an independent, non-partisan inquiry into the issue of intimidation and harassment during elections. The report undertakes a review of the intimidation of parliamentary candidates, a third of whom experienced harassment and intimidation during the campaign. The forms of abuse were, in the words of the report, ‘persistent, vile and shocking’; threatening violence – sexual or otherwise – and property damage. Intimidation and abuse were often found to be clearly targeted at certain groups, including women and ethnic minorities.

Lord Bew, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

The Committee’s Chair, Lord Bew, spoke broadly about the intentions behind the report and the purposes of the inquiry itself. He began by explaining that the inquiry took an independent, non-partisan look at all aspects of intimidation and set about explaining how the Committee understood ‘intimidation’, emphasising this to be behaviour which would make it less likely for individuals to participate in public life. Lord Bew stressed the Committee recognised that vibrant and robust debate is an intrinsic part of British political life, and that they recognised this to be one of its great qualities. However, they stressed something new was happening to ‘debase our public life’. Without intervention, the Committee were concerned that individuals – particularly those in marginalised groups such as women or ethnic minorities – would be discouraged from participating in politics. Overall, it was stressed that the Committee did not necessarily understand there had been a growth in this type of abuse but that the velocity at which it was being delivered had increased. Lord Bew stated that the Committee believed that the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was a turning point, and that the problem has been exacerbated and abuse has proliferated due to the rise of social media.

Lord Bew reflected on the Committee’s meetings with social media companies (Twitter, Facebook, and Google) during the inquiry, and the companies’ ‘half-hearted’ attitude towards tackling online abuse. This was mentioned with particular reference to the slow speed at which they removed abusive online content, despite their extensive resources, profits and data collection activities. Throughout the inquiry, the Committee felt that social media companies were not doing enough, and did not display sufficient seriousness in their discussions with an inquiry that had been called for by the Prime Minister herself. Continue reading