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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PACAC’s report on the EU referendum opens important questions that deserve further attention

Yesterday, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report (summarised here) on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. Media headlines have focused on the committee’s concerns about possible interference during the referendum campaign by cyber hackers but, as Alan Renwick writes, the report also raised other important issues that deserve further attention.

The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) yesterday published a report on the conduct of last year’s EU referendum. The headlines in media reporting of this for the most part highlighted the committee’s concerns about possible interference during the referendum campaign by cyber hackers. But the MPs also draw out various other important lessons that might be learnt for any future referendums held in the UK. These deserve our careful attention.

Many of the proposals ought to be uncontroversial. The committee adds its weight to calls for extension of the so-called ‘purdah’ period – when state resources cannot be used in support of either side in the campaign – beyond the current 28 days. That would prevent any repeat of the pro-Remain leaflet that the government sent to all households last year at a cost of over £9 million to taxpayers. It would be a desirable step – though, as I suggest below, not the only necessary step – towards the creation of a level playing field in referendum campaigns.

The MPs also urge an updating of the purdah rules – written in 2000 – to reflect the realities of campaigning in the digital age. There was confusion last year as to whether those rules allowed a website promoting the government’s position that was created before the ‘purdah’ period to remain live during that period. The committee sensibly argues that his should be reviewed with a view to providing clarity.

Turning to the system for registering to vote, the committee – again very sensibly – argues for changes designed to minimise the danger of any repeat of last year’s website crash, which forced a last-minute extension of the registration deadline just days before the vote took place.

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How can referendums in the UK be improved? Lessons learned from the EU referendum

Today, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. The report touches on a variety of areas in relation to the conduct of referendums, including the role of referendums, the role of the civil service during referendum campaigns and cyber security. PACAC’s chair, Bernard Jenkin, outlines his committee’s findings, which they hope that the government will take heed of so that the country is ready for any future referendums.

Today, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has published its latest report on Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum. With Holyrood demanding a new Scottish independence referendum, it is clear that referendums have become a permanent part of the UK’s democratic system, with major implications for our system, which is based on representative democracy. PACAC’s report highlights the importance of clarity in relation to the role and purpose of referendums, and ensuring that referendums are conducted fairly and effectively.

PACAC argues that referendums are appropriate for resolving questions of key constitutional importance that cannot be resolved through the usual medium of party politics. PACAC also argues, however, that referendums are less satisfactory in the case of what might be called a ‘bluff call’ referendum when, as last June, the referendum is used by the government to try to close down an unwelcome debate. As well as a clear question, the outcome in either case must also be clear. That means there should be more clarity and planning by the government holding the referendum, so there is less of a crisis of uncertainty if they don’t get the answer they want, as in the EU referendum.

PACAC considered four other areas in relation to the conduct of referendums: the fairness of the so-called ‘purdah’ period; the administration of the referendum; the role of the civil service during a referendum campaign; and cyber security.

On purdah, the government claimed at the time that the purdah provisions would impair the functioning of government. However, these provisions were of critical importance to the fair conduct of the referendum. The purdah provisions should be strengthened and clarified for future referendums and PACAC supports the Law Commission’s proposals to consolidate the law regulating the conduct of referendums. Additionally, PACAC asserts that the purdah restrictions should be updated to reflect the digital age, and extended to cover the full ten weeks of the referendum period, as recommended by the Electoral Commission.

With regard to the administration of the referendum, the evidence gathered during PACAC’s inquiry suggests that, while not without some faults, the EU referendum was on the whole run well.  PACAC commends the Electoral Commission for the successful delivery of the referendum, which was of enormous scale and complexity.

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The role of referendums in the UK: the question of balance

blog-photoOn 22 November the Constitution Unit and the Committee on Standards in Public Life hosted a joint seminar on ‘The Role of Referendums in the UK’. Bringing together eminent speakers from across academia, the media, government, and elsewhere, the seminar examined possible problems with the conduct of referendums in the UK, focusing particularly on two issues: how to ensure high-quality information; and how to maintain balance during the campaign. In this, the second of two posts on the event, Alex Quirk outlines the discussions on the second of these areas.

The discussion of balance during the seminar can be broadly divided into two areas: how to improve balance in the media, both traditional and online; and how to address imbalances created by the legislative framework for holding referendums.

Media balance

Bob Posner of the Electoral Commission began the day by reporting on polling conducted after the referendum, which showed that over half (52 per cent) of respondents thought that the conduct of the campaign was not ‘fair and balanced’. Various perspectives emerged over the course of the day on how well the media did in ensuring that they reported the campaign in a ‘balanced’ way. Although the print and online media have no duty to report the arguments with any sort of balance, all broadcasters have a statutory duty to act with ‘due impartiality’. The BBC, in common with other broadcasters, considers the appropriate interpretation of ‘due impartiality’ for each referendum and election campaign, and produces guidelines for programme-makers. Sue Inglish, former head of political programmes at the BBC, and Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, argued that the BBC interpreted ‘due impartiality’ in the context of the referendum correctly. In their view, the BBC did not create a false balance between experts on each side, but simply reported the arguments of the campaigners in a balanced way. Inglish stressed that broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky did not simply report misleading statements without question, but did their best to point out that they may be misleading.

This perspective was challenged by Professor Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster, who argued that broadcasters like the BBC had failed ‘catastrophically’ during the EU referendum campaign. He contended that they followed too slavishly the press agenda, which was especially problematic given the amount of misleading information in national newspapers. He also argued that the BBC’s interpretation of ‘due impartiality’ was incorrect, as it involved balancing the coverage given to arguments from both sides too mathematically, rather than interpreting the arguments in a more interrogative fashion. Further criticism of the ‘due impartiality’ interpretation came from Dr Oliver Daddow of the University of Nottingham. He argued that, despite notional ‘balance’ in the BBC’s coverage, there remained in-built structural biases in the media as a whole, which are more difficult to counteract. Symptoms of these biases included the preponderance in coverage of Conservative party figures and a lack of time dedicated to challenging statistics used by campaigners. However, Sue Inglish and Ric Bailey disagreed with these criticisms, suggesting that broadcasters also influenced the agendas of newspapers, and that they took great care not to produce artificial balance.

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The role of referendums in the UK: the question of information

blog-photoOn 22 November the Constitution Unit and the Committee on Standards in Public Life hosted a joint seminar on ‘The Role of Referendums in the UK’. Bringing together eminent speakers from across academia, the media, government, and elsewhere, the seminar examined possible problems with the conduct of referendums in the UK, focusing particularly on two issues: how to ensure high-quality information; and how to maintain balance during the campaign. In this, the first of two posts on the event, Alex Quirk outlines the discussions on the first of these areas.

It is widely accepted that both the Remain and the Leave camps were guilty during the EU referendum campaign of seeking to manipulate voters’ opinions through the use of misleading statistics – such as the Leave campaign’s assertion that we send the EU £350 million a week’ and the Remain side’s claim that ‘families would be £4,300 worse offif Britain left the EU. None of the participants in the seminar questioned this viewpoint. There was lively and illuminating discussion, however, around what – if anything – should be done about it.

Controlling the truthfulness of campaign claims

The most direct method for seeking to control misleading claims would be to establish a process for identifying and challenging them. Since the referendum, a petition and an early day parliamentary motion have called for the creation of an official body that would ‘verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns’ and ‘issue fines and factual clarifications’ where there were breaches. Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit pointed out that systems of this kind exist (though with limited reach) in South Australia and some American states. Among seminar participants, Professor Sarah Birch (King’s College London) gave the strongest support for this approach, proposing an electoral offence for referendums, analogous to the defamation and libel laws that apply during elections. Under the Representation of the People Act 1983 it is a criminal offence to make a false statement about the character of an election candidate, and to make a false statement that a candidate has withdrawn from an election. If these offences were to be adapted so as to apply to referendums, they could deal with at least a proportion of misleading campaign statements. Professor Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit argued that the debate on the regulation of statements during political campaigns should be seen as akin to any other debate on free markets versus regulated markets. In a goods market, we don’t trust either the consumers or the producers to regulate themselves. Why, therefore, do we trust politicians to regulate their own statements during political campaigns, when the stakes are exponentially higher?

Many participants, however, were skeptical. Professor Stuart White (University of Oxford) voiced concerns about the ‘chilling effect’ such an offence could have in discouraging political speech. This sentiment was echoed by Bernard Jenkin MP, a prominent Leave campaigner, who argued that those calling for regulation of truthfulness underestimate the ‘wisdom of the crowd’. Sir Peter Housden (formerly Scotland’s most senior civil servant) and Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky also expressed the view that such interventions would be undemocratic.

There was, however, interest in less stringent versions of the same approach. Will Moy (Director of Full Fact) highlighted the importance of independent fact-checking. Another option discussed was an official fact-checking body with advisory power, which could initiate investigations into the truthfulness of claims and quickly issue statements calling on campaigners not to make them. As highlighted by, respectively, CSPL Chair Lord Bew and Alan Renwick, Ireland’s referendum commissions and the New Zealand Electoral Commission already perform this function, and the evidence is that their work has produced positive results. Ed Humpherson of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) discussed this body’s role during the referendum campaign. He pointed to its important work in highlighting misleading statistical claims, but also said that the organisation will be keen to learn lessons and develop its practice further for future cases. In particular, he mentioned the need to react to concerns more quickly. Speed, he emphasised, is especially important during a referendum campaign, because the vote provides a final cut-off, and the campaign groups do not have future reputations to defend in the same way as political parties do during elections.

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The constitution of democracy and the pretensions of the plebiscite

weale

Albert Weale writes that the Article 50 case raised questions about which form of democracy can claim legitimacy –  the constitutional democracy established in the UK or the plebiscitary democracy now favoured by many Brexiteers. He discusses these two models and concludes that the only meaningful interpretation of democracy is the constitutional one. In this context the outcome did not represent the judges against the people, as some newspaper headlines suggested, but the judges for the people.

When the UK’s High Court rendered its decision on whether the government could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty under the royal prerogative to initiate the UK leaving the European Union, it released a storm of abuse against the judiciary in the press and among cabinet ministers. ‘Enemies of the people’ snorted the Daily Mail; ‘The judges versus the people’ growled the Daily Telegraph. These were the crudest examples. Yet, for all that, they are representative of the Brexiteers’ critique. Had not the people spoken on 23 June and decided the issue by a majority in a referendum? How then, it was urged, could a group of unelected judges interpose themselves between the will of the people and the realisation of that will in policy?

For anyone who bothered to follow the issues in detail and read the judgement, the reality was, of course, quite otherwise. That the claim of the plaintiffs could properly go before the courts was agreed as much on the government side as on the plaintiffs’ side. Indeed, it is easy to see the government welcoming the challenge in order to secure legitimation for its pretension to executive authority by a court judgement in its favour. The case was not about whether Brexit should happen but how it should happen.

There are legal arguments claiming that the High Court was wrong to suppose that triggering Article 50 will alter the rights that citizens enjoy under the law of the land. Those arguments make much of the distinction between the European Communities Act as a conduit or vehicle of rights as distinct from being a source of rights. Those arguments will be for the Supreme Court to decide. But what is certainly prompted by the reactions to the judgement is a broader question of constitutional politics. As well as questions of constitutional law, there are important questions of constitutional and democratic theory. For what is at issue in the controversy was which form of democracy could claim legitimacy – the constitutional democracy established in the UK or the plebiscitary democracy that Brexiteers now favour.

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