What would be the rules for a second Brexit referendum?

jess_sargent.000alan_renwick.000download.001This week’s Labour Party conference leaves a further Brexit referendum firmly on the political agenda. In the sixth of a series of posts on the mechanics of such a vote, Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick, and Meg Russell examine what rules and regulations should govern the referendum process, arguing that important changes are needed to facilitate a fair and transparent campaign.

If  a further referendum on Brexit is held, the rules governing how it is conducted would be of utmost importance. The UK’s standing legislation on referendums – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000 – is both incomplete and in some respects out of date. As explained in a previous post, a new referendum would require fresh legislation. This therefore needs to fill in the gaps and update the rules to reflect the realities of modern campaigning. The natural starting point would be the legislation that paved the way for the 2016 referendum – the European Union Referendum Act 2015. But even that has deficiencies. This post examines key points that new referendum legislation would need to address. It also considers non-legislative changes that could improve the referendum campaign.

The franchise: who should be able to vote in a further referendum?

The franchise for referendums in the UK is not specified in PPERA, so would need to be defined in the legislation for a further Brexit referendum. The 2016 referendum franchise included all those eligible to vote in UK parliamentary elections, plus members of the House of Lords and EU citizens resident in Gibraltar. Some proponents of a second referendum argue this should be extended to 16- and 17-year-olds and EU citizens resident in the UK.

There are good arguments for extending the franchise, and precedent for doing so: 16- and 17-year-olds and EU citizens resident in Scotland could vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. But – despite attempts to change this in parliament – the 2016 EU referendum legislation did not extend the right to vote to these groups, and consistency matters. If it appeared that the result of the 2016 referendum had been overturned because the franchise had been changed, many Leave supporters would view this outcome as illegitimate. As such, the franchise for any further referendum should be the same as for the 2016 vote.

How might referendum regulation be improved?

The referendum regulations in PPERA have not been substantively amended since they were introduced 2000. Since then, five referendums have been held, and the nature of communication and campaigning has changed significantly. Continue reading

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. Those posts will appear as a collection on our project page, which can bew viewed here.

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

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

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 politics of polling: the report of the Committee on Polling and Digital Media

IMG_3616On 17 April, the House of Lords’ ad hoc Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media published a report, following its inquiry into the effects of political polling and digital media on politics. At an event organised by The Constitution Unit, Lord Lipsey, who chaired the Committee, discussed the report with a panel that consisted of Baroness Jay of Paddington, a Labour peer who served on the Committee; Will Jennings, of the University of Southampton; and Martin Boon, a professional pollster. Dave Busfield-Birch offers a summary of their comments.

Following an inquiry that took evidence from a variety of experts, industry professionals, and ministers, the Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media published its report on the subject on 17 April. The Constitution Unit organised an event to publicise the release of the report, which consisted of a panel discussion (summarised below) and a lively and interesting Q&A session. Committee Room 2 in the Palace of Westminster was full when Jennifer Hudson, Senior Lecturer in Political Behaviour at the UCL Constitution Unit, introduced the panel, on which she served as Chair. Lord Lipsey and Baroness Jay of Paddington introduced the report on behalf of the Committee. They were then followed by Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science at the University of Southampton, and Martin Boon, who provided the perspective of a professional pollster.

Lord Lipsey

As chair of the Committee, Lord Lipsey noted that he had enjoyed working on the inquiry that produced it, although he did acknowledge that the report was ‘slightly unusual’ in one key respect. Normally, parliamentary inquiries examine government policy, and the recommendations in their reports are aimed at influencing it. This report, however, had focused its attention on the workings of the polling and digital media industries and it is they who are the targets of most of its recommendations. One recommendation that was intended to influence government policy called for the Electoral Commission to have a wider statutory role in regulating and monitoring polling during election periods.

Lord Lipsey then went on to offer some background to the report, saying that it had partially been prompted by the existence of three big polling ‘bloopers’ in recent British political history. In 2015, polls had widely predicted a hung parliament; instead, the Conservatives secured a parliamentary majority. At the next general election in 2017, the Conservatives experienced an unexpected result in the opposite direction: where polls had predicted an increased majority for Theresa May, the voters delivered a hung parliament and a government that now relies on DUP support for its parliamentary majority. Finally, the referendum on leaving the European Union produced a vote for Brexit that the polls had largely failed to predict. Lord Lipsey was careful, however, to point out that despite these three unexpected results, people should be careful of jumping to conclusions about the state of the polling industry. The Committee found no statistical evidence that polls are getting worse internationally. However, he did warn that the failure of polls to predict three otherwise unexpected results in succession would mean that pollsters should expect ‘not to get much sleep’ during the next general election campaign. Continue reading

Why the UK holds referendums: a look at past practice

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Since the first referendum in the UK above the local level was held in 1973, there have been three UK-wide referendums and ten referendums covering parts of the UK. In order to inform its recommendations about the circumstances in which referendums should be held, the Independent Commission on Referendums is examining the circumstances in which UK referendums have been held. In this post, Jess Sargeant explores the political history of referendums in the UK.

1973 Northern Irish Border Poll

The first non-local referendum in the UK, the 1973 Northern Irish border poll, followed the sharp deterioration in the security and political situation in the preceding years. When the UK government imposed direct rule, it pledged to hold a referendum on Northern Ireland’s future status within the UK. The purpose was to demonstrate public support for the Union, which would act as baseline for future negotiations. Although the referendum was largely boycotted by the Catholic population, the overwhelming vote (98.9%) in favour of remaining part of the UK was used legitimise the continuation of the constitutional status quo.

1975 European Economic Community membership referendum

The UK’s first national referendum was held just two years later, in 1975, on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). The UK had joined the EEC in 1973. In opposition, Labour was deeply divided on this. A referendum was first proposed in 1970 by Tony Benn, who opposed EEC membership. The idea gained little traction at the time, but future Prime Minister James Callaghan described it as ‘a rubber life-raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb’. Labour adopted the policy of putting EEC membership to a public vote in 1973, and this occurred after the party’s return to power in 1974. Continue reading