When is it appropriate to hold a referendum?

The Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit to review the role of referendums in UK democracy, is holding its second meeting today. At today’s meeting the members are focusing on whether principles can be identified for deciding when holding a referendum is appropriate. In this post the Commission’s Research Assistant, Jess Sargeant, summarises the issues for consideration.

The first UK referendum, with the exception of polls at a very local level, took place in 1973 in Northern Ireland. Since then there have been three UK-wide referendums, and ten referendums covering parts of the UK. Yet the question of what role referendums should play in the UK’s system of democracy remains unresolved. This is the question for discussion at today’s meeting of the Independent Commission on Referendums.

In this post, I explore the question of whether principles can be identified for deciding when a referendum is appropriate. I do not attempt to draw conclusions, or foretell those of the Commission, but simply put forward proposals for consideration.

How are democratic decisions best made?

To answer the question of what role referendums should play in a system of democracy, one must first consider how political decisions are best made. This depends on how one conceives of democracy. Broadly speaking there are three alternative conceptions: direct, representative, and deliberative.

According to the theory of direct democracy, decisions are most democratic when preferences are expressed directly by the people; representative institutions will distort popular will. In contrast, proponents of representative democracy argue that collective decision-making requires participants to dedicate significant time and resources to the process. It is not feasible for all citizens to do that, so decisions are best made by elected representatives. The third conception is deliberative democracy, according to which decisions should be made through processes in which everyone’s voice is heard and arguments and evidence are thoroughly considered. This conception is commonly associated with citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries.

Although these visions of democracy are often presented as mutually exclusive, most modern democracies incorporate elements of all three. Rather than being diametrically opposed, different forms of democracy can complement each other and be used to address disadvantages or shortcomings of other methods of decision-making. Regardless of which conception of democracy one subscribes to, it may still be possible to identify certain circumstances in which referendums might be appropriate.

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The Independent Commission on Referendums: issues and early ideas

The Constitution Unit has today launched an Independent Commission on Referendums, to review the role of referendums in UK democracy and consider how the rules and practice could be improved. The Commission’s members represent a range of political opinions, with expertise extending across all major UK referendums of recent years. Alan Renwick and Meg Russell highlight some of the key issues that have led to the Commission’s establishment.

The Constitution Unit is pleased to announce the launch of an Independent Commission on Referendums. The UK’s recent experience of referendums has prompted various criticisms of their use and conduct. With referendums now an established part of UK democracy, a review of their regulation and practice is needed. The Commission’s twelve members – listed in full on its webpages – include two former cabinet-level ministers, four other present or former parliamentarians, as well as senior figures from the worlds of regulation, journalism and academia. With their immense expertise and experience, and supported by international research conducted by the Constitution Unit, they will be very well placed to develop constructive and thoughtful recommendations for the use and conduct of referendums in the UK.

We make no attempt in this post to prejudge what the Commission members might conclude. Rather, we highlight some of the key issues and concerns that have led to the Commission’s creation and prompted such distinguished individuals to take part.

When and how should a referendum be called?

The most fundamental question is that of when referendums should be called – indeed, whether they should ever be held at all. Recent referendums in the UK have raised many doubts. In Wales in 2011, some queried whether voters could reasonably be expected to decide on what many saw as relatively technical changes to the devolution settlement. Turnout just above one third of eligible voters suggested that public engagement was low. Two months later, voters across the UK were asked to vote on an electoral system – the alternative vote system – that few campaigners really wanted, primarily due to bargaining between the two coalition partners. In Scotland, the question of who should have the power to call an independence referendum has been and remains contested. Since the Brexit referendum last year, some on the losing side have vowed ‘never again’, and even some of those prominent on the winning side have suggested that this was a vote that shouldn’t have been held. In its recent report Lessons learned from the EU Referendum, the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) – chaired by arch-Brexiteer Bernard Jenkin – criticised the use of what it styled a ‘bluff-call’ referendum, initiated by the government on a proposal that it opposed in the hope of shutting down debate on the issue.

The UK currently has few agreed principles on when referendums can and should be held – parliament can, in principle, call a vote on anything it likes at any time by passing enabling legislation. In practice, some conventions have begun to emerge as to when a referendum is considered appropriate, and in 2010, the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords proposed a list of constitutional matters that might need to go to popular vote. Yet any such norms remain relatively weak.

So it is worth considering whether it would be desirable – and indeed even feasible – to stipulate more precisely when referendums should be held or how they should be called. PACAC suggested that ‘bluff-call referendums’ should stop, but is there any way of giving such an exhortation real-world weight? Many other democracies do specify the processes for triggering referendums much more tightly, and investigation of the options here will be important.

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