Making referendums fit for a parliamentary democracy: Lords debate responds to recommendations of the Independent Commission on Referendums

On 19 July, a debate took place in the House of Lords on the impact of referendums on parliamentary democracy. During the debate, several speakers drew upon the recently published report of the Independent Commission on Referendums, which was established by the Constitution Unit last year to review the role and conduct of referendums. Jess Sargeant and Basma Yaghi summarise the debate.

On 10 July the Independent Commission on Referendums (the Commission) launched its final report; just a week later the pertinent topic of the role of referendums in parliamentary democracy was debated in the House of Lords. Discussion echoed many of the key points of the Commission’s report, which was regularly cited in support of speakers’ arguments.

Referendums and parliamentary democracy

A major theme of the debate was the tensions that can arise between referendums and representative institutions. In opening the debate its sponsor, Lord Higgins (Conservative), argued that allowing people to vote directly in a referendum diminishes the ability of elected representatives to employ their own judgment regarding the issue at hand. Lord Bilimoria (Crossbench) raised the predicament of MPs whose constituencies voted leave but who believed that it was in the UK’s best interests to remain in the EU. By way of example, he mentioned the difficulties some MPs had experienced when making their decisions as to how to vote on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act, an issue discussed by the Unit’s Director, Meg Russell, on our blog. 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

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

The future of referendums: what role should they play and how should they be conducted?

me-2015-large-e1485255919145.jpgTwo decades have passed since there was last a serious consideration of how the UK uses referendums. For this reason, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums to examine whether and how the way in which referendums are regulated in the UK should be changed. Ahead of a public event in Edinburgh, the Commission’s research director, Dr. Alan Renwick, explains its terms of reference. 

The referendum is now entrenched as a part of the UK’s political system. The principle that a referendum is needed before some fundamental constitutional changes – notably in relation to sovereignty – are made has become well established. It seems likely that politicians will continue from time to time to find it useful to manage conflicts by proposing to put certain decisions to the people.

Yet, crucially important though referendums are, there has been little concerted thinking of late about how they should be conducted. Two inquiries carried out in the 1990s – by the UCL Constitution Unit’s Nairne Commission and by the Committee on Standards in Public Life – led to the creation of some basic rules, laid down in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. But these rules were always incomplete: for example, they say nothing about who is entitled to vote in a referendum. They are also now two decades old. Much has changed in the intervening years – not least through the rise of the internet and social media. Four major referendums have also been held in that period – on Welsh devolution (2011), the Westminster voting system (2011), Scottish independence (2014), and EU membership (2016) – from which lessons can be learned. Many observers have been dismayed by the conduct of those referendums, whether they agreed with the results or not. A careful review of whether we could do better is therefore overdue.

That is the task of the Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit last autumn to examine the role and conduct of referendums in the UK and consider what changes might be desirable. Comprising twelve eminent individuals with diverse perspectives on referendums, including current and former parliamentarians, journalists, regulators, and academics, the Commission is due to report this summer. It is keen to hear as many views as possible, it is holding seminars in all of the UK’s capital cities. The Edinburgh seminar is the next in this series, co-hosted with the Royal Society of Edinburgh next Monday. Continue reading

Monitor 68: A constitution in flux

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, was published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has seen the EU (Withdrawal) Bill pass from the Commons to the Lords; the failure of talks in Northern Ireland; and a significant government reshuffle. Abroad, Ireland is considering a permanent constitutional change and Japan has seen a constitutional first as its current emperor confirmed he is to abdicate. This post is the opening article from Monitor 68. The full edition can be found on our website. 

The UK is experiencing a period of deep constitutional uncertainty. In at least four key areas, structures of power and governance are in flux. Screenshot_20180308.210141 (1)

The first of these, of course, is the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, to which the Brexit negotiations will shortly turn. The degree to which the UK continues to pool its sovereignty with other European countries depends on the form of that relationship: how far, and on what issues, the UK continues to adhere to EU rules, align closely with them, or follow its own separate path. Theresa May set out her most detailed proposals yet in a speech at Mansion House on 2 March, advocating close alignment outside the structures of the EU Single Market and Customs Union. On 7 March, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, published draft guidelines for the EU’s position. As before, this emphasises ‘that the four freedoms of the Single Market are indivisible and that there can be no “cherry picking.”’ What deal will emerge from the negotiations is entirely unclear.

The government’s preferred path will face stiff resistance in parliament too. In late February Jeremy Corbyn signalled that Labour wants a UK–EU customs union (an issue also central to the conclusions reached by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit). Consequently the government now risks defeat on an amendment to the Trade Bill pursuing the same objective, tabled by Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry. Beyond that, an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill passed in the House of Commons in December guarantees that the deal between the UK and the EU agreed through the Brexit negotiations will need to be endorsed by an Act of Parliament in the UK. Brexit’s opponents are increasingly vocal and organised, and occupy a strong position in Westminster. The odds remain that Brexit will happen, but that isn’t guaranteed. Continue reading

The Independent Commission on Referendums: who, what, why, and how

jess.sargeant doneOn 17 January, Jess Sargeant attended a Constitution Unit seminar entitled The Independent Commission on Referendums: who, what, why, and how. The aim of the event was to discuss the work of the Commission, which has no affiliation to any political party or campaign groups, but which does receive research support from the Constitution Unit. The session sought to identify some of the referendum-related problems that the Commission would have to grapple with. This post sets out the main talking points of the seminar. 

The Independent Commission on Referendums was established by the Constitution Unit in August 2017 to review the role and conduct of referendums in the UK. The Commission consists of 12 distinguished members representing a range of political opinions, with expertise extending across all the major UK referendums of recent years. The Commission first met in October 2017 and meets monthly to deliberate on the issues. It will produce a report and detailed recommendations in summer 2018.

On Wednesday, the Constitution Unit held a seminar about the work of the Commission. Speakers included the Commission’s Chair, Sir Joe Pilling; its Research Director, Alan Renwick; and Sue Inglish, who is both a Commission member and former Head of Political Programmes at the BBC. The aim of the event was to inform the audience about the key issues that the Commission aims to address and to gain audience members’ feedback on them. Sarah Baxter, Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times, also spoke, giving an outsider’s perspective of the Commission’s task along with her reflections on past referendums. Continue reading