The Constitution Unit blog in 2018: a year in review

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2018 has been an interesting year for the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in studying or working within them. As the year draws to a close, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the most popular blogs of the year, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics. 

Obviously, Brexit has made this a very interesting time to work in political science, and the blog has benefited both in terms of increased general interest as a result, but also because there are niche topics being discussed in public now that would have generated little interest in other years. Few, for example, would have predicted in May 2016 that whether or not a motion in the House of Commons was amendable would become a hot political topic.

Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, as well as two personal selections from me, at the end of my first twelve months as blog editor.

Editor’s pick

Gendered Vulnerability’ and representation in United States politics by Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt.

This was obviously a tough decision, but if you were to ask me for my favourite post of the year, this would be my instinctive choice. Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt discuss their new book, Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office, which argues that women’s perception of a more difficult electoral landscape leads them to adopt distinct, and more constituent-oriented, legislative strategies than their male counterparts. It is a fascinating insight into the challenges faced by women in running for, securing and retaining office. A similar blog on the UK experience, entitled Strategies for Success, was written by Leah Culhane in November. Continue reading

A second Brexit referendum looks increasingly likely: what key questions need to be addressed?

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Widespread negative reactions to Theresa May’s Brexit deal have focused increasing attention on a possible further EU referendum. With MPs appearing poised to vote down the Withdrawal Agreement, a referendum could provide a way out of the apparent deadlock. But how would it work in practice? Ahead of the parliamentary debate, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick summarise the conclusions of their recent report on this topic.

When the Constitution Unit published The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit in October, it was still unclear if the government would successfully reach a deal with the EU, what that deal would contain, or how parliament and the public would react. Now that those facts are known, increasing numbers of MPs are demanding that the Brexit issue be returned to the public in a fresh referendum. But many unanswered questions about the practicalities remain. Here, we offer short responses to the most pressing of those questions, drawn from our report, to inform the parliamentary and growing public debate.

1. Is a referendum possible in the time available?

To hold a referendum, the UK parliament must first pass legislation. Before the bill leaves parliament, the Electoral Commission must assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the wording of the proposed referendum question – which usually takes ten weeks. This limits the ability to pass a bill very rapidly. Once the bill has received royal assent, sufficient time must be set aside to allow the Electoral Commission to designate lead campaigners, and for the campaign to take place.

In total, we estimate that the whole process – from introducing legislation to polling day – could be compressed to around 22 weeks. This is significantly less time than for previous referendums: for example the equivalent gap for the 2016 EU referendum was 13 months. But similar levels of urgency did not apply in these earlier cases.

The timetable could potentially be compressed even further, but doing so would risk delegitimising the result of the referendum – it is important given the sensitivity of the topic that the legislation is seen to be fully scrutinised, the question fair, and the campaigns adequately regulated. Continue reading

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

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