The regulation of the EU referendum: lessons to be learned


On 25 October the Constitution Unit hosted a distinguished panel to discuss the regulation of referendums in the UK in light of the EU referendum. The panel, chaired by the Unit’s Dr Alan Renwick, consisted of Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission; Ric Bailey, Chief Adviser, Politics at the BBC; Sir Peter Housden, former Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, and Dr Paul Kildea, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of New South Wales. Alex Quirk reports.

The EU referendum in June raised many questions about how referendums in the UK should be conducted. Electoral Commission research showed that 52 per cent of voters felt that the referendum campaign was not conducted in a ‘fair and balanced’ way. How is it that we can best strike the balance between allowing campaigners to speak freely to voters, and preventing a cloud of misinformation from obscuring peoples’ judgements? Is it appropriate for the government to be able to use public funds to campaign for one side of the debate? This event provided insights on these questions from experts from across a wide range of perspectives.

Jenny Watson

Jenny Watson is currently the Chair of the Electoral Commission, which is responsible for overseeing referendums in the UK, and was also the Chief Counting Officer for the EU referendum. She focused her introductory comments on the ways in which the legislative framework surrounding referendum campaigning should be altered to provide increased clarity and fairness, particularly regarding campaign spending rules.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA), currently provides only the bare bones of the regulatory framework for referendums in the UK. This structure then needs to be fleshed out by specific supplementary legislation for each referendum such as the EU Referendum Act 2015. Watson argued for the augmentation of PPERA, to provide a more solid legislative platform in advance of a referendum. She especially recommended reform of section 125, which covers government spending of public funds. This section, she argued, needs to be altered to further restrict the ways in which the government can use public money, as there is currently an imbalance between restrictions placed on government spending, and those placed on spending by other campaigners. Making these changes will help to rectify the perceived campaigning imbalance that results from such heavy government involvement.

One function of the Electoral Commission that came under particular scrutiny during the referendum was its statutory role as designator of the ‘lead campaigner’ groups. This was the first time the legislation had been properly put to the test, as there had never before been multiple well-funded applicants in the running to lead a campaign (the Commission was required to choose between Vote Leave, eventually the successful applicant, and Grassroots Out for the Leave designation). In light of this experience, Watson argued that the statutory timetable for designation of lead campaigners, which currently allows four weeks for applications to be submitted and two weeks for the Commission to decide, does not allow sufficient time for this important process. She also suggested that the designation should happen further ahead of future referendums to allow the lead campaigners more time to secure funding. Continue reading

Jenny Watson’s lecture on the modernisation of the electoral administration system

In the latest Constitution Unit seminar, Jenny Watson, the Chair of the Electoral Commission, provided the audience with a very eloquent account of the challenges and opportunities presented by the imminent and future work towards electoral modernisation. Drawing upon the effective steps that have already been taken by the Labour administration and most recently the coalition government, she elaborated on the likely effects of the new legislation including the transition to Individual Electoral Registration and emphasised the imperative need for the further modernisation of the electoral administration system.

The Electoral Commission has always played a vital role towards that direction through a number of proposals and recommendations aiming to improve the election process. But it is the need for comprehensive legislation that will create clarity and transparency and ensure that ‘confidence and the effectiveness of our system will be maintained’ as Watson noted. A major step was taken in 2013 with the Electoral Registration and Administration Act which replaced Household Electoral Registration (HER) with Individual Electoral Registration (IER) and introduced new close of poll arrangements. It is expected that the move to IER will improve the security of the registration process and increase registration mainly among younger voters, students and the mobile population. However, in an increasingly disenfranchised society, there is an urgent need to reform the electoral framework, making it more efficient and less complex. As Jenny Watson highlighted the Electoral Commission will be leading the way in order to find the best ways to modernise the system and ‘make it more reflective of the wider society’.

Continue reading