The role of referendums in the UK: the question of information

blog-photoOn 22 November the Constitution Unit and the Committee on Standards in Public Life hosted a joint seminar on ‘The Role of Referendums in the UK’. Bringing together eminent speakers from across academia, the media, government, and elsewhere, the seminar examined possible problems with the conduct of referendums in the UK, focusing particularly on two issues: how to ensure high-quality information; and how to maintain balance during the campaign. In this, the first of two posts on the event, Alex Quirk outlines the discussions on the first of these areas.

It is widely accepted that both the Remain and the Leave camps were guilty during the EU referendum campaign of seeking to manipulate voters’ opinions through the use of misleading statistics – such as the Leave campaign’s assertion that we send the EU £350 million a week’ and the Remain side’s claim that ‘families would be £4,300 worse offif Britain left the EU. None of the participants in the seminar questioned this viewpoint. There was lively and illuminating discussion, however, around what – if anything – should be done about it.

Controlling the truthfulness of campaign claims

The most direct method for seeking to control misleading claims would be to establish a process for identifying and challenging them. Since the referendum, a petition and an early day parliamentary motion have called for the creation of an official body that would ‘verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns’ and ‘issue fines and factual clarifications’ where there were breaches. Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit pointed out that systems of this kind exist (though with limited reach) in South Australia and some American states. Among seminar participants, Professor Sarah Birch (King’s College London) gave the strongest support for this approach, proposing an electoral offence for referendums, analogous to the defamation and libel laws that apply during elections. Under the Representation of the People Act 1983 it is a criminal offence to make a false statement about the character of an election candidate, and to make a false statement that a candidate has withdrawn from an election. If these offences were to be adapted so as to apply to referendums, they could deal with at least a proportion of misleading campaign statements. Professor Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit argued that the debate on the regulation of statements during political campaigns should be seen as akin to any other debate on free markets versus regulated markets. In a goods market, we don’t trust either the consumers or the producers to regulate themselves. Why, therefore, do we trust politicians to regulate their own statements during political campaigns, when the stakes are exponentially higher?

Many participants, however, were skeptical. Professor Stuart White (University of Oxford) voiced concerns about the ‘chilling effect’ such an offence could have in discouraging political speech. This sentiment was echoed by Bernard Jenkin MP, a prominent Leave campaigner, who argued that those calling for regulation of truthfulness underestimate the ‘wisdom of the crowd’. Sir Peter Housden (formerly Scotland’s most senior civil servant) and Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky also expressed the view that such interventions would be undemocratic.

There was, however, interest in less stringent versions of the same approach. Will Moy (Director of Full Fact) highlighted the importance of independent fact-checking. Another option discussed was an official fact-checking body with advisory power, which could initiate investigations into the truthfulness of claims and quickly issue statements calling on campaigners not to make them. As highlighted by, respectively, CSPL Chair Lord Bew and Alan Renwick, Ireland’s referendum commissions and the New Zealand Electoral Commission already perform this function, and the evidence is that their work has produced positive results. Ed Humpherson of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) discussed this body’s role during the referendum campaign. He pointed to its important work in highlighting misleading statistical claims, but also said that the organisation will be keen to learn lessons and develop its practice further for future cases. In particular, he mentioned the need to react to concerns more quickly. Speed, he emphasised, is especially important during a referendum campaign, because the vote provides a final cut-off, and the campaign groups do not have future reputations to defend in the same way as political parties do during elections.

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