Referendums are great in theory. In practice they leave something to be desiredby Darren Hughes / July 10, 2013 / Leave a comment
Last week the EU Referendum Bill passed by 304 votes to zero. While its future passage will no doubt be tortuous, it makes the prospect of another referendum being held before too long that much more likely. With the Alternative Vote poll in 2011 and the Scottish independence vote next year, referendums are almost becoming commonplace.
On the surface, a referendum appears to be a pure expression of democracy. What can be clearer than asking the people to decide on an issue, one way or another? But there are serious weaknesses to referendums, and these need to be taken into account by those who demand them.
Often, referendums are used by politicians to try to hide problems within their own parties. In 1975, Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, called a referendum on membership of the European Common Market partly because he was unable to get his own party behind the idea. Similarly, the Conservatives are split on whether to remain within the EU. By calling a referendum, governing parties effectively abrogate themselves from responsibility for vitally important decisions.
Perhaps this would be a reasonable solution for the times when representative democracy does not do its job. Perhaps it is right to ask the people to decide if a governing party (or coalition) is unable to agree. Sadly, the reality of referendum campaigns tends to undermine this argument.
Research shows that people tend to vote according to how their favoured politicians recommend (at least when the issue at hand is relatively obscure). The Yes to AV campaign in 2011 was fatally undermined by Nick Clegg’s umbilical link to the issue. Clegg was suffering extreme unpopularity over tuition fees and other aspects of the Lib Dems’ entry into government, and this tainted the campaign. In New Zealand in the late 1990s, a previously popular proposal for compulsory savings to supplement a guaranteed state pension saw its support plummet to single figures in the referendum, largely because it was championed by a deeply unpopular deputy prime minister.
Even when referendums are on more immediately understandable issues, problems abound. Voters are capable of using referendums to express opinions on all sorts of thing that bear no relation to the question at hand. For instance in France’s 2005 referendum on the European constitution, over half of those who voted ‘no’ did so because of “opposition to domestic socio-economic conditions.”
In other cases, such as the current campaign on Scottish independence, the referendum can swallow public debate whole and leave no room for anything else. And the quality and tone of campaigning usually leaves a lot to be desired. The Better Together campaign in Scotland has been heavily criticised for adopting a ‘Project Fear’ strategy, seeking to scare voters out of opting for independence. Similarly, the No to AV campaign hammered voters with pictures of dying babies–a tenuous link to the electoral system if ever there was one.
If you are going to have a referendum, you have to do it properly. You need a comprehensive information campaign, paid for by the state and managed by the Electoral Commission. This should fund broadcasts from both sides as well as mailshots to every household. Either the Electoral Commission or the Advertising Standards Authority should be given the right to publicly correct false information put forward by either side. And the wording of the question itself should be overseen by the Electoral Commission.
So if there is going to be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, it will need a great deal of thought, planning and resources. The question is whether those in favour of a referendum have even begun to think about some of these problems.