The Call for Referendum Reform

Amy Dwyer makes the case for reforming the use of referendums and strengthening the role of the Electoral Commission.

While we don’t live in a participatory democracy, referendums form an important part of our democratic system. Whether it be to determine government policy on important moral issues, or reforming our political system, governments make use of referendums when MPs are divided or there are strong calls for the public to be given a say on an issue.

However, at present, referendums are used to simply placate the electorate by posing the question publicly, while content in the knowledge that the public has been provided with little to no impartial information on the issue. This leaves the voters making a decision that they simply do not understand.[1] To be clear, this is not to undermine the intelligence of the electorate. It is natural for the electorate to be unfamiliar with electoral reform or the complexities of the EU. It is the responsibility of the government to educate us about the issue, but so often they fail to do so.

In 2011 the AV referendum left the vast majority of the electorate incredibly uninformed about what First Past the Post really meant, let alone AV. This is a betrayal by the government, as they called for this referendum in full knowledge of this. At the time the Conservatives, who perhaps benefit the most from the current winner takes all system currently in place, were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and it was the latter who pushed for this referendum. Although the system selected for the referendum, AV, is not strictly proportional representation, little was explained to voters. The Tories, the larger party in the coalition would lose out from the introduction of an alternative voting system and so it is disappointing but not surprising that the lead-up to this referendum did not result in broader education surrounding voting systems.

It should be the responsibility of the Electoral Commission to ensure that the electorate are provided with enough impartial information to make an informed decision. It is clear that the lack of such a measure has led to much anger and frustration in the fall-out after the Brexit referendum, with reports that a quarter of Brexit voters feel misled.[2] It is not enough to simply investigate this afterward, regulations must be in place to ensure that voters are not being misled in the first place. There is little point in holding referendums unless those voting understand the question that is being posed and potential impacts of their vote.

The Brexit referendum provides the most recent example of this.[3] Although both sides of the campaign published information, little information distributed was impartial. Aside from voters having little knowledge of our relationship with the EU, the fact that the morning after the Brexit vote the number of people from the UK googling ‘What is the EU’ soared significantly, demonstrates that voters lacked a basic understanding of the purpose and role of the EU.[4] The real benefits of remaining within the European Union were played down or ostracised from the outset. This led to many deprived towns voting to leave the EU, when it is these areas that often benefit the most from EU funding. In recent months people are beginning to understand the real impact of leaving the EU and have stated that they did not understand what would happen. While it is clearly impossible to list every possible outcome of leaving the EU on a ballot of campaign leaflets, there was clearly the case of campaigns exploiting the grievances of the public to get out the vote that benefitted them.

If referendums were used effectively, voters would be more satisfied with the quality of democracy in this country, as they would be able to make informed choices about important moral issues. Such a reform may also trigger more engagement in politics, if the public felt they were given the information they needed to understand the facts and arguments at play, they are much more likely to use their voice. This is why the government needs to reform its use of referendums and strengthen the role of the Electoral Commission in ensuring that the public are well informed on the issues up for discussion.

Amy Dwyer is studying for an MA in Politics and is an ambassador at 50:50 Parliament. She is also Women’s Officer for the North West Young Fabians.

She tweets at @AmyDwyer23






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