Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The trouble with referendums

As a nation we're only just absorbing the full importance of the recent referendum on EU membership. In a previous blog post before the vote, I suggested what a win for brexit would mean for the ensuing negotiations:

"Our future will be in the hands of a yet unknown Prime Minister and Chancellor, working with an unknown budget, under unknown market conditions, taking an unknown proposal for a trade deal, with unknown conditions about fees and movement of people."

That looks about right, so what went so wrong for David Cameron & Co, such that it came to this? I've been musing about the whole idea of holding a referendum at all, and I've come to a few conclusions. I'm not suggesting a re-run of what we have just had, as you can't re-write history, and the way the vote was framed would contain the same flaws. However, I think there were lessons from previous votes, as well as this one.

A referendum is not an election

In a general election, each party has a manifesto, with pledges and commitments as to what they would do, should they win the vote. We know politicians lie, exaggerate and wriggle out of commitments, but they can be held accountable at the next election. If you don't think that works, remember that the Lib Dems suffered badly at the last election for a) being in the coalition at all, and b) promising to abolish tuition fees and failing - even though other pledges were acted upon.

A referendum has no such accountability. It's a single vote, and if promises are made around that vote, that is not the same. In the recent vote, they were being made by people who didn't have the power to put them into action, and who appear to have had no intention to do so. For example, Iain Duncan Smith is now denying he ever promised to spend £350 million on the NHS, despite riding on the bus that said precisely that.

Keep the question as closed as possible. Avoid open questions.

Connected to that is how open-ended the option to leave the EU actually was. If you voted to leave, that new status of "not in the EU" was completely undefined. To some extent that accounts for the diversity of people who supported it, ranging from extreme right groups through to traditional socialists. The problem was that when people voted leave, they couldn't know what they were voting for, only what they were against. The turmoil we are now seeing is the inevitable fall-out from such an open-ended change.

Contrast that with the referendum on the alternative vote system. It was a simple choice: stay as we are, or use this new system. There was a debate, and no doubt some politicians saying things with varying amounts of credibility, but the choice was pretty straightforward. It couldn't acquire a whole set of other agendas and promises.

Constitutional matters are more complex, but it can be done. The 1979 Scottish devolution vote had a set of legislation in place that needed ratifying by referendum before it became law. I don't suppose for a minute that everyone read the full plan, but it was available, had they wished to do so, and so there was a document campaigners could quote to verify their claims. Likewise in the recent Scottish independence referendum, the White Paper was available, although the issues were even more far-reaching and complex.

Consider what level of support will legitimise the result

There has been a referendum in Britain where the option that got the most votes didn't happen. It was the 1979 Scottish devolution vote I mentioned earlier. 51.6% of the vote supported the legislation, but before the poll took place, a threshold was set, stating that a 'yes' vote would only be valid if 40% of the eligible voters supported it. On a 64% turnout, it meant only 32.9% of the Scottish electorate had actually voted 'yes', and it was not taken forward. It ended SNP support for the Labour government and led to an election. For comparison, the equivalent figure for the recent EU poll was that 37.47% of the electorate supported 'Leave'. But then, as I noted a while ago, 24.3% of the electorate gave the Conservatives an overall majority at the last election.

The reason for thresholds is to be sure that there is a critical mass of people supporting change from the status quo. In the Church of England, major decisions, such as the ordination of women to the priesthood vote in 1992 required 2/3 of each of the houses of General Synod to approve. Even then, there was major division and discord for years to come. Likewise, many clubs and societies set a threshold for change in rules and constitution. Looking back, David Cameron may wish he had done the same with this vote, given how relatively close it was.


Andy Batchelor said...

Indeed Mike - maybe the government never expected that people would vote to leave the EU, and so did not give enough thought to the conditions surrounding the referendum.

Mike Peatman said...

Indeed. It just demonstrates their foolishness and arrogance.

Chris Price said...

That's excellent Mike. I've been party to a FB thread wher they have been aggressively defending the democratic nature of their victory with absolutely no doubt of their position. Their nativity is disturbing and unsettling but though I knew instinctively that their confidence was unwarranted I couldn't put flesh on it. The point you have made expresses wonderfully how badly let down we have been by the referendum.