What’s the Point of Referendums?

by Alice McCool

14 August 2016


Voteleavetakecontrol.org was the official website of the Leave Campaign in this year’s EU Referendum. It turns out the idea of taking back control was incredibly popular – and when you take a look at the state of our ‘democracy’ you can see why. The average voter is not in control, and they know it. Participating in the referendum and voting to take it back makes total sense.

For some, these feelings of alienation and lack of control can make referendums an exciting prospect. They are a chance for us to get educated on an important issue and have our say on it through actual democracy, in a poll where every vote counts. Power to the people! Right? Not according to two (very different) former Prime Ministers – Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher – who both described referendums a tool used by fascists and demagogues. They are in part referring to Adolf Hitler’s use of referendums; a man who definitely wasn’t known for his democratic tendencies – but was, coincidentally, pretty into the idea of control.

So who is really in control when it comes to referendums? This question is worth re-examining in the hope of understanding why it is referendums in the UK haven’t been the glittering beacon of democracy they appear on paper. And in the hope of understanding how things could be improved in order to get to a point where the people are genuinely “taking back control” of the decisions made in our society. (Spoiler: Brexit is not the answer.)

By the elites, for the elites

From the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum in 2011 to the 2014 vote on whether Scotland should remain in the UK, referendums are becoming a regular occurrence in the UK. But they are a relatively new phenomena in this country, and consequently we have no set constitutional process for them. This sounds dull, but it helps explain the root problem with referendums in the UK – because even though, in theory, they constitute a form of direct democracy, we are hosting them in our elitist representative democracy. This will always toxify any result – by the limits of the options at stake, by how the question is framed, and, importantly, by who’s asking them.

“In most cases referenda are not held because the elites decide ‘oh let’s be democratic and consult the people’, but because the elites are divided and can’t sort it out themselves”, says Dr Stuart McAnulla, lecturer in British politics at the University of Leeds. This is certainly the case with the EU Referendum, which came about largely to resolve squabbles within the Conservative party (or indeed the Bullingdon Club alumni roll) rather than the electorate. Elite control – 1, power to the people – 0.

The same can be said for the AV referendum; the result of a political trade-off between the Liberal Democrats and Tories, proposing a voting system which no party fully believed in, and the people didn’t care about. In fact, both the EU and electoral reform are topics which were basically alien to most voters before they were taken to the public. Strange referendum choices indeed.

So largely – and oh-so-ironically – referendums as a form of ‘direct democracy’ in the UK seem to exclude and remove control from masses from the offset. But what if citizens were able to initiate referendums themselves? This is how politics in Switzerland works; according to their constitution the public can gather signatures of 50-100,000 to propose either ‘optional referendums’ or ‘popular initiatives’. But note that a recent popular initiative resulted in a 77% vote against a plan to guarantee a basic income for all. More progressive democratic systems do not necessarily equal more progressive policies.

So whether they are initiated by government or citizens, the reasons referendums are held need to be addressed – ideally with the help of specific criteria. There could be a law stating that referendums must be held when public institutions are privatised or nationalised, for example. Or an independent body which decides whether taking a topic which is being proposed for referendum is in the public interest – rather than to resolve a Westminster bitch fight. Dr McAnulla could think of one example of a referendum he felt had the right intentions, by the way; in 1998 when the Labour government wanted to check with the Scottish people that they actually wanted their own devolved parliament before imposing it on them. Fair enough.

But in the EU Referendum, another faux pas was that it wasn’t really based on a ‘single political question’, as referendums should be according to the almighty-Oxford-Dictionary definition. Or at least, that single question of EU membership was too complicated, (a la Mark from Peep Show). A simple yes-or-no referendum is surely a bad way of resolving a question which has so many sub-questions within it, covering a vast range of policy areas.

It’s asking a lot of people to go through each policy and decide their stance on it – and the chances are most of us aren’t exclusively pro or anti EU on every question (off the top of my head, I know that I am anti-TTIP, but pro-freedom of movement). It’s kind of like asking someone ‘Do you like music?’. My immediate answer is yes. But when I think about it, a more accurate response would be ‘I like some types of music but I actively dislike others, and I only like listening to rather than making music, and I only like listening in certain situations and at certain volumes dependent on the time and place and my mood’. So giving a yes or no answer to that question is unappealing, and for all intents and purposes kind of pointless. It’s worth noting that Unlock Democracy told the Government this during the parliamentary inquiry into referendums six years ago, pointing to examples from New Zealand where initial yes/no questions are then followed by a multi-option question. But this was obviously promptly ignored.

No education, no education, no education?

So when it comes to deciding when to have referendums and on what topic, the control very much lies with the political class. But could changing the way we hold referendums help us ‘take back control’?

Possibly. One of the major issues with referendums in the UK is public education about the debated issue. As mentioned, this is difficult when the topics and questions themselves are so inaccessible anyway. But enabling the public to find independent information they can trust in the run up to referendums would of course make a huge difference to the quality of debate and engagement during campaigns. You are likely (and rightly) thinking about the EU referendum right now. But let’s look back to the equally painful AV voting reform referendum, when exactly the same thing happened.

It should have been an opportunity for a long-overdue change to our undemocratic winner-takes-all voting system, taking back control from a system in which many votes literally do not count. But for whatever reason the alternative (no pun intended) wasn’t all too appealing either, and according to Josiah Moritmer from the Electoral Reform Society, an independent report found “manifest falsehoods were allowed to stand largely unchallenged”. This lesson was not learnt in time for the EU Referendum, where “very little funding and output of impartial guidance and information was available”, says Mortimer.

How could this have been avoided? Of course the media played their part here. This again relates to the issue of implementing direct democracy in our elite driven politics and media. No doubt referendums would look quite different if the UK had a less partisan media and an effective newspaper regulator. And the false reporting and incitement of racial and xenophobic hatred by certain publications significantly damaged the debate, with serious and lasting effects.

But mainly what the media did was mirror the polarised debate going on within the political elite; the two are mutually reinforcing. Dr McAnulla argues this resulted in a distinct lack of nuance, with areas which did not fit easily into mainstream discourse being underreported – such as the left wing case for Brexit put forward by some MPs and campaigners.

In terms of the role government should play here, director of Unlock Democracy, Alexandra Runswick argues that a commission like that in New Zealand should be set up in the UK “to provide information on the issues raised by the referendum and educate voters on the implications of the choice they were making”. In 2011, the body tasked with this in New Zealand ran a public information campaign (alongside the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns) which included an interactive toolkit and DVD resource to educate people ahead of a referendum. New Zealand’s Electoral Commission rebuked one of the campaigns for making a claim that the Commission described as ‘factually incorrect’.

Runswick also makes the point that referendums should have longer campaign periods, which give genuine opportunities for public deliberation and better public information campaigns. The Better Referendum initiative made a stab at this during the EU Referendum, giving the public resources and a platform through which to arrange local meetups to discuss the issues at play. But do we need a larger scale, more formalised version of this process in order to empower voters with knowledge and understanding?

We stand divided

But whatever measures are put in place to educate people about the issue on which they are voting, the risks that come with binary decision making processes are not necessarily avoided. The most dangerous of these is the ability of a referendum to polarise and divide society. American political scientist Stephen Shalom argues this is a typical syndrome of referendums, because “when people make decisions that do not emerge from participation in some sort of deliberative process, their off-the-cuff opinions are more likely to be intolerant and uninformed”.

Take the Scottish independence vote, which even skeptics admit was the closest we have seen to a decent referendum in recent years. Yet as Dr. McAnulla explains, it’s polarising effects also continue to be felt;

“It divided Scottish society so now there is still ongoing, quite bitter divisions between nationalists and unionists in Scotland. And of course now everyone is talking about remainers versus leavers”

The remainers versus leavers division is particularly troubling, where we have not only seen friends and families falling out, but a 57% rise in reported hate crime and racism in the UK in the weeks following the referendum. Stories have included a petrol bomb attack on an Eastern European family owned food shop, multiple sightings of Swastika flags, and a group of 20 men outside a pub rubbing fake excrement in the face of a 4 year old Asian girl. Whatever your view of Brexit, this abhorrent hate, intolerance and racist abuse is not the result of a healthy democratic exercise.

Taking back control – the deliberative approach

What does this all mean for the future of referendums in the UK? The truth is, so much would have to change before the UK could stand a chance of holding a genuinely democratic and empowering referendum. Democracy campaigners and some political scientists point to the silver lining of higher voter turn-outs in referendums compared to elections. But this feels a bit hopeless when the issues and questions people are voting on are determined by self-interested political elites, who along the media have fed the public misinformation and left us hating each other. It certainly doesn’t feel like taking back control.

The Radical Assembly is a London based group ‘supporting revolutionary movement against all systems of oppression’. They haven’t come to a consensus on the issue of referendums yet, but one activist gave us his personal perspective:

“Without a) systematic public education on the issue at hand, and b) formal deliberations between diverse but emotionally invested groups of people, referendums are a terrible example of direct democracy”

The word deliberation keeps cropping up here – and it might just hold the answer to our referendum woes / taking back control complex. Reader in democracy at the University of Westminster Dr. Ricardo Blaug is all about the deliberative approach, which he explains “involves discussion, the gaining of information and an open debate before the decision”.

There have been a variety of deliberative processes trialled in the UK over the years, but the most notable is probably The People’s Panel under Tony Blair. This involved questioning a panel of 5,000 people representing different sections of society on a wide range of public services, in order to find out usage, satisfaction and how well informed people feel about them. After just a few years it was discontinued – supposedly (and hilariously) because the 5,000 gradually became “less representative of the population at large by virtue of being repeatedly asked questions by government, so heightening their political understanding”, reads a Guardian article at the time. God forbid the people begin to understand the issues they are being consulted on!

It also probably didn’t help that the panel found a fall in satisfaction with public services in the first four years of New Labour’s rule (see below), for example the police. Sadly this didn’t stop the Blair government continuing to give the police further powers amidst concerns around individual liberties, such as DNA sampling. But if the People’s Panel was brought back under a government committed to changing policy based on the people’s will, it could bring about significant change.

Q How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the quality of …?


Wave 1


Wave 5


Wave 6


W1 to W6

Net satisfied Net satisfied Net satisfied
Base: All/service users +% +% +%
Local Bus Service +38 +44 +43 +5
Local Adult Education* +73 +80 +77 +4
Local Primary Schools +83 +83 +85 +2
Refuse/ Waste Collection Services* (a) +79 +80 +81 +2
Parks and Open Spaces* +69 +71 +71 +2
Your GP +85 +87 +85 0
Libraries +84 +85 +82 -2
Local Nursery Schools/Classes +78 +75 +73 -5
Recycling Facilities +67 +71 +62 -5
Inland Revenue +53 +48 +48 -5
Street cleaning (a) +39 +34 +34 -5
NHS Hospitals +69 +71 +62 -7
Local Secondary Schools +74 +71 +65 -9
Your local Council (a) +34 +27 +25 -9
Street lighting (a) +64 +63 +54 -10
Train Companies +32 +36 +17 -15
Youth Clubs and Other Facilities for Young People* +41 +32 +21 -20
Police (a) +63 +49 +38 -25
Council Housing Service* +52 +30 +22 -30

Source: MORI (People’s Panel data)

*In 1998, question referred to “Adult education”, “refuse collection”, “public parks”, “youth and community centres” and “council housing” respectively.

(a) – universal service, based on all respondents


Today, Citizen’s Panels held by local governments provide a much scaled down version of this approach. What’s great about this approach is that people are encouraged to compromise and find common ground with others on their panel, who may be from an entirely different section of society to them. Deliberation also allows the “discovering outcomes that were not visible before the discussion but which, upon careful consideration, turn out to be the best…you cannot vote on what is currently invisible”, says Dr. Blaug. He believes this is a completely doable means of running national and local governments, public services, managing budgets and even making quick, informed decisions. And in case you were wondering, he is not one of those academics consumed in theory and totally out of touch with society – he’s worked as a public sector manager in the UK, US and the Netherlands, and also happens to be a qualified and experienced psychiatric social worker.

Deliberation does sound much more appealing than the thought of more referendums – which could be on the horizon as the Brexit process unfolds and further tricky decisions need to be made. Shudder. So why isn’t deliberation being used? Dr. Blaug argues this is simply because it would involve transfer power and control from the political elite “to a populace of growing political sophistication” – not something many governments are keen on (look at the fate of Blair’s People’s Panel). He adds that “elites have learned to insulate the populace from government in our representative democracy and this is apparent again in use of a binary choice referendum with a simple majority in Brexit”. So for Blaug, referendums very much keep the public away from decision making, rather than empowering them.

The UK probably shouldn’t keep having referendums in our current political climate. It’s clear that referendums staged within our top-down, elitist system will never allow the people to take back control. But assuming politicians aren’t put off them following Cameron’s demise and the Brexit fallout, the process can definitely be improved through clearer criteria of why and when referendums should be held, and longer campaigns focusing on public education and deliberation of an issue. If we ever get a government or political leader interested in deliberative politics and transferring some control to the people though, I’ll be with them every step of the way.


Photo: eppingforestdc/Flickr

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