Why “tough rules” would help referendums settle big issues

In recent years the UK has conducted numerous referendums on major constitutional issues. Most of these referendums have not served their purpose with many issues not being settled after the vote count and implementation or attempted implementation of the result. “Tough rules” such as introducing a minimum turnout, a supermajority and an amnesty period on the issue being decided by a referendum would make referendums better for democracy in the UK, argues UEA graduate Chris Skingley.

Referendums although not without flaws, are necessary to achieve mandates for big constitutional decisions. Referendums have grown in popularity, with their frequency increasing globally since the turn of the 20th century and particularly since the 1970s. Supporters of direct democracy such as 18th century scholar Jean-Jaques Rousseau have argued that “the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no long free.”  Referendums are therefore seen by some as beneficial for democracy.  George Monbiot claims “participatory rather than representative democracy would allow us more say in how we run the country”. Knowing the view of the electorate on a particular issue eliminates the need for it to be decided entirely by representatives however most referendums in the UK have not proven to be decisive and consequently are not ideal methods for resolving constitutional issues. Are referendums, where the majority opinion is adopted to satisfy the greatest number the best form of democracy? “Tough rules” as named by Vernon Bogdanor, should be implemented to ensure that when a decision is reached to change the status quo, it has strong support that is likely to endure.

Neither the 1975 nor 2016 European membership referendums have been able to settle the question of the UK’s relationship with the European Union. In January 2018 an ICM poll found that support for a second referendum on the Brexit deal was 16 points higher than those who opposed the idea. It seems that the public are not satisfied with the notion that the decision was indeed “once in a generation” as opposing campaigners David Cameron and Daniel Hannan both claimed prior to the vote in 2016. With “Remain” being the expected result as votes began to be counted, “Leave” campaigner Nigel Farage announced that “whatever happens tonight, whoever wins this battle, one thing I’m completely certain of, is we are winning this war”. These are not the words of someone who believes that the result of this referendum would be accepted for any significant length of time. The acceptance of referendum results is often difficult if not impossible for the losing sides, particularly if a result is won by slim margins. This is also exacerbated by the tribal and conflicting way UK referendum campaigns have been conducted, thus fuelling political feeling that the other outcome would be a tragic defeat. John Parkinson claims tribalism is common for referendums in majoritarian states.

In a similar light, the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 was not settled in the immediate years afterwards and arguably still isn’t despite a ten-point difference in the result. In the following parliamentary election in 2015 the Scottish National Party (the major party calling for Scottish Independence) increased its number of seats from 6 to 56 from the previous election, receiving a landslide 50% of all votes cast in Scotland. Encouraged by this dramatic seat increase giving a majority support for a pro-independence Scottish party, its leader Nicola Sturgeon in September 2015 gave a speech, much like Farage’s, claiming that the quest for independence will not go away despite the “no” vote in the referendum. In the speech on the anniversary of the referendum, Sturgeon claimed that “Yes or No, we were not now going to be silent… (we) will consider the circumstances in which it might be appropriate, sometime in the future, to propose (another) referendum”. This calls into question therefore the purposes of having a referendum on deeply divisive constitutional issues if the side with the least votes is often unwilling to accept the result and refrain from continued campaigning. Along with these two most recent examples of UK referendums, the issue of Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1979 was revisited less than twenty years on from the original referendum with both referendums achieving different results from the first.

Conversely the 2011 electoral system referendum on whether to change to Alternative Vote (AV) proved the UK can hold decisive referendums. Matthew Elliott, the director of the “No” campaign claimed “I personally believe that this result will settle the debate over changing our electoral system for the next generation.” This analysis has held held true so far, with calls for electoral reform not high up on the public’s key election issues as can be seen from the graph of key issues for the 2017 General Election.

This is not to say however that referendums with relatively predictable consequences such as electoral reform are exempt from backsliding or calls for second referendums. Unlike the UK, New Zealand voted through a binding referendum to change their voting system from First Past the Post to a Mixed Member Proportional system in 1993 but this issue remained prominent in their politics. A further referendum was called in 2011 to see if the public would like to keep their new system or whether they wanted to change either back or to have a different system altogether. This yet again shows how just a single referendum did not settle the referendum issue even for a referendum question with relatively defined consequences unlike the more unpredictable Brexit or Scottish Independence outcomes.

Referendums do have their place in deciding big constitutional issues as representative democracy would struggle to provide a strong enough mandate to call for major change. Tough referendum rules such as the imposition of a turnout floor of 50% and the need for a supermajority of 55% both of which were recommended by the EU for the 2006 Montenegrin Independence Referendum would be a good starting point. Potentially setting an amnesty period for several years before a further referendum on the same issue can be called, should also be given consideration. These tough rules would ensure that decisions made by referendums do last for a significant amount of time, due to the result having a definite mandate from a healthy majority of the electorate. A second referendum would be unlikely to produce a different result under these rules and would therefore undermine the losing side’s demand for one.

Chris Skingley is a UEA Politics graduate who wrote this piece as part of the final year module Elections and Electoral Malpractice run by Toby James.

Image credit: Abi Begum

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