The Future of Referendums: What Role Should They Play and How Should They Be Conducted?

Referendums are now established as part of the UK’s political landscape.  They are widely seen as necessary before some fundamental constitutional changes are made.  Politicians will continue from time to time to find it useful to manage conflicts by proposing to put certain decisions to the people.

Yet, despite their importance, there has been little concerted thinking recently about how referendums should be conducted.  Two inquiries conducted in the 1990s – by the Nairne Commission and the Committee on Standards in Public Life – led to the creation of some basic rules, laid down in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.  But these rules were always incomplete: for example, they say nothing about who can vote in a referendum.  They are also now two decades old.

Much has changed in the intervening years – not least through the rise of the internet and social media.  And four major referendum have been held – on Welsh devolution (2011), the Westminster voting system (2011), Scottish independence (2014), and EU membership (2016) – from which lessons can be learned.  Many observers have been dismayed by the conduct of those referendums, whether they agreed with the results or not.  A careful review is overdue.

That is the task of the Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the UCL Constitution Unit to examine the role and conduct of referendums in the UK and consider what changes might be desirable.  Comprising twelve eminent individuals with diverse perspectives on referendums, including current and former parliamentarians, journalists, regulators, and academics, the Commission is due to report in the summer.  Keen to hear diverse views, it is holding seminars in all the UK’s capital cities.  The Belfast seminar, co-hosted by Queen’s University, takes place on 26 April.

The questions being considered by the Commission include the following:

  • What role should referendums play in democracy in the UK? Should they be held more or less frequently than at present, or do we have the balance about right?  On what sorts of issues are referendums desirable or even necessary?  Are there issues on which referendums ought not to be held?
  • How should referendums fit into the wider decision-making process? Should they come at the start – on a broad principle the detail of which is yet to be worked out – or only at the end – on a precise proposal that has already been written up in law?  If referendums of the former type are sometimes needed, what can be done to give voters clarity on what the options mean?  What should happen if voters support change, but the outcome that is delivered is very different from what was promised?
  • What can be done to ensure that the referendum campaign is fair between competing perspectives? Should the bar on using public funds to support one side of the debate – which currently applies only in the final four weeks before a vote – be extended to the whole campaign period?  Do rules on campaign funding and expenditure adequately ensure a level playing field?
  • Should any changes be made to help voters find the information that they want from sources that they trust? Would it be advisable to seek to ban false or misleading statements by campaigners, as some have suggested?  Should neutral public information materials be provided?  Are there ways to bring public deliberation into referendum processes, so that voters can hear and think through the arguments in depth?
  • How should the rules around referendums be adapted to fit the age of social media? Should the regulation of content on Facebook and other providers be strengthened?  Can the rules around online advertising be enhanced to prevent hidden ‘microtargeting’ of voters?  Is it possible to protect the integrity of referendum processes against malign interventions from abroad?
  • How should the outcome of a referendum be determined? Should a simple majority of voters always be sufficient, irrespective of its size or the level of turnout?  Or should there sometimes be higher thresholds or thresholds in addition to a simple majority?

Many of these questions have particular resonances in Northern Ireland, which the Independent Commission on Referendums would like to understand as fully as possible.  The Commission has not yet determined its answers, but does have emerging ideas.  We are keen to hear what audience members think, and we look forward to a lively discussion.

For further details of the seminar on the 26 April, and to book a place, please click here.


Dr Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit at University College London.  He is the Research Director for the Independent Commission on Referendums.


The featured image in this article is used under a Creative Commons licence.

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