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It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote – Electoral Reform Society

January 24, 2017

itsSince 2011 we have had two UK-wide referendums (on voting reform and membership of the European Union), a Scottish independence referendum, and a Welsh referendum on devolution of powers. The UK is in an extended period of constitutional flux – and is showing few signs of coming out the other side any time soon.

It’s clear that the EU debate was in stark contrast to the Scottish independence referendum, which featured a vibrant, well-informed, grassroots conversation that left a lasting legacy of on-going public participation in politics and public life.

It wasn’t for lack of interest – 69 per cent described themselves as interested in the referendum as far back as April. Yet just six days before the referendum, only just over a third described themselves as well informed or very well informed.

The polling also shows that voters viewed both sides as increasingly negative as the campaign wore on. Meanwhile, the top-down, personality-based nature of the debate failed to address major policies and subjects, leaving the public in the dark.

This report calls for a “root and branch review” of the role and conduct of referendums in our democracy.

As part of the report, the ERS has published polling showing that far too many people felt they were ill-informed about the vote; and that the ‘big beast’ personalities did not appear to engage or convince voters. The polling also shows that voters viewed both sides as increasingly negative as the campaign wore on.

A review is now needed to ensure future referendums don’t repeat the errors of the EU vote in terms of failing to foster a genuine, informed discussion among the public, the ERS says.

The report makes nine key recommendations to improve the conduct of future referendums. These include:

  • Tasking an official public body to intervene when misleading claims are made by the campaigns
  • Ofcom to conduct a review into an appropriate role for broadcasters to play in referendums
  • Early publication of a definitive rule-book to govern campaign conduct, followed by a minimum six-month regulated campaign period
  • Extending votes at 16 UK-wide, following its “huge success” in energising the Scottish referendum
  • A robust role for the public at every phase – from a citizens’ panel tasked with pre-legislative scrutiny of any referendum bill, through to publicly-funded resources to stimulate citizen-led debates and deliberation across the UK

It also wants votes extended to all 16-year-olds and the early publication of a definitive rulebook to govern campaign conduct, followed by a minimum six-month regulated campaign period.

  • Citizenship education should be extended in primary and secondary schools, alongside the extension of votes at 16 to all public elections and referendums, and accompanied by a key role for schools in voter registration. This would lay the groundwork for a more informed and engaged electorate better equipped to deliberate on the issues around a referendum.
  • At the start of the regulated period the Electoral Commission, or a specially commissioned independent body, should publish a website with a ‘minimum data set’ containing the basic data relevant to the vote in one convenient place. A major source of complaint about the conduct of the referendum was the supposed lack of independent information available about the vote. While there are real difficulties in separating out fact from political argument in these cases, a minimum data set ought to be possible.
  • An official body – either the Electoral Commission or an appropriate alternative – should be empowered to intervene when overtly misleading information is disseminated by the official campaigns. Misleading claims by the official campaigns in the EU referendum were widely seen as disrupting people’s ability to make informed and deliberate choices. Other countries including New Zealand have successfully regulated campaign claims – the UK should follow suit.

More deliberation

  • There should be an official, publicly funded resource for stimulating deliberative discussion and debate about the referendum. Initiatives which equip people with the information and platforms needed to deliberate on the issues around the referendum should receive official support.
  • The Electoral Commission or an appropriate alternative should provide a toolkit for members of the public to host their own deliberative discussions about the referendum. Our ‘Better Referendum’ intervention demonstrated a widespread appetite for members of the public to get together in a high-information environment to discuss the issues. Similar deliberative tools should be rolled out as part of any public engagement initiative.
  • Public broadcasters should consider more deliberative – rather than combative – formats for referendum-related programming. And Ofcom should conduct a review into the appropriate role for broadcasters in referendums. While there is clearly a place in our politics for TV debates and traditional political journalism, the binary nature of referendums demands more space to be made for more reflective and discursive formats.

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “This report shows without a shadow of a doubt just how dire the EU referendum debate really was. There were glaring democratic deficiencies in the run-up to the vote, with the public feeling totally  ill-informed. Both sides were viewed as highly negative by voters, while the top-down, personality-based nature of the debate failed to address major policies and issues, leaving the public in the dark.

“It offered a stark contrast to the vibrant, well-informed, grassroots conversation of the Scottish independence vote ­– a referendum that left a lasting legacy of on-going public participation in politics and public life.

“From a campaign period that was too short to foster a decent debate, to the fact that misleading claims could be made with total impunity, there are so many lessons to be learned – and this report lays out both the facts and the way forward. Now that the dust is starting to settle after the EU referendum, we need a complete rethink about the role of referendums in the UK. They are becoming more common, but the piecemeal nature of the how, when and why they’re done means we could simply end up jumping from referendum to referendum at the whim of politicians.

“It’s time for a root and branch review of referendums, learning the lessons of the EU campaign to make sure the mistakes that were made in terms of regulation, tone and conduct are never repeated. Let’s make sure that future referendums guarantee the lively and well-informed discussion that voters deserve.”

The report is online here

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