THE BLOG

Unless Elections Modernise, Turnout in the EU Referendum Could Struggle to Surpass 50%

22/07/2015 08:21 BST | Updated 21/07/2016 10:59 BST

I bumped into a Labour leadership candidate recently at Harrow and Wealdstone station in London and used the opportunity to impart my two pence on the challenges facing the country and how the Government should tackle them. One of those challenges was the UK's membership of the EU and whether or not the upcoming referendum would engage the public as the independence referendum managed to do in Scotland last year.

They seemed cautiously optimistic whilst I remained sceptical.

What evidence is there to suggest that engagement in the EU referendum will be similar to that experienced in the Scottish referendum? Will we really see national voter turnout anywhere near 85%?

According to figures released by ComRes and ITV News earlier this year, only 19% of the public considered Britain's relationship with the EU to be a top concern and in a poll undertaken by Ipsos Mori and the Economist last month, just 13% of the public said they believe Europe is an important issue facing the country.

"Ah", I hear Nigel say, "but immigration is a major concern for the country, and the referendum is about stopping the free movement of people within the EU."

Whilst the two polls I mentioned did have immigration as a top concern at 46% and 45% respectively, only a No vote and exit from the EU would end the free movement of people, and the latest polls have a No vote on just 27%.

So what other experiences can we draw upon?

The last UK-wide referendum was held in 2011 to look at changing the voting system from 'first-past-the-post' to the 'alternative vote' method. This would have had the potential to create what proponents argued to be 'fairer' parliamentary representation. Despite this, heavy media coverage, celebrity endorsements, and over £5 million being spent on campaigns, voter turnout was just 42%.

1975 saw the only other UK-wide referendum to date. This one looked at the UK's membership of the European 'Common Market'. The then Labour Government leaflet-dropped every household in the country with arguments put forward by the Yes and No campaigns in addition to the Government's own pamphlet arguing for continued membership. In the end, 65% turned out to vote; a reduction of eight percentage points on the turnout of the General Election in the preceding year.

Should the same be reflected in the upcoming referendum, we would be looking at a turnout of 58%.

In my view, the best indicator is the European Parliament elections held last year. This was billed in the media as a pre-referendum on the UK's membership of the EU with votes for Ukip representing an exit vote. The televised debates between the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who described his party as the 'party of in', and Nigel Farage, the leader of the Eurosceptic Ukip, certainly framed the election in this manner.

However, despite the TV debates, intense media coverage, and millions of pounds spent on campaigning, only 36% of the population turned out to vote.

Serious reform is now required. The recommendations put forward last year, by the now disbanded Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee such as online voting, votes at 16, and a national holiday for voting should be looked at.

Results released today by WebRoots Democracy and YouGov reveal that the majority of the UK want an online voting option implemented in the referendum, and the Scottish experience has proved that reducing the voting age can have a huge impact on youth voter engagement.

I would be pleased to see a turnout similar to 1975 achieved but I fear the evidence suggests that one similar to the 2011 referendum and the 2014 European Parliament election is more likely.

Participation is the bedrock of any democracy and the decision on whether or not the UK stays in the EU will affect us all. In order to obtain true value for money, time, and energy, it is essential that we ensure this decision meets the litmus test of democracy and is made by as many of us as possible.

Failure to do this risks creating a future driven by a minority.