How To Do Referendums Better In The Future

05/09/2016 09:45 | Updated 05 September 2016

What is the role of referendums in our democracy? For some, referendums are a means for demagogues to undermine parliamentary sovereignty. For others, they are a vital exercise in engaging citizens on crucial constitutional issues that cannot be settled by parties alone.

Yet referendums are not good or bad in themselves; they are a democratic tool with positives and negatives. The quality of information and debate can vary enormously.

It is partly because referendums are not ever a pure exercise confined to the 'exam question'. There is always a proxy element: voters often choose to cast judgement about the government of the day, or to opt for one of the many de facto mini-manifestos that lie behind each side.

Nowhere have we seen these issues more clearly reflected than during the European Union referendum. As passionate believers in democracy, the Electoral Reform Society wanted to see the best possible referendum debate. We chose to play an active role in the EU referendum by trying to ensure the debate was as high quality as possible, and learn important lessons in how good deliberation can be stimulated in living rooms, community centres and workplaces across the country. Our Better Referendum online toolkit organised with university partners, took advantage of digital technology to enable free, deliberative discussion to be a part of the EU referendum. It was a great start, but we couldn't do it all ourselves.

And after the vote, we noticed something. Many people felt as if this was the first vote they had ever cast where they knew it would count. No safe seats, no tactical voting, no electoral quagmires. Unlike First Past the Post general elections, this was a vote where the public felt empowered - and they turned out in large numbers. At the ERS we have seen a membership surge on the back of this, with people signing up to say that votes should count in all elections, not just referendums.

Nonetheless, many also felt the campaign failed to provide the public with the best possible debate, in contrast to what is widely viewed as a vibrant Scottish referendum vote. There were a large range of problems with the referendum campaign, many of which are explored in this report. Among them is the short length of the campaign - political anoraks felt the campaign had been going on forever before most people had woken up to its existence.

Moreover, the failure to give 16- and 17-year-olds the vote, unlike in the Scottish referendum, was a huge missed opportunity to invigorate the debate. However, we know that referendums are rarely the end of the matter. And neither should they be. This vote showed there is a huge appetite out there for the public to engage in crucial constitutional issues - and that appetite has not gone away simply because 23 June 2016 has been and gone.

The context of a referendum is everything. If they are simply snapshots of public opinion, taken without any real effort to engage the public properly in the issues, then all sorts of problems can arise. But if they take place within a wider process of informed debate and active citizenship, they can be the catalyst for real political engagement and good democracy.

We now need to keep the conversation going after the referendum and ensure that the public have a say in what comes next. Democracy should not end after polling day - voters clearly had a strong appetite for expressing their views on this issue. Now it's essential to ensure the fullest possible public involvement in the Brexit negotiations.

All of this is why we've just published our report on the EU campaign and the future of referendums in the United Kingdom. 'It's Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote' draws on the ERS' extensive polling, conducted by BMG Research throughout the referendum, spanning from the very start of the campaign in February to a week before voters went to the ballot boxes. We assess voters' perceptions of the referendum debate, but more than that - we use it to see where we should go from here to ensure that in the future, voters get the referendums they deserve.

In the meantime, we need a root-and-branch review of referendums in the UK. Rather than jumping from plebiscite to plebiscite with no framework for deciding how, when and why they should happen, it is time for a national conversation on the role of referendums here in Britain. 'It's Good to Talk' forms the basis for that conversation - now let's take it up a gear.

This article is an extract from 'It's Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently in the Future'. Read the full report and recommendations here.