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We Need To Learn From Our Friends In Scotland And Review How Referendums Are Run

16/09/2016 11:51

If we're being honest, the Brexit referendum was never run with a mind to having a well-informed vote on a matter of profound consequence for the nation. Instead it was reduced to a bartering chip, the promise of a referendum being a cynical route to victory for the Conservatives at the 2015 general election - and not much thought was put in thereafter.

It is the hard right of the Tory Party, the Murdoch owned press and the euroskeptic UKIP who had catapulted Brexit on to the agenda. And their conduct (or lack thereof) has been in the firing line of the Electoral Reform Society, who recently disdained "glaring deficiencies" in the debate which occurred this summer. Which, I think, sums up how we are all feeling.

Whereas democratic processes are supposed to foment understanding between different perspectives, the Brexit referendum seemed to further entrench bias. Issues prominent in the leave campaign received disproportionate coverage, creating bias and the near dominance of the discourse by one group.

Not enough left wing voices were heard for either leave or remain. A Loughborough University report from June found Labour was almost invisible in coverage. Topics foregrounded in their agenda were either absent or marginal, whilst Leave got an unlimited platform.

Such a blatant unbalance in coverage makes bias unavoidable. If the press can selectively and comprehensively filter out alternative points of view, can the debate be said to be democratic at all? It begs the question.

Besides this unbalance in coverage, it is impossible for citizens to come to informed judgement on the basis of misinformation. In the case of Brexit, it was wilful misinformation. It didn't take too long after victory for Nigel Farage to unceremoniously dump that now notorious promise to spend £350 million a week on the NHS.

In the end, the public has been left with a negative impression of both campaigns. They have been driven away by plastic promises, whether the £4300 better off claim of Remain or the £350 million lie of Leave, and by big name politicians, who more often than not just inspired voters to vote for the other side.

The Electoral Reform Society drew a sharp contrast with the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum which they hailed for a "vibrant, well-informed, grassroots conversation that left a lasting legacy of on-going public participation in politics and public life".

Instead, what we are left with after Brexit is a confused, disabused and disenfranchised public.

Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society said:

"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."

Leave looked like it never wanted a broad debate about the truth of immigration. Instead it opted for the politics of fear, stoking paranoia, which is apt to create a short-sighted electorate who have elected to cut themselves adrift based on a knee-jerk reaction to propaganda rather than based on a balanced take of the facts.

The dog-whistle tactics and ulalating xenophobia of the right has also stirred and incited unacceptable violence against our neighbours in recent months, which should make us stop and think very carefully about the standards of debate and the very real consequences these words have in our communities.

The right wing roots of the Brexit referendum show that referendums aren't won by the governed. They are offered by elites. And conducted by elites. Who we can't trust to conduct them in the ways that are necessary to promote healthy democracy.

In the wake of the Brexit referendum, it is clear we need to reconsider the way in which referendums are conducted, if they are to take a proper role in our politics, and our civic life. It is obvious we cannot repeat the fatal errors of the past. We must learn from our friends in Scotland, and see how we can have an ongoing conversation that makes genuine inroads to citizen participation and doesn't just capitulate to negative campaigning tactics.

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