Those committed to improving our democracy can no longer ignore the elephant in the room: referendums have become a central feature of our politics in Britain. Since 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. That represents a significant acceleration from previous years - there was only one prior UK-wide referendum (on membership of the European Community in 1975), and other referendums on devolution to the nations were mainly concentrated into the two years after the 1997 Labour government came into power with its promises of devolution. The UK is in an extended period of constitutional flux, and is showing few signs of coming out the other side any time soon. The terms of Brexit must be decided, and conceivably ratified by Parliament, the public or both. Scotland looks ever closer to independence; devolution of power to more local levels of government than Westminster is widely supported, but the path is unclear; the question of English governance remains live; and so on. Given this state of uncertainty about our constitution, it is a fairly safe bet that we will see referendums again in the near future. So there are serious questions to be asked about the place of referendums in our politics: should there be an agreed trigger for referendums? How should they be conducted and regulated? And how do we ensure high quality public information and debate before people actually get to the polling booth? The ERS have now made an initial attempt at addressing some of these questions, through a detailed analysis of this year's EU referendum. These are the main findings:
- Information - People felt consistently ill-informed - yet not for lack of interest: voters expressed high levels of interest throughout the campaign.
- Personalities - The 'big beasts' largely failed to engage or convince voters to their side, with many voters appearing switched off by the 'usual suspects'.
- Negative campaigning - As the race wore on, the public viewed both sides as increasingly negative. It is not clear that either side gained from this approach.
- The need for real deliberation - There is an appetite for informed, face-to-face discussion about the issues, but this can only be nurtured within the context of a longer campaign.
Laying the groundwork
- Mandatory pre-legislative scrutiny for any Bill on a referendum, lasting at least three months, with citizens' involvement
- A minimum six-month regulated campaigning period to ensure time for a proper public discussion
- A definitive 'rulebook' to be published, setting out technical aspects of the vote, as soon as possible after the passing of any referendum Bill
- A 'minimum data set' or impartial information guide to be published at the start of the regulated campaigning period
- An official body should be given the task of intervening when misleading claims are made by the campaigns, as in New Zealand
- Citizenship education to be extended in schools alongside UK-wide extension of votes at 16
- The government should fund a resource for stimulating deliberative discussion/debate about referendum
- An official body should be tasked with providing a toolkit for members of the public to host own debates/deliberative events on the referendum
- Ofcom should conduct a review into an appropriate role for broadcasters to play in referendums, with aim of making coverage/formats more deliberative rather than combative/binary