Memorandum by Unlock Democracy
1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of
the referendum as a democratic and constitutional tool?
The strengths and weaknesses of referendums
are essentially the same as the strengths and weaknesses of elections.
Indeed Unlock Democracy believes that referendums should be considered
as single issue elections.
The strengths of referendums are:
They strengthen popular sovereignty by giving
people a say and allowing voters to mandate change.
Referendums are one of the few ways in which
under our current constitutional settlement Acts of Parliament
can be entrenched. This is not to say that the Acts are codified,
just that if a measure has been endorsed in a referendum it would
not be politically possible to repeal it without a further referendum.
This is particularly significant as it ensures that constitutional
changes, such as devolution, have some time to establish themselves
rather than being subject to an immediate repeal if there was
a change of government.
Where there are effective public education campaigns
referendums can create high levels of support for significant
changes to the way we are governed. They create a public space
for political discourse about important issues so that once the
referendum is concluded there is often a degree of consensus about
the outcome. This can be seen in the significantly different levels
of support for the European Union in countries where there are
referendums on the treaties compared to the UK where the public
have no direct say on further European integration. The 2009 Eurobarometer
survey found that while only 30% of UK respondents thought that
membership of the EU is a good thing 65% of Danish respondents
and 72% of Irish respondents thought that their country's membership
of the EU was a good thing.
Whilst referendums are by no means the only factor that influences
public attitudes towards Europe they are a significant factor
because they enable there to be a genuinely national debate about
Referendums are popular with the public as they
are seen as a fair way of resolving difficult or significant decisions.
David Drew MP conducted a survey of his Stroud constituency on
constitutional reform and found that 75% of his constituents agreed
that governments should make greater use of referendums with many
respondents saying that they felt referendums were "real
This is particularly significant when looked at in the context
of the Hansard Society's Audit of Democratic Engagement which
found that 85% of respondents felt they had little or no influence
on decision-making at a national level. Referendums are one way
of giving the public a say on significant national issues and
by triggering public education campaigns referendums can help
to counteract the prevailing sense of cynicism and powerlessness.
The weaknesses of referendums are that:
They can lead to the simplification of very
complex and nuanced issues. This is because of the need to make
them understandable to a population that may have little or no
knowledge of the subject being decided. The need for a clear,
simple question, usually with a "yes" or "no"
answer, inevitably simplifies issues.
Voters may not understand what they are being
asked and misinterpret the question or they may use a referendum
to vote on other issues such as the popularity of the government.
If the public education campaign is not properly
resourced or is seen to be biased the referendum campaign is unlikely
to have a positive effect on political engagement and may even
increase disillusionment with the political process.
As mentioned above these criticisms could equally
be applied to elections and to public involvement in decision-making
more generally. Certainly in the context of elections these are
weaknesses that are accommodated and seen as being outweighed
by the benefits of democracy. Unlock Democracy recommends that
these weaknesses do not prevent referendums from being an important
element in the UK's political system.
2. What assessment would you make of the UK's
experience of referendums? What positive or negative features
of this experience would you highlight?
Referendums have been used relatively rarely
in the UK, particularly before 1997. There have been nine UK wide
or regional referendums held since 1973: for a full list see the
appendix. They have been on issues of significant constitutional
changes that needed the buy in of the whole community, such as
national sovereignty or about the transfer of powers to different
levels of governance within the UK. Some of them have been UK-wide
referendums while others, notably those on devolution have been
held in specific parts of the UK.
Where referendums have been used to endorse
devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London they
have effectively entrenched these changes in governance. Whilst
they could be repealed by a simple majority in Parliament, it
is inconceivable that this could be done without a further referendum.
Equally when in 1997 the Labour Government wanted to introduce
devolution to Scotland and Wales this would have been politically
impossible without referendums even though constitutionally they
had the power to enact the necessary changes.
The key lesson from the UK experience that Unlock
Democracy would seek to highlight is the damaging impact of thresholds.
This will be explored in more detail in question 8 but thresholds
can negate the positive, educational impact of referendums. One
of the reasons for holding referendums is to have a debate about
a contentious issue and to reach a consensus that the community
can unite behind. If the result is dependent on a certain level
of turnout then those who wish to oppose the referendum do not
need to engage with the debate and make their case to voters,
they merely have to convince people to stay at home. This sets
a dangerous precedent for democratic engagement. There is also
a risk that people who have participated in the campaign and secure
a majority but do not meet the turnout threshold will feel cheated
and that political engagement is ineffectual.
The question of the public education campaign
is also very significant. There have been very limited attempts
at this in the UK and we should learn from the experience in New
Zealand during the two referendum campaigns on electoral reform.
3. How does, and how should, the referendum
relate to the UK's system of parliamentary democracy?
There is no reason why referendums cannot be
used effectively with a parliamentary system of government as
demonstrated by the Republic of Ireland and New Zealand, which
both have parliamentary systems and use referendums in certain
specified circumstances. Referendums can either be used at a pre-legislative
stage to indicate public support for a proposal, as with the referendum
in Northern Ireland on the Good Friday Agreement, or to endorse
changes made in Acts of Parliament as was the case with the devolution
Unlock Democracy would like the UK to move towards
a codified constitution that sets out what government may and
may not do in our name. However it is possible to set out when
referendums should be initiated by government without going as
far as codifying the constitution.
Unlock Democracy believes that referendums are
an important tool in involving the public in decision-making and
that while they should not be used frequently they have an important
role to play. This inquiry is looking primarily at the use of
government initiated referendums. Unlock Democracy believes that
it should also be possible for citizens to initiate referendums
in certain circumstances. This is explored in more detail in question
4. Is it possible or desirable to define which
issues should be subject to a referendum?
It is both possible and desirable to define
which issues should be subject to a referendum.
Unlike many other countries the UK does not
have a written constitution or a referendum law that sets out
when referendums have to take place. This means that there are
no mandatory referendums only optional referendums. The weakness
of optional referendums is that they are generally more politicised
as the government itself determines whether the issue should be
put to a referendum and when it is put to a referendum. The controversy
over whether there should have been a referendum on the Lisbon
Treaty is a good example of this. Equally in some US states, the
state legislature has been perceived as using referendums held
on the same day as other elections for political purposes such
as mobilising certain sections of the electorate to come out and
This perception that referendums can be used to manipulate voters
is not helpful.
Unlock Democracy therefore believes that situations
when the government must initiate referendums should be clearly
set out. This would depoliticise referendums and help to give
the public a clearer sense of how they are governed.
Government initiated referendums should be held
on significant issues such as constitutional changes and should
not be held frequently. If referendums are held too frequently
there is a danger that turnout will decrease and the legitimacy
of the referendums could be undermined.
There are two ways that the UK could define
what issues must be subject to a referendum without moving to
a written constitution. The first would be to pass a Referendums
Act which lists all the Acts of Parliament or clauses of acts
that cannot be repealed or amended without a referendum. The second
is to amend the key acts themselves so that they cannot be repealed
or amended without a referendum. The first option would be clearer
and easier for the public to understand and would therefore be
5. Should "constitutional issues"
be subject to a referendum? If so, how should "constitutional
issues" be defined?
Yes as outlined above in answer to question
4 constitutional issues should be subject to a referendum.
Defining constitutional issues can be contentious
in itself, particularly as the UK does not have a codified constitution.
Rather our constitution consists of statutes, court judgements,
treaties as well as parliamentary conventions and royal prerogatives.
This makes defining constitutional issues in the UK context difficult
but certainly not impossible.
Unlock Democracy believes that constitutional
issues are those that change the contract between the government
and the governed. These include, but are not limited to:
transfers of power from the UK Government
to other units of government within the UK or to supra-national
bodies such as the European Union;
Acts of Parliament to do with when elections
should be held and entitlements to vote; and
Acts of Parliament that define the rights
of residents of the UK such as the Human Rights Act or any future
Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.
Alternatively it could be decided that referendums
on constitutional issues would only be required if they were not
passed by a super-majority in Parliament. For example in Denmark
referendums are held on transfers of power to international or
supra-national bodies unless it is passed by a five-sixths majority
in the Parliament.
6. Is the Political Parties, Elections and
Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) an effective piece of legislation?
How, if at all, could it be improved?
To date there has only been one referendum campaign
run under the PPERA regulations and we do not feel this is enough
experience to be able to judge the effectiveness of the legislation.
7. Is the role of the Electoral Commission
in regard to referendums, as set out in PPERA, appropriate? What
assessment would you make of the Electoral Commission's work in
relation to referendums?
Unlock Democracy believes that the Electoral
Commission should be given responsibility for overseeing local
as well as national referendums. There have been 35 local referendums
held since 2001 on the issue of whether or not to have directly
elected Mayors. These referendums are regulated by the Local Government
Act 2000, rather than PPERA, and we believe that this is anachronistic.
Changes to local government structure are significant constitutional
changes and as such should be regulated by an independent body.
One of the criticisms made about the referendum
held by Edinburgh City Council in February 2005 on whether or
not to introduce congestion charging was that the question was
overly complicated and was perceived to be biased.
Ideally the body initiating the referendum should not be responsible
for drafting the question and while we do not believe that the
Electoral Commission should be involved in parish polls; where
referendums are used by principal authorities to endorse significant
changes, we believe the Electoral Commission should have a role.
8. What comment would you make on key components
of a referendum campaign, such as:
Whether or not there should be any
threshold requirements, for instance in terms of the percentage
of the vote required, or the level of turnout required, for a
vote to be carried;
As outlined above Unlock Democracy does not
support the use of thresholds in referendums. Whilst we understand
the desire to ensure that there is a significant level of support
for any changes proposed in the referendum, specifying a quorum
does not necessarily lead to high turnout. Experience in Italy
has shown that thresholds can encourage non-participation and
that this sets a dangerous precedent. Rather than campaigning
against a proposal and making a case to voters no campaigns can
simply opt out of the process and rely on the threshold to prevent
change. This is not conducive to a healthy democracy.
Thresholds can also lead to repeat referendums.
For example in Palau seven referendums were held between 1983
and 1990 on the proposed compact of Free Association with the
United States. In each referendum there was a simple majority
in favour of the proposal but not the 75% required for approval
in a referendum. Eventually the constitution was changed to remove
the threshold requirement for referendums and the proposal was
approved in an eighth referendum in 1993.
the wording of the referendum question
(including the appropriateness of multi-option questions);
Simple and clear wording of a referendum question
is essential and we believe that the current system under PPERA
where the politically neutral Electoral Commission is responsible
for determining the wording of the question is the appropriate
solution. It is generally simpler and less likely to lead to either
spoilt ballot papers or voters misinterpreting the question if
the referendum involves one question with a yes/no answer.
However there are some issues that cannot be
reduced to this level of simplicity and multi-option referendums
can be run effectively with minimal levels of confusion. The referendums
on electoral reform in New Zealand held in 1992 and 1993 are good
examples of successful multi-option referendums. In these instances
there was an initial yes/no question followed by a multi-option
question. Where multi-option questions are used the public education
campaign takes on an even greater significance and the design
of the ballot paper is particularly important.
the design of the ballot paper;
As the Gould Report into the May 2007 elections
to the Scottish Parliament found, the design of the ballot paper
is critical to whether or not voters understand how to cast their
ballots. This is particularly important where there are either
different electoral systems being used, as in the Scottish elections,
or where there is a multi-option referendum question.
It is essential that any ballot paper design
is tested before it is used as this is one area where the unintended
consequences of a change can undermine the legitimacy of an election
or potentially change the result of a referendum. It had been
assumed that the changes to the ballot paper design in Scotland
in 2007 would make it simpler for votersthis was clearly
not the case.
whether there should be formal, constitutional
triggers for referendums;
Yes as outlined above Unlock Democracy believes
that there should be a Referendums Act that sets out when government
is required to hold referendums. This is not to say that governments
should be unable to hold what are often termed optional referendums
on issues, just that the expectation should be that these are
rare occurrences. We believe that this is essential both to depoliticise
the holding of referendums and so that voters and political parties
are clear about the circumstances in which referendums take place.
The need for a referendum should not be determined on the basis
of a government or political party deciding whether or not they
are likely to win the campaign.
whether a referendum should be indicative
Unlock Democracy believes that the status of
the referendum should depend on the stage in the policy formation
process that it is held. Specifically a referendum held on a policy
proposal before legislation has been passed should be indicative
whereas a referendum held after legislation has been passed should
be binding. As already stated we do not believe that referendums
should be used regularly but if the public are to be involved
in decision making it is essential that they are listened to.
At a pre-legislative stage it is possible for government and/or
Parliament to take on views expressed during the referendum campaign
and alter the proposal accordingly. Also if voters are still unhappy
with the proposal they still have representation in the process
through their MPs. Therefore the referendum need only be indicative.
However once Parliament has already taken a view and passed legislation
on a proposal it is essential that the referendum is binding.
Asking the public their opinion in a referendum and then ignoring
it would be hugely damaging to democracy and participation in
Also if a referendum is triggered by a constitutional
mechanism then the referendum should be binding while if the referendum
is triggered by citizens through an initiative process then the
referendum should be indicative although in reality it may be
that such referendums were politically binding even if not formally
However it should be recognised that the distinction
between an indicative and binding referendum may, in reality,
not be very important. It is difficult for a democratic government
to disregard the result of a referendum even if it is only consultative.
This is clearly demonstrated by the referendums in the Netherlands
and France in 2005 on the EU Constitutional Treaty. There was
no prospect of either government saying that as the referendums
were only consultative they would go ahead and ratify the treaty
whether a referendum should ask broad
questions of principle, or refer to specific legislation;
Again this would depend on the stage at which
the referendum is being used. If the referendum is pre-legislative
then the referendum should be on broad principle and the government
and Parliament should work on the details of the proposals. However
if, as is the case with the devolution referendums in 1997 the
proposals have already been defined and passed by Parliament then
the referendum should refer to the legislation or at least to
the specific proposals in the legislation.
whether a referendum should precede
or follow statutory enactment;
Referendums can be used at either stageit
depends on what the government is trying to achieve with the referendum.
campaigning organisations and the
funding of campaigns;
There is little UK based evidence to draw on
but Unlock Democracy is concerned that it may be possible to bypass
the campaign spending restrictions by having a diffuse movement
rather than a centralised campaign. Specifically if it is not
possible to define either the official "yes" campaign
or the official "no" campaign, how would spending limits
Public information campaigns and media
Unlock Democracy believes that it is essential
that if referendums are to be used in the UK then the public information
campaigns should be extensive and run independently of government.
For us, one of the main advantages of referendums is the opportunity
for public education and discourse on a contentious issue. This
will not exist without high quality, independent information from
a trusted source. This inevitably increases the cost of referendums
and the length of the campaign. However we believe that the experience
in New Zealand of the two referendums on electoral reform demonstrates
that setting up an independent body to provide information and
run the public education process is money well spent and is in
effect an investment in democracy.
Party political activity;
Unlock Democracy believes that political parties
should be able to campaign for or against referendums. They should
be regulated in the same way as other campaigning organisations
but they should not be prevented from taking part in the campaign.
One of the weaknesses of the first Irish referendum on the Nice
Treaty in 2001 was that the governing party, the main supporters
of the treaty, were not able to take part in the campaign.
whether referendums should coincide
with other elections or not;
Referendums should be held at the same time
as other elections so as to reduce their costs and to encourage
turnout. There is substantial experience worldwide of holding
referendums at the same time as other referendums and there is
no reason to think that that creates unnecessary confusion.
It may not be appropriate for referendums to
be combined with general elections, as there is a significant
danger of the referendum campaign being drowned out by other issues
and of the chance for debate on the referendum question to be
lost. However we do not believe these problems would arise if
the referendum was held at the same time as European, devolved
or local elections. We also already have experience of combining
these elections in the UK and so it would be a relatively low
risk way forward.
the strengths and weaknesses of in-person,
postal or electronic forms of voting.
Unlock Democracy reaffirms its strong opposition
to any election which only has a single way of registering a ballot.
We believe this would represent an unacceptable barrier to someone
trying to exercise their democratic right to vote. We strongly
believe there must always be multiple ways to cast a ballot at
an election, whether this is a single issue election or a candidate
election. We continue to support the concept of postal voting
on demand, and recognise Government efforts to put in place electoral
There have been pilots of electronic voting
in the local elections held in 2002, 2003 and 2007. These pilots
have tested a variety of forms of electronic voting, including
remote voting via the Internet, telephones, and digital television,
as well as the use of mobile electronic voting kiosks and laptops
within polling stations.
The Electoral Commission found that four sets
of key issues emerged from these pilots, all of which highlight
significant limitations with e-voting:
Turnout: The Electoral Commission evaluation
report consistently states that the e-voting pilots had little
or no impact on turnout. Surveys did reveal that e-voting proved
popular among those making use of the facility, however evidence
suggests that many e-voters would have voted anyway.
Security: E-voting does continue to raise
security questions and the Commission's report highlighted notable
security weaknesses in the systems used.
Reliability: While the 2002 and 2003
pilots ran without any significant technical hitches, the more
ambitious 2007 pilots witnessed a failure of network connections
at two polling stations and a loss of wireless connectivity.
Cost: The Electoral Commission's evaluation
of the 2007 pilots estimated that the cost of providing e-voting
facilities was £102 for each voter making use of the facility,
compared to a cost of £2 per elector for conventional ballots.
We therefore agree with the Electoral Commission
which calls for a much stronger regulatory and policy framework
before further e-voting pilots are contemplated.
Unlock Democracy also shares their view that
fundamental weaknesses in our current 19th Century electoral laws
need to be rectified as a matter of urgency. We therefore welcome
the planned introduction of Individual Voter Registration, something
we strongly campaigned for in our Stamp Out Voting Fraud Campaign,
however we strongly believe weaknesses remain. If these are not
addressed, it is our belief that elections will remain open to
electoral fraud, resulting in high profile media cases similar
to those we have seen in recent years.
That is why we continue to call for two specific
Increased Ballot Security by asking voters
to provide identification when collecting their ballot ensuring
both that the person who votes is actually the person on the register
and that their vote is counted accurately.
Strengthening the powers of the Electoral
Commission to investigate and police the electoral system. Where
the Commission recommends specific changes in the law there should
be an obligation for the Government to respond within a specified
time frame and if they are not implementing the recommendations,
to report to Parliament giving their reasons for not doing so.
These reforms could be easily legislated for
and in our view would represent a more effective form of electoral
modernisation than e-voting. Following the Electoral Fraud (Northern
Ireland) Act 2002, Northern Ireland has both Individual Voter
Registration and increased ballot security. In tandem, both have
proved to be an accurate way of tackling fraud, whilst eight years
on are popular with voters. We look forward to the Government
reporting to Parliament the results of their considerations on
the practicalities of implementing such a system in the UK.
9. How does the referendum relate to other
tools such as citizens' initiatives? Should citizens be able to
trigger retrospective referendums?
This inquiry has focused on the question of
governments initiating referendums. It is equally possible through
the use of citizens' initiatives, for citizens to put a question
to a referendum. Although the outcome, the referendum campaign,
may be the same, the process for triggering a referendum is distinctly
different when citizens, rather than governments are involved.
Citizens' initiatives do not always lead to
referendums. For example agenda initiative, which was recently
endorsed by the Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons,
does not lead to a referendum and decision-making rests firmly
with the legislature, rather than being held jointly with citizens.
Generally speaking an agenda initiative leads to either a committee
of the Legislature, or the Legislature as a whole examining the
issue, deciding whether it has merit and how if at all it should
be taken forward.
Worldwide, Citizens' Initiatives have been increasing
in popularity in recent years. Famously, the system forms a central
part of the Swiss constitution, but they are an increasingly common
feature in the USA, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.
In countries where direct democracy tools such
as citizens' initiatives are used, referendums are usually seen
as the last resort once all other options to influence a decision
or process have been exhausted. As well as initiating debates
using agenda initiative it is also possible for citizens to either
veto legislation that has already been passed by a government
or to initiate legislation. Citizens' initiatives generally start
with a petitioning process and the thresholds set for the petition
as well as the time allowed to collect the signatures greatly
influences how easy or difficult an initiative process is. Unlock
Democracy believes that citizens initiatives should be possible
but difficult so we would support high thresholds. Also the more
influential the initiative process then the higher the threshold
should be. For example there should be a significantly lower threshold
for agenda initiative, which enables a debate to take place, than
for a legislative initiative which could create new law.
Most countries that use these tools also have
clear exemptions from initiative processes. Austria, Brazil, Cape
Verde and Thailand do not allow agenda initiative to be used for
amendments to the constitution while Niger does not allow agenda
initiative on devolution. Citizens' Initiatives on financial matters
are not permissible in Germany, while even Switzerland prevents
initiatives which contravene binding international law. Many countries
also prevent the repeal of their Bills of Rights or human rights
legislation by citizens' initiative as well as having provisions
in their constitutions to prevent initiatives being used for discriminatory
purposes. As the UK does not have a codified constitution it would
be necessary for any act enabling the introduction of citizens'
initiatives in the UK to clearly state on which issues initiatives
could be used.
It has almost become cliché to describe
Switzerland as "the land of the contented loser", but
there is considerable evidence to suggest that more direct democracy
does contribute directly to the well-being of Swiss citizens,
as outlined in Richard Layard's book Happiness. While each
individual Swiss citizen may lose numerous referendums that they
feel strongly about, crucially they seem to be content that the
system is fair.
Initiatives and Referendums have the potential
to draw the sting from some of the most divisive issues Britain
has faced in recent years. For example, it is possible that if
we had had such a system in place a few years ago, then the Hunting
with Dogs issue would have been both less divisive and would have
taken up less Parliamentary time. Numerous issues, from constitutional
reform through to climate change and Britain's place in the EU,
have festered for many years in the political background, yet
political parties have successfully avoided tackling them on the
basis that while people might have strong opinions on the subject,
they don't feel strongly enough about them for them to become
political issues. Citizens' Initiatives provide an outlet for
this sort of issue.
UK citizens already have a right of initiative
in a number of cases, although these rights are strictly limited:
Local Government Act 1972: This act spells
out a system of Citizens' Initiative, although it is only applicable
at a parish level and is non-binding. Just 10 people voting in
support at a Parish Council meeting can demand a referendum on
an issue, and the District Council is obliged to hold it.
Formation of local parishes: This right
was introduced in the Local Government and Rating Act 1997. 250
people, or 10% of electors in the area concerned (whichever is
higher) can demand that the Secretary of State allows for the
formation of a Parish Council in an area. The Secretary of State
can insist on a referendum and can ultimately block it, but 100
new parish councils have been formed since this legislation was
introduced. The 2006 Local Government White Paper proposes devolving
the Secretary of State's role to the relevant local authority
and allows for the creation of parish councils in London.
Local Government Act 2000: 5% of the
electors in a local authority can call for a referendum on a change
to the method of appointing the authority's executive (eg Mayor
or cabinet model). A "yes" vote in such circumstances
is legally binding.
Scottish Parliament: while most Parliaments
(including the UK's) have a public petitioning system, the Scottish
Parliament has been remarkably pro-active in promoting its own
system. Any member of the public can collect petition signatures
online using a Parliament-hosted website (http://epetitions.scottish.parliament.uk/).
These petitions are considered by the Public Petitions Committee.
Unlock Democracy supports the introduction of
citizens' initiatives in the UK for raising issues, vetoing legislation
and initiating legislation. However we believe that there should
be high thresholds set so that the proposals could not be abused
and that there should be a clear list of policy areas that should
be exempt from citizens' initiatives so that they cannot be used
to resile from international treaty obligations or be used for
10. How would you assess the experience of
other countries in relation to the use of the referendum? What
positive or negative aspects of international experience would
Referendums can be an important tool for involving
citizens in decision-making and there is substantial worldwide
experience on running successful referendums.
Government initiated referendums have been used
since the 1790s and currently about half of all countries have
provision for mandatory referendums (i.e. a referendum that is
automatically triggered by a constitution or referendum law).
In countries such as Australia, Denmark, Japan, Switzerland and
Venezuela all changes to the constitution have to be approved
by a referendum. Some countries such as Spain, Malta, Austria
and Peru have referendums for significant amendments to the constitution
but not for all changes.
In addition to approving changes in constitutions
referendums are commonly used to resolve conflicts between different
branches of government, particularly in presidential systems,
or they can be used to ratify transfers in national sovereignty.
In most political systems where referendums are used the criteria
are set out in either a constitution or referendum law. Even in
countries where referendums are commonly used there are certain
issues that are exempt from referendums, these usually include
issues of taxation and public expenditure.
Referendums may be initiated by governments
for a variety of reasons and in reality there are usually a combination
of factors. For example they may be used to resolve differences
within a governing party or coalition, they may be used by a government
to show support for a proposal that would otherwise not be able
to get through Parliament, or they may also be used to demonstrate
support for a government or president although this can be a high
risk strategy as Charles De Gaulle ultimately found out.
Mandatory referendums are usually restricted
to issues that are considered particularly important as holding
too many referendums can reduce their political efficacy and may
even affect political stability. Italy is a good example of a
country where referendums are relatively frequent but concerns
about the wording of the questions and a turnout threshold have
meant that very few recent referendums have actually been passed.
Referendums are also costly in terms of money, time and political
attention and the use of such resources needs to be carefully
As with any political engagement tool, whether
elections or deliberative exercises, there are examples of good
and bad practice. While it is certainly easy to find examples
of referendums where the questions have been biased in favour
of the government's preferred outcome, or examples where referendums
have been used for partisan purposes, this does not mean that
the tool itself should be devalued or even abandoned. Rather the
UK should take advantage of the best practice from around the
world, particularly in the field of public education and use referendums
appropriately for the UK context. In Unlock Democracy's view this
would be the approval of constitutional changes.
GOVERNMENT INITIATED REFERENDUMS IN THE UK
|1973||On whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland
||Stayed in the UK|
|1975||On whether the UK should remain part of the European Economic Community
|1979||On the creation of a Scottish Assembly
||Yes but the thresholds were not met so the proposal fell
|1979||On the creation of a Welsh Assembly
|1997||On the creation of a Scottish Assembly and whether it should have tax varying powers
||Yes to both questions|
|1997||On whether there should be a Welsh Assembly
|1997||On whether there should be a directly elected Mayor of London and a Greater London Authority
||Yes to both questions|
|1998||On whether the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement should be ratified
|2004||On the creation of a directly elected regional assembly for the North-East of England
4 January 2010
Standard Eurobarometer 72 Autumn 2009 http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb72/eb72_en.htm
see country factsheets for detailed data on individual countries
Up for Debate report capturing the views of the Stroud constituency
on constitutional reform conducted by David Drew MP
The 2006 referendum on the definition of marriage in Virginia
was widely perceived as an attempt to mobilise Republican voters
and prevent the Democrats gaining the Virginia senate seat which
would give them a majority in the Senate. The state had already
legislated to prevent gay marriages and civil unions conducted
in other states from being recognised in Virginia so there was
no confusion about the state's position on the issue. Although
the referendum was passed the Republicans were not able to hold
on to the senate seat.
See Ferguson, Brian (2004-12-10). "City presses on with `biased'
toll question". Edinburgh Evening News (Johnston Press
McEwen, Alan (2005-02-09). "Baffling road-toll vote a shambles,
say critics-Hundreds jam helpline as ballot paper causes confusion".
Edinburgh Evening News (Johnston Press plc). http://news.scotsman.com/roadtolls/Baffling-roadtoll-vote-a-shambles.2601778.jp.
As President of France Charles De Gaulle used referendums to endorse
his leadership on several occasions. However it was the failure
of a referendum in 1969 which was inevitably seen as the loss
of public support for his presidency that ultimately prompted