How referendums are the most effective way to maintain the status quo & what it means for Lords reform

Warning: this post contains paradoxes and thinking in progress…

Paradox 1: When asked, most people in this country say the current system of British politics needs to change. Yet the public consistently votes for small-c conservative parties and causes.

Paradox 2: As both a liberal and a democrat, I want a more participative democracy. Yet I’m sceptical referendums are the best way to achieve this.

A brief history of referendums in this country

Let’s take a look at our three most recent experiences in this country of referendums:

  • Just three weeks ago, 11 cities in England voted on whether or not they want to their local authorities to be run by an elected mayor. Of these, 10 voted to maintain the status quo, with Doncaster voting to retain its decade-old mayoral system, and Bristol the one outlier which voted for change.
  • In the referendum on the alternative vote in May 2011, there was a decisive rejection of changing from first-past-the-post, with just 10 UK areas out of 440 voting in favour of AV.
  • Two months prior to that, in March 2011, Wales voted to extend the law-making powers of its national assembly — a vote for change, true, but one that simply extended existing Welsh assembly powers and was supported by all four established parties in Wales.

We can go back further in time.. The first ever UK plebiscite was the 1973 Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum — which overwhelmingly re-affirmed the population’s wish to remain part of the union. Then two years later, in 1975, Harold Wilson asked the British people if they wanted to remain within the Common Market — again the status quo prevailed.

Six of the next seven referendums held in the UK focused on devolution:

  • in Wales, in 1979, devolution was rejected, while in Scotland there was a slim majority in favour (though not enough to satisfy Westminster);
  • 18 years later, both countries voted in favour of devolution, albeit Wales by the narrowest of margins;
  • then London followed up the following year by voting to restore its London-wide assembly, this time to be run by an elected mayor;
  • while in 2004 the North-East rejected its chance to vote for its own regional assembly.
  • The other referendum, the all-Ireland vote on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, resulted in an overwhelming endorsement of that stage of the peace process, having been backed by all Northern Ireland’s parties other than Ian Paisley’s DUP.

    Between 2001 and 2012, there have been 47 referendums held by local authorities on whether to introduce elected mayors to run the council — of these, 33 have resulted in no change.

    My two conclusions from all this

    That’s my brief run through the full list of our UK experiences of referendums, from which I draw two conclusions:

      1. A good rule-of-thumb is that the public will vote for the status quo when asked in a referendum. Put simply, voters tend to dislike change (no matter what they may tell pollsters when asked an abstract question). It’s a variation, I suspect, on the ‘loss aversion’ explanation of human behaviour: people prefer to avoid losses than to make gains;
      2. The exceptions to this rule-of-thumb being when the change proposed in a referendum is backed by a coalition of most/all the major parties.

    And that leads me to the following tentative views on the two contentious issues currently the subject of debate on whether we should hold referendums to settle them… First, an in/out referendum on British membership of the European Union would almost certainly result in the ‘in’ side winning. And, secondly, on House of Lords reform those opposed to reform (ie, in support of the status quo) would most likely win.

    A Lord reform referendum proposal

    There are, therefore, two options open to Nick Clegg to square the circle of accepting a referendum on Lords reform and maximising his chances of winning the reform argument.

    The first is to hold a referendum in which he — together with David Cameron and Ed Miliband — would lead the campaign for a democratically-accountable chamber: an enthusiastic alliance of the three main parties might persuade a majority of the public.

    An alternative to that is to promise a referendum to be held after the Lords-replacement second chamber has been in operation for (say) five years, at which point the public would be asked if they want to stick with it, a ‘future-proof’ lock to offer the public the chance to revert to political patronage if they find democracy unappealing.

    In some ways, this latter suggestion is a cynical one: I’m deliberately putting forward the option I think would be most likely to result in my preferred option, a reformed second chamber, winning. But, then, that’s also what those who favour the status quo are doing. The difference with my proposal — of a post-reform referendum — is that the public would be able to base their vote on real-life experience of both systems.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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    22 Comments

    • Stephen, an extract of your piece says:
      “First, an in/out referendum on British membership of the European Union would almost certainly result in the ‘in’ side winning. ”
      Really ?? !!!
      I voted in the 1975 referendum, ‘FOR’ the European Common Market. We were told that it was all about helping European trade. If I had been told that 30 odd years later it would have morphed into a bloated, undemocratic, unaccountable, uber expensive gravy train for retired and semi retired politicians, whose object is to suck democracy out of the peripheral countries in order to create a United States of Europe based in Brussels…..
      ……. I would have definitely voted AGAINST, back then in 1975.
      Who knows, maybe a referendum would confirm that Britain wishes to stay in Europe. So let’s put a referendum on Europe forward as a LibDem policy, and see if you are right.? Offering the British people a democratic choice on Europe certainly isn’t hurting UKIP much.

    • Stephen, I wanted to – and at some point will – write something on this for LDV. The crux of the argument on referenda is whether or not we believe in direct of representative democracy but further to this:

      Roughly 600,000 people are born every year and a similar number die. Each year [very approximately] the register changes by more than 1 million vote. So for how long can a referendum ever be binding? A referendum is never the ultimate answer. If you oppose democracy but support a referendum, then what you are effectively calling for is an election in which only one contender is known.

      So we should embrace those who call for a referendum on Lords reform, call it an ‘election’, have one every say 15 years [by which time at least 18 million votes will have joined or fallen off the register], and allow people to stand as candidates from the current House of Lords or from outside. Logically, democracy (referenda) cannot be the successful opponent of democracy (elected peers) and if people want to vote for the current Peers to be their representatives, they may do so.

    • Personally I dont want an elected house of lords under any circumstances, what I want from the house of lords is experience in many fields, the ability to take the time and put that expertise to use in ammending legislation so that the laws we get in this country work and are not rushed out because something has to be seen to be done.

      Is the present House of Lords perfect – No but democratic elections most certainly are not the way to improve it.

      So to the other argument that people tend to want to stick with the status quo rather than change things – having seen the mess and muddle of the recent A.V referendum the case for change was made in a wishy-washy manner, the media were hostile to change and it was done at a time when the british public perceived the change to have been proposed to further the interests of a small party in order to keep them closer to the levers of power rather than having been proposed out of a genuine desire to involve more people in how they are governed. Given those circumstances the referendum was doomed from the word go.

    • Experts in one field are rarely experts in all fields and it is wholly inappropriate for one person’s expert to secure legislative power on a whim of patronage of anyone. Expertise should always be a component of democracy, and there are many committees of experts who influence legislation and recommend amendments on issues on which they are experts but I do not e.g. want Professor Winston (expert in fertility) voting on Trident and all the other unconnected issues about which he knows nothing without being elected first [which I am sure he would be].

      Second, whilst opinion on expertise is varied, if you believe what you say above, then why not put it to the vote. I may agree with you and may vote for experts and clever people to sit in a senate, I may also vote for principled liberals, but might I suggest that – in the words of an expert (with whom you disagree) – ‘in a democracy, power derives from the Ballot box and nowhere else’.

      Finally, the House of Lords, in its present state, is weak, holds no-one to account, makes a poor excuse for a bicameral system as a consequence of its impotence, and is ultimately nothing more than a giant committee, regularly over-ruled. There is currently no check and balance ultimately through a lack of democratic legitimacy.

      [On another note, I highly recommend listening to Paddy from 16:22:30 in this video: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=10755&st=15%3A59%3A40 ]

    • An additional benefit of a referendum after the fact is that you could as if people wanted to stick with the newly elected chamber, return to patronage or thirdly be offered a third option. Admittedly the third option would result in probably another 100 years of discussing but at least the public would have been asked their opinion, and an alternative option tried.

      In terms of experts etc that people have raised it is a matter of how elections take place, also what the second chamber is intended to do. That is a bigger question that seems to be missed in this debate. I personally would argue for increasing the power of the second chamber but narrowing the scope. With a elected second chamber that is just weaker than the commons there aren’t really going to be any improvements.

    • Matthew Huntbach 24th May '12 - 4:34pm


      Just three weeks ago, 11 cities in England voted on whether or not they want to their local authorities to be run by an elected mayor.

      The wording of which, by the way, was disgracefully biased – and even then it did not achieve the pro-mayor result it was twisted to try and gain.

    • “In some ways, this latter suggestion is a cynical one …”

      Just a little bit. But of course the real problem with it is that there’s no chance whatsoever that the people who are insisting on a referendum would be fooled by such a manoeuvre.

      Frankly it amazes me that anyone would doubt their ability to win a referendum that proposed replacing nominated politicians by elected representatives. I think the only reason a referendum might be lost is that the proposals aren’t democratic enough – they could be seen as preserving effectively a system of political appointment by applying a thin veneer of democratic decoration.

    • What was the question?

    • Nigel Ashton 25th May '12 - 11:09am

      It’s easy to run a ‘No’ campaign nowadays – just say “The counting machines for the House of Lords elections will cost £250 million, money we should be spending on sick babies and injured soldiers”.

    • Matthew Green’s conclusion is absolutely right.. if we go back to ‘what was said on the doortep’ for a second… All three major parties promised Lords reform in their manifestos, no-one reported being harangued about it at any doorstep encounter, or at any public meeting… from that we can reasonably conclude that the public are happy for us to just get on with it and do it. We have all said we would do it, so all this talk of a referendum is simply put about the minority who oppose and a few vociferous turkeys.

    • I can’t compete with the lucid arguments in the main article and subsequent posts so I’ll just strike a blow for education – it’s ‘referenda’ not ‘referendums’!!!

    • John Richardson 25th May '12 - 12:35pm

      Legislators should be experts at getting to the truth by drawing upon the expertise of others. Their decisions should be fully informed by the evidence but shaped by their values. Sadly, neither patronage nor democracy is particularly effective at delivering this expertise. However, you can’t govern by logic alone and the necessary application of values to legislative decisions is why legislators must be elected and not appointed. The values expressed by Parliament must reflect those of the people they represent.

    • Alex Macfie 25th May '12 - 1:09pm

      @Peter: No, it should be “referendums”, because in Latin “referendum” is NOT a second-declension neuter plural. It is a gerund or gerundive; its use as a noun is an innovation in English, which means it should take an English plural.

    • Alex Macfie 25th May '12 - 1:09pm

      I mean a “second-declension neuter NOUN”, of course

    • Malcolm Todd 25th May '12 - 1:21pm

      Peter — sorry, there’s nothing wrong with “referendums”. Oxford accepts either version of the plural as correct. If you care about Latin plurals, the problem is that “referendum” is better understood as a gerund (“a putting of the question”), which has no Latin plural, rather than a gerundive (“a thing about which a question is to be put”), which would have the “-a” plural.
      Just sayin’.

    • Malcolm Todd 25th May '12 - 1:22pm

      Oops, Alex beat me to it. Is it possible we’ve all got bored of actual Lords reform, or does the sun bring out us classical pedants?

    • Richard Swales 25th May '12 - 5:26pm

      @Peter, do you also say 1 Museums 2 Musea instead of 1 Museum 2 Museums? If not, then the reason you don’t is just “People say it like that.” – The same argument can apply to referendum/referendums.

    • Re: what it means for Lords reform

      I thought this is obvious, particularly for a party who were committed to AV & PR; don’t hold a simple Yes/No referendum! Instead promote the use of more sophisticated methods to enable “the people … to determine the form of government best suited to their needs” [Libdem Constitution]. Such an approach would also be in accordance with the political maturity exhibited in the formation of the coalition.

      However, given the miniscule support various e-petitions on Lords reform have garnered, I suspect the public will be highly skeptical about the motivation for reform, particularly as it clearly isn’t a burning issue. Hence yes the public is likely to vote to maintain the status quo.

    • Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera 3rd Jun '12 - 11:45am

      Are we really a Party that is committed to House of Lords Reform?

      If we are, where do our currents Peers sit on this issue?

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