Is it time to ditch referendums?

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Is it now time to accept that referendums are no way to decide anything? Or is it time to say that they should only be used, if the result produces a clear majority, of say two thirds of the voters, or 50% of the entire electorate?

The decision to use a referendum to decide major constitutional issues has always appeared, in the past, to be the sensible way to tackle those issues, as people vote at General Elections on a wide range of issues and it was thought that a referendum would give a clear answer on a single issue.

The UK remaining in the EU, or Scotland leaving the UK have both been put to a referendum where the side getting 50% of the vote could claim victory, but it was clear in both cases that people would vote each way for a variety of reasons on both issues, leaving the question, “What is the point of a referendum if it doesn’t clearly answer the question put?”

I never bought into the party line that a second referendum on the EU was a good idea, for two reasons. The first being that, whatever the result, there was no guarantee that we would not be left with exactly the same problems after another referendum that existed after the first one. The other reason was that we did not support a second referendum in Scotland, saying that the referendum result was the end of it, while we were still arguing in Scotland that we should have another EU referendum. It looked to many people that where we liked the result, we would accept it, where we didn’t, we would not.

In the end, when we put “Revoke” to the people in the General Election, it was no surprise to me that the general public were confused, at least, about where we stood.

What we should now do is think about, when, and if, it is ever wise to support a referendum on any issue, and, if so, whether there should be a clear understanding, before the vote, as to what constitutes a victory. Then we should accept the result, whatever it is.

If 50% of the entire electorate, or 66% of those who vote, was put forward as the winning post at either the EU referendum or the Scottish independence referendum, it would be difficult after the event not to accept the result, in the same way as we accept most other elections. Not happy with most people not voting Lib-Dem but accepting that until we have a fair electoral system the result stands.

The SNP will always campaign for independence regardless of their level of support and we should expect nothing less. The Lib Dems will no doubt continue to campaign as a pro-European party.
If we are to ever support another referendum on the EU or anything else, we should not do so with the expectation that 50% plus 1 vote is enough to claim a victory, or the country will no doubt remain as divided after any future referendum vote as they were before it.

* John Barrett was a Liberal Democrat Member for 40 years and is a former, Edinburgh City Councillor and Member of Parliament for Edinburgh West.

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  • Andrew Tampion 2nd Feb '20 - 11:10am

    While I agree that referenda should be used sparingly and perhaps with super-majorities the 2016 European referendum was a result of the failure of the normal representative political process. It was clear from at least the 2009 that a significant proportion of the electorate was opposed to the direction of travel of the EU. But because both the major parties and almost all the secondary parties supported the EU there was no means of addressing this through the normal p[olitical process. Perhaps if the then Labour government had put the Lisbon Treaty to a referendum (with a simple majority) then the 2016 referedum could have been avoided.

  • If it was decided that a super majority is needed what do we say to people if there is majority but not one of the required size?
    For example it is arguable that the issue of euthanasia could be put to the country in a referendum to what would happen if, as seems likely, there was a majority, but not a super majority. For how long would the question be considered settled? Would any amendment, say, allowing euthanasia of people with non fatal conditions or extending the same rights to children need a further referendum or a simple majority in parliament?

  • Referenda have been mostly ditched in Germany for very good reasons. On the federal level there are only two mandatory constitutional referendum types – one is in case of enacting a new constitution although that has never been used The other type requires a public vote in case of restructuring the Bundesländer (states).

  • A disappointing article!

    Obviously people tend to like referendums when they go their way and not when they don’t.

    But to get rid of referendums is like saying that we should revert to rule by monarchy without elections.

    We should as democrats be arguing for more democracy and that means moving away from our current oligarchy in all its forms.

    A democracy is like a plane crossing the Atlantic.

    It is continually off course but keeps self-correcting and better and quicker than any other form of government.

    We should have more rules about referendums.

    Allowing x% of the population to demand a referendum and say that you couldn’t have a referendum on the same subject for say 10 years.

    I am a unionist and indeed have support for the lib dem position on not having another referendum and in a devolved party it is a question not for me but Scottish lib Dems but it is inconsistent.

    And I fear “denying” another indy ref will fuel Scottish resentment and separatist sentiment.

    If we’d had referendums on previous European treaties I think we wouldn’t have had Brexir.

    We should be out there making our case not sticking our heads in the sand. We should NOT fear the voice of the people. We must encourage it.

    To do anything else will be letting down our great lib dem predecessors who did so much to encourage this country.

  • If we had referendums on previous EU treaties it’s highly doubtful that they would have passed and this would simply have increased the pressure for an In/Out referendum earlier. The best way to avoid referendums is to stop treating the electorate as a ratifying mechanism for the political goals of political organisations. In other words seek a viable consensus before acting rather than trying to find ways round the inconvenience of voters retrospectively. Personally, I would prefer a more delegate driven version of democracy to the idea of Parliamentarians as elected leaders. I think the latter is rooted in the old fashioned idea that you don’t question the judgement of honourable gentlemen and is, thus, equally rooted to idea that there is an entitled ruling class.

  • There have been more than forty referendums in and about the EEC/EC/EU in various states since the formation of the EEC. In every one the same voting system was used with the result being determined by 50% +1 of the votes cast (as codified by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission Guidelines).

    Most referendums effectively have a built-in super-majority in the form of status quo bias. This is the disproportionate propensity for people to vote for things to remain the same…

    ‘Status Quo Bias in Decision Making’:

    Most real decisions, unlike those of economics texts, have a status quo alternative — that is, doing nothing or maintaining one’s current or previous decision. A series of decision-making experiments shows that individuals disproportionately stick with the status quo. Data on the selections of health plans and retirement programs by faculty members reveal that the status quo bias is substantial in important real decisions.

    ‘The Status Quo Bias in Direct Democracy: Empirical Results for Switzerland, 1981 – 1999’:

    Using data of 142 popular decisions in Switzerland in the eighties and nineties, it is shown that the less citizens feel able to make a decision, the less they will vote in favour of a proposal. […]
    …mobilisation is much more effective against than in favour of a proposal. This at least is clear evidence of a status quo bias in the Swiss political system. But it is open for discussion whether this bias should be evaluated positively or negatively.

  • Paul Barker 2nd Feb '20 - 12:31pm

    Referenda are only legitimate in a Parliamentary Democracy when that Democracy has failed or has reached its limits.
    The 2016 Referendum has done our Democracy huge damage, we should have opposed it from the start.

  • The effect of status quo bias on a (then prospective) EU referendum has been considered before on LDV…

    ‘How referendums are the most effective way to maintain the status quo & what it means for Lords reform’ [May 2012]:

    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.

  • @Jeff – interesting, I think one of the lessons learnt from the 2016 referendum, is the role of the media: they clearly love simple binary decision making and will happily find wedge issues to create sides and divisions and thus more of a story…
    I think if we are to use referenda again then we need laws, that are swiftly enforced, that specify both permitted campaign materials and media coverage.

  • Dilettante Eye 2nd Feb '20 - 1:08pm

    I once ran a share club at work; 20 members and quite small scale, but it did have quite a few thousand in the share club bank account at one point. Of the members there were some quite gung-ho risk-takers and some fairly steady and cautious investors.

    So to ‘dampen overenthusiasm’, we voted on a policy that no more than 15% of the fund could be committed at each share meeting which occurred fortnightly.

    Maybe future referenda also needs a similar governing feature?

    Such that the financial consequences, of any future referenda cannot commit or risk more than (say) 2% of GDP + needing a supermajority result?

    So what would this mean for future referenda?
    Given that GDP is an issue for every citizen of the UK, it would follow that every citizen of the UK should have the right to vote in every future referendum.

    So curiously, if we then allowed a 2nd Scottish Indiref it would mean that all the citizens of Wales, Northern Ireland, and England as well as Scottish voters, would be able to vote in that referendum decision to let Scotland go ?

    So maybe, if you’re going for radical policy on referenda, at the very least give the franchise to vote to all (UK~ GDP) affected stakeholders?

  • A representative democracy with a fair voting system without referendums is the best defence against dictatorships. Stick to hiring politicians to take decisions after proper debates who can be held to account at the ballot box. The 2016 referendum resulted in most MPs voting in parliament against their own beliefs. That is not how it is supposed work in our system hence the mayhem of the last few years. Authoritarian leaders of various stripes have used referendums to insist that they have the support of the “will of the people. We are much safer with a person or party to vote for or reject. Therein lies the accountability.

  • Turnout and majority requirements merely introduce a bias in favour of the referendum failing to meet them and therefore the status quo being preserved. If the callers of the referendum want the status quo, then there is a much more simple and reliable way to do that.


    Regarding stricter campaign laws, how would those be enforced in practice? A skilled “communicator” can give an entirely misleading impression through wording, omission, opinion and subtext without ever making a false statement of fact.

    And in a referendum, what would the effect be anyway? Would a court ever be able to make a factual or legal determination that a particular breach of regulations had led to the referendum result being the opposite to what it would have been without it, and therefore it should be re-run? Conversely, even if they did mandate a re-run, one can hardly instruct the voters to disregard what they heard the first time round when considering how to vote.

  • Super-majorities are undemocratic
    Requiring 50%+1 of the “entire electorate” rather than 50%+1 of those who vote is undemocratic.
    You either keep the status quo of 50%+1 of those who vote, or, introduce compulsory voting and have 50%+1 of the entire electorate and Liberal Democrats along with the other parties I suspect would never support compulsory voting

  • This party rejected the result of the 2016 referendum and called for a second vote. Then the leader stated that the outcome of a second vote would also be rejected if it produced the wrong result. Then finally it was decided to revoke A50.

    What is the point in having any future referendum if politicians and their party reject the result, claiming that the voters got it wrong? Hundreds of years of respect for this instrument of our democracy have been trashed. The party has shown its contempt for the electorate. The result is that the electorate now regards this party as illiberal, undemocratic and irrelevant. As the president said proudly in the previous post, well done, you have acted in accordance with your values,

  • Sue Sutherland 2nd Feb '20 - 2:07pm

    I think our party has historically been in favour of referendums, because we believe in trusting the people. Unfortunately what Brexit has shown is that the people can be manipulated by lies.
    I think we should carry on supporting referendums but work out a policy for how they should be conducted so that we don’t get referendums called on a whim, which can at the same time be regarded as a clear binding direction from the people and as purely advisory. This meant that there was no legal defence against a misleading campaign. It also resulted in our party being regarded as anti democratic by many people who voted Leave.
    I had hoped we would have a debate about a democracy suitable for the 21st century, but it appears that the FPC have gone back to looking at the narrow issue of PR. I think we should be discussing how to regulate and protect democracy as a whole, partly as an answer to our critics, but mainly because it’s obvious that the way parliament works, the way the media operates, the lack of political education and the power of social media as well as the voting system have all resulted in a deeply flawed democracy.

  • Yet our MPs’ inability to see (and understand) that another referendum would have been the only legitimate way to overturn the democratic mandate from the 2016 Brexit vote is the key reason why our party subsequently crashed and burned.

  • @ Ian – You are correct. The country would need a future referendum mandate in order apply to re-join the EU, but who would trust or respect one now? This party has made them meaningless. Acceptance of the result is optional.

    However, there was no justification to re-run the 2016 referendum just because it did not produce the result that you wanted. That is just another way of rejecting the vote and insulting the electorate.

  • @Sue – You have blamed the misfortunes of the party on the voters, parliament, the electoral system, democracy, the media, education and social media. You say that the voters were manipulated by lies. Were you referring to the referendum or the overwhelming 2019 election victory?

    Does rubbishing the intelligence of those who did not vote LibDem enhance the reputation of the party? Does it endear people to your cause?

  • Paul Barker 2nd Feb ’20 – 12:31pm:
    Referenda are only legitimate in a Parliamentary Democracy when that Democracy has failed or has reached its limits.

    On the constitutional issue of our membership of the EU, ‘parliamentary democracy’ reached its limits long ago and then went on to exceed them.

    The 2016 Referendum has done our Democracy huge damage, we should have opposed it from the start.

    Our decision to Leave the EU was made in order to RESTORE our democracy. Our membership of the EU has damaged our democracy by progressively taking away control over our country. That led to a growing feeling of alienation from government as (confidentially) predicted when we joined the ‘Common Market’…

    ‘’Europe’ alienates us all — as foretold 40 years ago’ [April 2012]:

    …a confidential 1971 memorandum, clearly written by a senior Foreign Office official, headed “Sovereignty and the Community”.

    With chilling candour, this paper (from FCO folder 30/1048) predicted that it would take 30 years for the British people to wake up to the real nature of the European project that Edward Heath was about to take them into, by which time it would be too late for them to leave. Its author made clear that the Community was headed for economic, monetary and fiscal union, with a common foreign and defence policy, which would constitute the greatest surrender of Britain’s national sovereignty in history. Since “Community law” would take precedence over our own, ever more power would pass to this new bureaucratic system centred in Brussels – and, as the role of Parliament diminished, this would lead to a “popular feeling of alienation from government”.

    …where the author was perhaps shrewder than he knew was in predicting how all this would eventually lead to “we the people” feeling alienated from the whole process of how we are governed. We now see a gulf yawning between, on the one hand, the consensus government of our new nomenklatura and, on the other, all the rest of us, aware that we are democratically powerless. To the growing groundswell of contempt and resentment that this is creating, those who rule us with such sublime incompetence will eventually find they have no answer.

  • Roland 2nd Feb ’20 – 12:46pm:
    I think if we are to use referenda again then we need laws, that are swiftly enforced, that specify both permitted campaign materials and media coverage.

    A free press is essential for democracy. On the whole, most voters were informed of the major issues with both leave and remain voters having a similar level of knowledge…

    ‘Leave and Remain voters’ knowledge of the EU after the referendum of 2016’ [February 2019]:

    Overall, there was no average difference between Leave voters and Remain voters (either before or after controlling for covariates), despite the fact that Remain voters scored slightly higher on a short test of probability reasoning. In addition, both Leave and Remain voters were more likely to answer correctly on items that were ‘ideologically convenient’ for them.

    There are already rules about campaign material and expenditure. For example, the Council of Europe’s Guidelines on conducting referendum prohibit the use of public funds for campaigning purposes. Although not illegal, the governments £9 million leaflet drop advocating a remain vote was in breach of this…

    ‘European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission): Code of Good Practice on Referendums’:

    3.1. Freedom of voters to form an opinion
    The use of public funds by the authorities for campaigning purposes must be prohibited.

    There is evidence that the Government leaflet influenced the result of the referendum…

    ‘How the government’s pro-remain leaflet shaped the EU referendum’ [January 2018]:

    My results show that exposure to the government’s leaflet lead to a lower probability of voting to leave the EU. The findings indicate that exposed voters were, on average, 3 percentage points less likely to vote leave relative to their matched control observations; that is, non-exposed individuals with similar observable characteristics as the exposed individuals.

  • @Jeff, well done, the FCO confidential briefing was spot on.

    The recent landslide victory was notable in several ways. It kicked out all the MPs who reneged on their manifesto commitments in order to obstruct the will of the people. It punished the Labour Party and many parliamentarians for the same reason. But much more than that, it corrected a long standing democratic deficit. The people should have been consulted before our sovereignty was handed to the EU in a succession of treaties. Instead, the people were denied any say in the matter for decades. As you point out, this was deliberate policy. The Government and the BBC studiously avoided any mention of the EU in connection with our laws and governance.

    Democracy has now been restored and the people have had their say. Paul Barker (commenting above) thinks the referendum should never have happened. To deny and delay democracy further would have been a massive mistake. As the people have just demonstrated they can act decisively and with surgical precision when politicians use their parliamentary powers against the people.

  • Sue Sutherland 2nd Feb ’20 – 2:07pm:
    Unfortunately what Brexit has shown is that the people can be manipulated by lies.

    On the contrary, the evidence suggests that most people saw through the ‘disinformation’ which came from both sides (even when that of the remain side was backed by the ‘authority’ of the government). For example, the Treasury Forecast for the two years following a vote to Leave was widely dismissed as ‘Project Fear’. It turned out to be wrong by £100 billion of GDP, confirming that voters had been correct to doubt its veracity and to dismiss the prospect of an “emergency budget”.

    ‘Project Fear was £100bn out’ [May 2018]:

    Time is now almost up for the predictions. We must ask, “How did Project Fear perform?”.

    It turns out that Project Fear was wrong by almost 5 per cent of GDP. The consequences of this giant error for the rest of the Osborne/Treasury prognosis have been drastic. Instead of employment falling by hundreds of thousands, it has risen by hundreds of thousands. Instead of house prices going down, they have gone up. Instead of the public finances lurching more heavily into deficit, they have been better than at any time since the Great Recession, making the prospect of an eventual surplus far from silly. Above all, Osborne’s scary rhetoric about a return of the Great Recession now looks preposterous.

    Project Fear was a gross miscarriage of government. I do not know which of my two explanations is right. It may be that Osborne breached the conventions of our unwritten constitution and abused the authority of the Treasury to give substance to lies. Or it may be that the only advice Osborne (and Cameron for that matter) received came from a “near-unanimity” of official economists who had no idea what they were talking about.

  • Sue Sutherland 2nd Feb '20 - 4:14pm

    Peter, I was talking about the way in which the 2016 referendum was conducted and commenting on the state of democracy in our country not on my party’s lack of success in the 2019 GE. People who voted Leave think that their vote was a mandate and the Tories encouraged them in this belief, but in a parliamentary democracy we elect people to make decisions on our behalf. There is great confusion about our democracy and total division about Brexit. This is not going away.
    I said nothing about the intelligence of Brexit voters. Everyone is misled by lies. It’s just much easier to tell them and promulgate them now through social media so they gain in popularity.
    Obviously people who “won” the Brexit debate, like yourself, are going to protect our existing inadequate institutions and electoral methods at all costs because they have delivered them this victory. When it turns out to be Pyrrhic you may change your mind.

  • *The* problem is that half the country wants to remain in the EU and half wants to leave, and only one position is allowed for the entire country. Adjustments to the democratic systems cannot change this. One solution would be to let those who want to remain in the EU to do so, and those who want to leave to do so. That way everyone would be happy, and there would be no need for bitterness and recrimination. It would also be a truly liberal solution: freedom for the individual.

    One obvious criticism is this would freeze in the Brexit divide for evermore, producing a fractured society. But I don’t think this is correct. It would allow both outcomes to be compared in real time, and individuals could then move according to which looks the more attractive.

    But how could this ever be realised? The closest thing to an implementation I have seen so far is the e-citizenship offered by Estonia (, but this is far from a complete solution. If the EU offered e-citizenship this might be interesting, but the member states of the EU would need to see some benefit to them for this to work: I expect this means tax revenue, and the UK government is going to fight this all the way.

    There is also Northern Ireland. It will be interesting to see how that evolves.

  • Yousuf Farah 2nd Feb '20 - 4:58pm

    Well the best course of action right now is a bit of patience, maybe a lot of it. Brexit will not work, that is patently obvious, whatever Johnson is given by the EU will be tremendously inferior to the deal you have when you’re a member. So we’re going to have to keep referendums if we ever want to get back into the EU. All we have to do in the meantime is sit back and watch Brexit blow up in Johnson’s face, as he’ll give us and future generations a damp, wet and out-of-date meal; when before we had a Michelin star dish as a member of the world’s largest trading bloc. By then it’ll only be a matter of time for people to realise that being a member is high life compared to the sad fantasy sold to people by Farage, Rees Mogg etc.

    I’d like to think of Brexit as an experiment, much like the experiment of republic rule the UK, or rather what it was at the time, had to go through under Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s. Once Cromwell died, everything reverted back to the way it was and the Monarchy was back. I’d like to think that once the dust settles, and people begin to realise that Brexit was a lie, Farage and his ilk were con men and that the EU could be a force for good in their lives, then the consensus to get into the EU will arrive. Okay maybe not all at once, but here’s hoping.

  • John Barrett 2nd Feb '20 - 5:18pm

    Michael 1 – The point of the article was to ask the question about how to ensure that future referendums deliver an answer that has the support of the people.

    It was not, as you say “And I fear “denying” another Indy ref will fuel Scottish resentment and separatist sentiment.”

    When I broke with the party line at the time of the Independence Referendum and voted Yes, I was on the losing side and accepted the result, as did the party. However the SNP have since confirmed that while they supported a second referendum on the EU, to ensure that the deal was put to the people, they would not offer any second referendum on the final deal they might strike with the rest of the UK, after winning any future referendum in Scotland.

    The reason for writing the article is to stimulate some discussion as to what we believe is the right way to use any future referendums, not to deny them, but, before we have any more, to avoid never ending claims about what the result meant.

    We have given a lot of thought as to what voting system we believe is right for General Elections, Council elections and many more. We should give the same detailed thought to any future referendum, before we have to vote in them.

  • I see Jeff the Mage of Wrexham is amongst us, who will chant WTO rules at reality as it devastates Wrexham. Well my dear Mage poor Sir Peter has Sunderland, you alas have Wrexham. Going forward I will be asking how it is doing, will you be so cocksure then, I rather doubt it.

  • I think that the referendum has an important function in our democracy. It provides an opportunity for the people to have their say on major matters such as proposed changes to the constitution. It requires a simple binary choice and majority decision as in the 2016 vote. We should not mess about with the rules to suit interested parties. Part of the fairness lies in its simplicity. It should be clear beforehand whether the outcome will be respected and acted upon or advisory only. It would be a brave or stupid government (or party) to approve a referendum then renege on the result.

    The voters are not stupid. As pointed out eloquently above, they were not persuaded by the good and the great of the world’s financial institutions when they were wheeled in by the treasury to promote Project Fear. Equally, they don’t believe everything that happens to be written on the side of a bus or even confuse the difference between gross and net when they see it.

    This party is welcome to start working towards a future referendum on EU membership That is your democratic right. I think it would be a mistake to continue criticising the previous vote and talking down the fortunes of the country outside of the EU. That would not be well received by the vast majority of voters.

  • @John. The 2016 referendum did have the support of the people. You may have noticed that the people reinforced that message in December 2019. It was a number of parliamentarians who rejected the result and blocked our democracy with the help of the Speaker. This was the most disgraceful behaviour by members of parliament in living memory and I hope it will never be repeated.

  • Erratum: I should have said e-residency not e-citizenship for Estonia:

    They do have e-citizenship, but that is not what I was thinking about.

  • Peter of the People. Lets us give you Northern Ireland and Gibraltar to explain away the bad things that happen. Tis only fair, tomorrow we can start on both. I look forward to your explinations of the looming bad things. Consequences Peter of the People you can vote for what you like but you can’t vote the consequences away. I fear the very word consequences will leave many a Brexi and Lexi in tears before this disaster finishes.

  • marcstevens 2nd Feb '20 - 7:49pm

    This is an excellent article and re-joiners could be our new catchphrase.

  • Sorry but is this still the LIBERAL DEMOCRATic party? Ditching referenda,
    oh dear.
    Still, how about we all agree that at the next election in scotland in which one or more parties making an election manifesto promise to deliver independence achieve a majority either of seats or of votes cast then that is the end of the matter?

  • Referenda aren’t great, but better than elections in resolving specific issues especially with our majoritarian system. The majority of people voted for a second referendum party in GE2019, yet here we are. We still don’t know what Brexit is going to look like or what people really want to happen. Informed consent has, effectively, not been given. The politicians and media have not helped at all in that.

    Referenda do need to be more concrete. It was a huge issue that no plans or analyses for the change option had been in place before the ref was enacted. ‘Leave’ was vague and took many potential forms – many would not have voted Leave if the Single Market had definitively been off the table (e.g.). A confirmatory referendum on the final arrangement should be required if a specific explanation on how the possible outcomes will practically happen is not initially available, or if the campaign for the winning side breaks electoral law.

    I’d also add that the status quo bias might have been partially inverted here. The dominant Leave demographic was the 65+ crowd who may have desired a return to the idealised status quo of yesteryear, rejecting certain changes that had taken place whilst in the EU.

  • Doug Chisholm 3rd Feb '20 - 8:24am

    I agree with John that our position on revoke and referendums are difficult to defend. B we made no attempt to explain or support our position but just kept repeating our position mindlessly. More remainers voted labour but we kept saying we were the strongest remain party. Nobody was listening.

    However, after Brexit it does seem to me that it is reasonable to hold a second referendum – the best we can argue is that it should be held in a couple of years time when the post Brexit settlement is known.

    We need to start winning the argument(s) before we can expect to start winning (or doing well) in elections.

  • Electronic voting and many referendum as per the Swiss model would really give the power back to the people rather than the political class, done properly it could replace the HoL. Many LibDem policies, such as immigration, will never win a referendum and such a system would make it impossible for them to impose their ideals on a country that has no interest in them, so can understand why they are not popular.

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Feb '20 - 9:25am

    @Frank West
    Electronic voting – how will you make it secure from interference and how will you provide a decent audit trail?

    The huge advantage of paper ballots is that the counting process can be observed by the candidates and their agents.

    I’m aware there are problems in some areas of the country with postal voting but I don’t see that being improved through electronic voting if that isn’t 100% secure.

  • John Barrett 3rd Feb '20 - 11:22am

    Thanks for all the comments.

    I can remember Hilary Benn winning the Leeds Central by-election in 1999 on a 19.9% turnout, which at the time was the lowest since the war. He won his seat in Parliament by polling around 50% of that low vote, so he was elected to the House of Commons with the support of around 10% of the electorate, 6,000 votes from 65,000 voters. I always though that he was one of the best Labour MPs, so it is ironic that he should have entered Parliament with such a low support.

    If we accept that the existing system of electing MPs is wrong, surely we should give some more detailed thought and scrutiny to future referendums, before we end up with a clear majority for anything on a very low turnout.

    I am not saying, as some comments above have indicated, that we should dump all future referendums, I am saying that we should not simply accept that 50% plus 1 is in any way support for any major change.

    We have loads of detailed policy on a wide range of issues that few people are bothered about, but no clear policy on a subject which is topical and has changed the direction of the UK and in the future may well break up the UK.

  • Mack
    In 2017 the majority of voters , over 80%, voted for parties promising to honour the referendum and the remain side insisted they were in fact voting for Remain because the Tories lost their majority. The reality is that in 2016 as in 2017 the majority of voters simply voted for the parties they usually vote for in a general election and it’s pretty hard to infer much from it either way. Plus of course the SNP, by definition, do not want Britain to stay in the EU because their primary aim is to take Scotland out of the UK! Unionists were far more likely to vote to leave the EU in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which suggest that the EU is keeping the UK together somewhat problematic. Then of course there is the popularity of federalism amongst the pro EU camp and insistence on separating the referendum results into parliamentary regions when it was in fact a head count, not a parliamentary election. Nowhere voted Remain or Leave. The votes were individual choices, meaning that a vote in London was worth the same as one in Lamington Spa.

  • Mack 3rd Feb ’20 – 7:42am:
    ‘Leave’ was vague and took many potential forms – many would not have voted Leave if the Single Market had definitively been off the table.

    What a vote to Remain meant and what a vote to Leave meant were defined by the government prior to the referendum (being the only body who would be in a position to “implement what you decide”). They made clear that a Leave vote meant leaving the EU Council, the EU Customs Union, and the ’single market’ (the EU Internal Market). They communicated this through numerous media interviews and articles, the official booklet sent to every house, and in statements and answers in parliament. The official remain campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe, concurred and both made the claimed disadvantages of leaving the ‘single market’ the central plank of their campaign…

    ‘Brexit vote was about single market, says Cameron adviser’ [November 2016]:

    “Leaving the European single market was “the instruction from the referendum,” according to one of David Cameron’s closest advisers.

    Ameet Gill, who served as the former prime minister’s director of strategy until earlier this year and campaigned for a Remain vote, said the Brexiteers’ commitment to leaving the free-trade bloc was the key issue of the campaign and Downing Street spent “months trying to hang that round Leave’s neck.”

    He said it was “a bit weird” for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to now claim that Prime Minister Theresa May doesn’t have a mandate for a “hard” Brexit outside the single market.

    Gill is particularly damning about the attempt to rewrite the history of the campaign by those who, like him, supported a vote to Remain.

    Here’s David Cameron, at the despatch box on June 15th. 2016 in the last Prime Minister’s Questions before the Referendum, stating what both a Remain and a Leave vote would mean…

    His earlier answer to Ruth Smeeth, then MP for Stoke on Trent North, regarding tariffs on ceramics confirmed we would also be leaving the EU Customs Union.

  • Julian Tisi 3rd Feb '20 - 1:04pm

    I don’t think we can eliminate the possibility of referenda, but they should indeed be used sparingly, for major constitutional questions and probably that’s it. If we turn it round, some questions should only be resolved via a referendum – e.g. can you imagine Scottish independence being brought about by other than a referendum?

    I’m open-minded about super-majorities but if the bar is set too high there would be a backlash. 2/3 or 50% of the electorate is clearly too high IMO – e.g. what if 60% beat 40% only for the rules to say that’s not enough – it would feel like a stitch up.

  • Julian Tisi 3rd Feb '20 - 1:13pm

    Leave was certainly not defined prior to the referendum. Most senior leave politicians suggested that we would stay in the single market, keep all the rights we currently have etc. but at the same time we would stop paying the EU any money and not be subject to EU legislation. There are countless quotes from countless leave politicians I could add (not least Boris himself). In other words, leave promised a load of have-your-cake-an-eat-it nonsense.

  • @John

    “I am not saying, as some comments above have indicated, that we should dump all future referendums, I am saying that we should not simply accept that 50% plus 1 is in any way support for any major change”

    As I said in previous comment.
    A super majority is undemocratic.
    Requiring 50%+1 of the entire electorate is undemocratic
    The only democratic legitimacy is to either keep the status quo of either 50%+1 of those who vote
    Making voting compulsory and then having 50%+1 of the entire electorate.

  • “@Frank West
    Electronic voting – how will you make it secure from interference and how will you provide a decent audit trail?”

    Govn departments work on the basis of NI number that is cross-checked against the passport/driving licence database when you register and confirmed by sending an activation number to the correct address, with an option for those who don’t have a passport or driving licence, thus there is already a secure structure that could be used as the basis for electronic voting on computers or smart phone. By the time it would be implemented finger print recognition would be ubiquitous on smart phones, as a final check at the voting stage (not sure how the Swiss do it) – much more secure than postal voting. This would have the additional advantage of removing sensitive info from the voter’s register which are included by councils without the voters’ permission and can easily be accessed by dodgy internet co’s.

    Voters might need an incentive to vote such as reduction in council tax or uni fees and it would be a bit tedious but at least there would be real power at an individual level and possibility of a massive reduction in the political class. Politicians who con their way into power with ideas that can’t be implemented without taking an added chunk of tax payer’s income would find themselves powerless.

  • David Evans 3rd Feb '20 - 3:18pm

    Frank West,
    An audit trail is much, much more than voter id verification. As Nonconformist says “the counting process can be observed by the candidates and their agents”. Your answer doesn’t address that point at all.

  • Peter Hirst 3rd Feb '20 - 6:47pm

    Every referendum is different with its own issues and needing different criteria. We should campaign for an independent Referenda Body that determines if a referendum is held, what the question is, criteria for a yes vote and campaigning regulations. With faith in the process, we should then hold more of them on important constitutional and other issues.

  • Dear Oracle of Wrexham,
    “What a vote to Remain meant and what a vote to Leave meant were defined by the government prior to the referendum …”
    Indeed and your leadership said
    Two months before the June 2016 referendum vote, Raab told Andrew Neil on BBC Sunday Politics: “We’re very well placed, and mutual self-interest suggests we’d cut a very good deal and it’s certainly not in the European’s interests to erect trade barriers.”

    During an appearance on the BBC’s Daily Politics in April 2016, Raab added: “The idea that Britain would be apocalyptically off the cliff edge if we left the EU is silly.”
    However, post-referendum, Raab appeared to have changed his tune, writing for Brexit Central in October 2016: “Ideally, we continue trading without tariffs or other barriers. In the worst-case scenario, we would face the EU’s external tariff, which averages 3.6%, rising to 10% on cars and 32% on wine.” Later in the piece, he adds: “Even on the worst case scenario, Britain will thrive outside the EU.”…..

    Johnson told the Treasury select committee in March 2016: “Our relationship with the EU is already very well developed. It doesn’t seem to me to be very hard … to do a free trade deal very rapidly indeed.”

    Speaking at a Vote Leave event in March 2016, Johnson said: “I put it to you, all those who say that there would be barriers to trade with Europe if we were to do a Brexit, do you seriously believe that they would put up tariffs against UK produce of any kind, when they know how much they want to sell us their cake, their champagne, their cheese from France? It is totally and utterly absurd.”

    In a Telegraph column published three days after the referendum result, Johnson said: “[We] who agreed with this majority verdict must accept that it was not entirely overwhelming.”

    He sought to reassure remain voters that the UK would still have access to the single market: “EU citizens living in this country will have their rights fully protected, and the same goes for British citizens living in the EU. British people will still be able to go and work in the EU;…
    Where your leaders being flexible with their version of the truth O Oracle? i think they where and are. I think your doing everything you can to avoid coming to that conclusion. If you carry on you will emulate the oozlum bird.

  • John Barrett 4th Feb '20 - 9:15am

    Matt – On the contrary. 50% + 1 is hardly democratic, if only 50% of the people vote.

    Saying that 25% of the electorate gives a democratic mandate for a major change, or the election of anyone should at least give those who want a truly democratic system some major concerns.

    As I mentioned in my comment about Hilary Benn’s election. While it might have been democratic, it is surely not the best we can do.

    We are campaigning to change the electoral system because it is not fit for purpose. All I am saying is that the current system for referendums needs more thought, consideration and improvement, so that after the event people know that the decision is in fact more democratic than it is at present.

    Most Clubs and Societies know that a simple majority is not good enough to make a major change, surely the future direction of the country is more important and deserves better.

  • @John

    If you do not believe in making voting compulsory.
    Then 50%+1 of those who vote is a democratic result as it is democratic to withhold your vote.
    If you are insistent that a result must be 50%+1 of the electorate then you have to introduce compulsory voting like Australia.

    How on earth can it be democratic to require a super majority of say 66% of those who vote?
    What if you were to get a 2nd referendum on rejoining the EU and turnout was 65% and 64% voted to rejoin, therefore losing, do you really think that would put the issue to bed?
    or if the result was
    65% turn out, 66% still voted to leave?
    Can you see the remain side accepting the result?
    I cant, we would still hear the same arguments that because 50%+1 of the entire electorate had not voted leave there was no majority for it.

    The only way to put the issue to bed once and for all would be to require compulsory voting in such circumstances to get a definitive result

  • I suspect the people advocating a super majority are mostly advocating it retrospectively to delegitimise the referendum they lost 3.5 years ago. If the rules for a super majority were applied to the people’s vote they wanted or revoke they would not be making the argument and nor would they if there was a referendum for re-joining the EU.

  • Super-majority requirements, turnout requirements, etc. are all only required to make it more likely that the result of a referendum is “no changes”.

    If the government wants “no changes” it can just not hold a referendum in the first place … while if the government wants “changes” it’s hardly going to put additional barriers in the way of that option winning.

  • Sue Sutherland 2nd Feb ’20 – 4:14pm:
    People who voted Leave think that their vote was a mandate and the Tories encouraged them in this belief,…

    Not just the Tories. Here’s Paddy Ashdown on the night of the Referendum…

    You know, those who’ve asked for this, and I was the first leader ever to ask for a referendum way back in, I don’t know 89 / 90, have said so because they believe it to be an act of democracy.

    I will forgive no one who does not accept the sovereign voice of the British people, once it has spoken, whether it’s by 1% or 20%.

    Once they’ve spoken, it’s our duty, as those who serve the public, to make the best use, and to make sure our country does the best it can, with the decision the people have given us.

    …but in a parliamentary democracy we elect people to make decisions on our behalf.

    Those MPs decided by a majority of six to one to ask the British people to make the decision on our EU membership. The elected Prime Minister of the day stated that the result would be binding and this was reiterated in the government leaflet sent to every household. Subsequently, parliament accepted that the decision was to be implemented and voted by 494 to 122 to pass the European Union (Notice of Withdrawal) Bill 2017 with its default of leaving the EU on our existing WTO terms (commonly referred to as “no deal”).

    There is great confusion about our democracy and total division about Brexit. This is not going away.

    Any confusion and division seems to remain with a “furious rump” of politically vociferous people who have not yet accepted our decision to leave the EU.

    ‘How it all went right: The great Brexit wound has almost healed’ [February 2020]:

    There seemed to me [Rod Liddle] to be a furious rump of Remoaners unable to accept a democratic decision and — well, the rest of us. The vast majority of those who voted Remain have long since accustomed themselves to us leaving — a point never really reflected in the mainstream media, which of course prefers dissent to accord and still thought the whole thing was up for debate.

  • John Barrett 5th Feb '20 - 7:46pm

    @ Matt “if the result was 65% turn out, 66% still voted to leave? Can you see the remain side accepting the result? I cant, we would still hear the same arguments that because 50%+1 of the entire electorate had not voted leave there was no majority for it.”

    I hear and understand what you are saying, but many on the remain side did not accept the result last time either, so the present arrangements are clearly not great. I am not proposing super majorities, but am suggesting that before we have any more referendums we give some more thought as to what we are getting into, so that we can support something better than what we have at the present.

    @ Glenn “I suspect the people advocating a super majority are mostly advocating it retrospectively to delegitimise the referendum they lost 3.5 years ago.”

    I would not suggest anything like that and I was “happy” to accept both the democratic results of the EU and the Scottish independence referendum, (where my vote was on the losing side).

    I would however have to say that in both cases, neither the SNP, who want another referendum, or the Remainers and the Liberal Democrats, who also wanted another referendum to reverse the result, appeared to be happy to accept the result and that must surely make people think twice before we have any more referendums.

    If those proposing future referendums to reverse the result of the past ones in 2014 and 2016 want more in the near future, how can they deny others the same right of reply.

    I do not have the final solution to the problem, but I am happy to accept there is a problem. I hope others will see that we cannot go on without a major rethink and hopefully end the false belief that referendums are the answer to the questions where we have used them in the recent past.

    I agree with the quote “Referendums are an absolutely deplorable device. It is a technique for circumventing the political process. The political process is designed to accommodate our differences, a referendum will not do that.”

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