What the Electoral Reform Society Report on the Referendum missed out

Recently, the Electoral Reform Society published its report on the EU Referendum. It’s an interesting read.

It’s main recommendations include:

  • greater pre-legislative scrutiny of a Referendum Bill
  • a more deliberative approach
  • a body which can rule on the veracity of claims

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, ERS conducted a poll to find out the key influencers of  and perceptions about the campaign.

This graphic, showing where people got their information from, sums up how well the Leave campaign hit its target market and how completely rubbish the Remain campaign was.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 17.44.01

The report talks a lot of sense but misses the mark in some crucial ways, though.

Scotland wasn’t a bunch of roses

First of all, the Scottish Referendum comes in for more praise than it perhaps deserves. Until the EU Referendum, I said that the Better Together campaign was the worst campaign in the history of democracy. Perhaps it’s now been overtaken by both Stronger In and Vote Leave.

The Yes campaign in Scotland is often praised but, actually, beyond the illusory froth of inclusiveness, it was searingly negative and became more so as polling day approached. Three weeks from that referendum, commentator David Torrance observed:

Yesterday I read of Yes supporters planning to use pens to mark their ballot papers amid fears their pencilled crosses might be altered, and, while that might be an extreme example, it’s an inevitable by-product of the Yes campaign’s negative phase, not just scaremongering over the NHS, potential cuts to the Barnett Formula (what do they think would happen to it after a Yes vote?) and the prospect of government by Boris/Farage/insert political bogeyman here.

The Scottish referendum was a divisive experience and shouldn’t be held up as an example of how to do things perfectly. In fact, some of the worst lessons from the Scottish referendum were repeated by both sides in the EU Referendum, contributing to the failure of the campaign to properly engage and inform.

There’s no mention of thresholds

You can’t add a person to a toddler group committee, or any other organisation, without, usually, a 2/3 majority. That’s a sensible thing to make sure that you’ve built a consensus ahead of even slightly small change. Yet roughly half the country can dictate to roughly the other half a course of action that will cause massive problems for everybody for decades to come. That can’t possibly be acceptable. You might want to have a look in the ERS report and see the massive spike in Google searches for “What does the EU do?” on 24th June, the day after the referendum.

Do we need to look at a process of making it much more difficult to make these decisions without a greater consensus in the country?

That, to me, seems to be a very important part of any future discussion around referenda. You might argue that it should have been around this one. All parliamentarians were caught napping on this, with disastrous consequences. Professor A C Grayling has written extensively on these issues since the referendum, saying here:

The poor drafting of the 2015 Referendum Act is a material factor likewise. If there was any risk of it being misunderstood that it was advisory only, a supermajority should have been stipulated. For a massively consequential constitutional change such as Brexit involves, nothing less than a two-thirds majority should be mandatory. The voting age should have been 16, since the younger generations are the most affected. British ex-pats should not have been disenfranchised on the grounds that they had lived abroad for longer than a certain period: that is an assault on their right as nationals. As it was indeed an advisory referendum, there should have been a variety of questions exploring whether further discussion with the EU on key issues would have satisfied some concerns about the nature of membership. In short, the simplistic ‘in-out’ question and the restricted nature of the permitted constituency represent major problems.

He’s arguing for Parliament to stop Brexit. That would, in my view, be extremely problematic, but I am in no doubt that a further mandate should be sought, particularly as the realities hit home. Today’s developments from Japan are the tip of the iceberg. Why would people invest here when they can build factories 25 miles across the water and have access to half a billion more people?

How do we scrutinise claims made in the heat of a campaign?

The Report says that a body, perhaps set up by the Electoral Commission, should rule on whether claims are factual. They cite that the equivalents of the Advertising Standards Agency in other countries do rule on political ads. In this country we’ve veered away from doing that on the grounds that it may be a very slippery slope.

The UK Statistical Authority did say that the £350 million a week claim made by Leave was, basically, hogwash, but nobody listened.

What do you think is the best way to stop untrue claims embedding themselves in the minds of the public?

 

 

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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27 Comments

  • Rightsaidfredfan 5th Sep '16 - 6:32pm

    @Caron “Yet roughly half the country can dictate to roughly the other half a course of action that will cause massive problems for everybody for decades to come. That can’t possibly be acceptable.”

    That’s completely acceptable. A democratic country is not like a toddlers group, anything that would get a 2/3rds super majority wouldn’t need a referendum as parliament would almost certainly do it if it had that much support.

    The EU debate had been going on for years with an almost single issue group taking 13% of the national vote and winning EU parliament elections. It had to be settled so a government won an election with a manifesto promise to put the issue to the people and respect the result. That used to be the liberal democrat policy too.

    Another issue that might come up for a referendum is the voting system. Lots of people like myself favour FPTP as I prefer a system that usually produces an outright majority as it means the people can remove a government with no back room coalition deals. The people being able to fire them helps keep governments honest, without that they would become corrupt. FPTP keeps fringe parties out and stops the tail wagging the dog as to win a majority under FPTP requires more support than any other party in over half the country.

    But since less and less people are voting for the two main parties FPTP’s legitimatecy is now in question. In a democracy the electoral system looking potentially illegitimate is a big problem. You can’t have an electoral system that so many consider illegitimate so that will need to be put to a referendum to either change it or give it the legitimacy that comes from approval from a referendum. If/when that happens I will vote to keep FPTP, but I believe that the majority verdict has to prevail, should that require a 2/3rds super majority too? Bare in mind that it will never be changed by normal legislation.

  • Apart from the result, the Scottish referendum was a very positive and empowering experience that engaged a great many people in active politics for the first time.

    It is that empowerment and engagement of new people, responding to the Yes campaign’s positive message of hope, finding that they can make a difference and questioning whether things really need to be the way they are, that is perhaps why the career politicians and journalists on the unionist side, unaccustomed to having their views and authority questioned, might not have found the experience so enjoyable.

  • paul barker 5th Sep '16 - 7:01pm

    But does The Leave campaigns higher penetration say something about the rival campaigns or the voters themselves. Perhaps the people who voted Leave were alrady much more inclined to only listen to groups they agreed with ? That would fit with both the Educational & Age divides, ignorance & old age both tend to narrow the mind.

  • Phil Beesley 5th Sep '16 - 7:02pm

    Wow, assuming your presumptions… And the only pertinent voters are age 18 to 24, and 65+.

    I always wanted to know whether mates of similar age to me are idiots. According to a Lib Dem study, they don’t matter. They are the right age but we didn’t talk with them.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 5th Sep '16 - 7:39pm

    @Paul Barker: “old age both tend to narrow the mind” not sure about that, in my opinion older people tend to be wiser having had a life time of experience. I think that this does tend to make them more risk adverse and possibly more conservative, but I wouldn’t say more narrow minded.

    Anyway the 48% who voted for remain aren’t anything like the 45% who voted for independence. Here’s why: yes to independence started way below 45% in the polls and managed to convince people of their vision. The result was enspired people with determination and a vision. A vision I disagree with as it happens, but that is what they were. Remain started higher than 48% in the polls and tried to keep people supporting it with fear and threats of a punishment budget if they voted leave. So unlike the yes people, most people didn’t vote remain out of enthusiasm for the eu superstate, they held their noses and voted remain out of fear, this is why unlike yes more remainers accept the result now that they sky hasn’t fallen than want the result overturned.

  • Daniel Walker 5th Sep '16 - 7:41pm

    @Rightsaidfredfan “Another issue that might come up for a referendum is the voting system. Lots of people like myself favour FPTP as I prefer a system that usually produces an outright majority as it means the people can remove a government with no back room coalition deals.”

    Except a) FPTP means that, for large chunks of the country, most voters might as well not bother and thus are effectively disenfranchised;
    b) Both the Tories and Labour are coalitions (in the Tories case, between the fiscal-conservative but socially relatively liberal centre-right and the both socially and fiscally conservative right, and in Labour’s case, as is becoming more and more obvious, between the centre-left social democrats and the socialist left) They make back-room deals, they just aren’t obvious.

    FPTP regularly produces differences of a hundred or more seats on a difference in total percentage vote of a few percent. (e.g. 2005) This is completely indefensible if you think a parliament should actually represent the will of the people.

  • Little Jackie Paper 5th Sep '16 - 7:48pm

    Thresholds – seductive idea. However they do encourage one side to reduce turnout, which isn’t great. Also the France referendum on Maastricht was a 51:49 result on a 71% turnout. Should Maastricht not have been agreed on that basis?

    ‘What do you think is the best way to stop untrue claims embedding themselves in the minds of the public?’

    Your basic problem is this. The LEAVE claims, to say the very least had small-print. But take the £350m/NHS claim. Basically the cold and unvarnished truth on the EU budget is that the UK has long been and would have been a significant net EU contributor, irrespective of the UK domestic fiscal position. That is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. If REMAINers were not comfortable with what LEAVE were saying on the EU budget, they were not exactly keen on confronting the voters with the unvarnished truth. Hence the LEAVE message stuck – the talking point that the UK gives rather a lot of money to the EU was in effect conceded.

    I’d also point out that REMAIN showed the weakness of the ERS ‘truth body’ idea. A key claim was this thing about £4,300 per household as the benefit. That was a claim that rested on a decades-long timetable and a lot of economic factors falling into line. Verify that for me by polling day. All the ERS idea does is encourage claims that can’t be verified meaningfully.

    Caron, with the greatest of respect – trust the people and trust the voters with these claims. We’re not dumb.

  • Little Jackie Paper 5th Sep '16 - 7:57pm

    One further point – there doesn’t seem to have been mentioned is the importance that seemed to attached to purdah. Basically the polls seemed to have REMAIN ahead upto about purdah. When purdah kicked in LEAVE seemed to move on. This is I think why the prospect of President Le Pen using the French civil service in a referendum, seems to have the EU in a cold sweat.

  • Little Jackie Paper 5th Sep '16 - 7:59pm

    *that* doesn’t seem to have been mentioned – EDIT FUNCTION!

  • Rightsaidfredfan 5th Sep '16 - 8:06pm

    @Daniel “FPTP regularly produces differences of a hundred or more seats on a difference in total percentage vote of a few percent. (e.g. 2005) This is completely indefensible if you think a parliament should actually represent the will of the people.”

    That’s sort of my point. I know all that, but still think the benefits of FPTP outweigh the negatives, others strongly disagree. So it needs to be settled. Only a referendum can do this, when there is a referendum on changing the voting system to PR should it need a 2/3rds majority to pass? And the other question to ask is, of course, if a parliament elected under FPTP is so illegitimate, does it have the right to overturn something that the majority have voted for? In this case that something would be Brexit.

  • The other aspect not mentioned is tying the ‘change’ side down to a specific plan. Here, Brexit had (and continues to have) different meanings to different people, but the votes of ‘stop immigration, regardless of cost’ were lumped in with ‘stay in the single market, even at the cost of free movement’ votes and many more to create the illusion of a majority.

    If that means more than one change campaign, fine.

  • FPTP regularly produces differences of a hundred or more seats on a difference in total percentage vote of a few percent. (e.g. 2005) This is completely indefensible if you think a parliament should actually represent the will of the people

    But it’s perfectly fine if you think the point of an election is to choose a government, rather then the composition of a debating chamber.

    Which is what most British people, including me, think elections are for. You have an election, you pick a party to govern; a bit later you do it again and if you liked what they did you keep them, if you didn’t you boot them out and give the other lot a go.

    What we don’t want is a system where you could vote against a government and end up with most of the same faces back in office again, just as a slightly different coalition, which could easily happen under PR.

    The idea of British politics ending up like Borgen, with multi-party coalitions deals and nobody to blame when things go wrong because everybody had a finger in the pie, is the stuff of the British electorate’s worst nightmares!

  • Graham Evans 6th Sep '16 - 12:15am

    What the EU and Scottish referendums proved is that referendums are fundamentally a bad idea, and no matter what improvements may be suggested in how they are run you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It’s more than likely that if referendums on constitutional change had been required in the 19th and early 20th century then the extension of the franchise would have been even longer in coming to fruition. Referendums present the electorate with a pseudo-binary choice, but very rarely is life that simple. If we must have referendums they should be in three parts. First voters must be asked whether or not they wish the politicians to come proposals for change. Then they should have a series of options presented to them on what the changed status might look like, progressively eliminating them to arrive at the preferred option. Finally, they should then be asked whether they want to adopt this option or stick with the status quo. If New Zealand can do this to choose a national anthem, surely the same level of deliberation should be applied to far more important issues.

  • The only thing to learn for the future is that suddenly polling agencies are rubbish so they are now part of the problem. I’d ban them for about a month prior.

    I notice the only thing Remainers pick out is this 350 million that nobody believed anyway – they don’t seem to remember the flood of ridiculously pessimistic predictions by a cabal of self-interested, ‘experts’ that had never obviously predicted anything correctly up to that point which might have justified their hubris.

  • Daniel Walker 6th Sep '16 - 8:15am

    @Tim “But it’s perfectly fine if you think the point of an election is to choose a government, rather then the composition of a debating chamber.

    Which is what most British people, including me, think elections are for. You have an election, you pick a party to govern; a bit later you do it again and if you liked what they did you keep them, if you didn’t you boot them out and give the other lot a go. “

    Except you don’t “pick”, unless you live in a marginal, do you? And as for “composition of a debating chamber”, well, that’s exactly what the word “parliament” means, so yes, I would expect some debating to occur there.

    You may be in favour of AV, just not PR, I’d be genuinely interested to know, so we won;t talk about preference voting systems yet 🙂

  • Philip Knowles 6th Sep '16 - 8:33am

    Seeing this was about what the Electoral Reform Society missed out – and not about the referendum result. Another issue was about EU nationals being excluded from voting. The father of a friend of mine came over from Italy when he was 18 – 50 years ago – for all his working life he has paid taxes and retired in the UK. He is proud of his Italian heritage so has never applied for UK citizenship. He couldn’t vote in the referendum. A colleague of the same friend came over to work from Pakistan last year. She had a vote in the referendum (as did Irish citizens) because of archaic rules about the Commonwealth and Ireland.
    I am also disappointed with the BBC. In their attempt to remain unbiased they did not properly question the claims on BOTH sides. The ERS point out that the BBC seems to have been the most trusted source.
    If a commercial organisation had made the claims such as the £350M they would have been hauled in front of the ASA. The Electoral Commission have no powers to stop blatant lies being told as citizens are deemed to be able to test the veracity of claims. If we are able to do that why do we need the ASA to protect us from commercial organisations?
    I have recently stood as a candidate at two council by-elections. One major party told blatant lies in their leaflets – no wonder the public has no confidence in politicians.

  • Would the ERS have produced a similar report if the vote had gone the other way, do you think?

    Or does this analysis start from the premise, ‘we didn’t get the right result, what went wrong and how to we stop it happening again?’ — which is a bit insulting to the 17 million of us who voted Leave, to be told we are mistakes, aberrations, errors to be corrected or dupes to be put right, rather than citizens who knew exactly what we were doing when we cast our ballots and therefore should be listened to.

  • @Dav
    “Would the ERS have produced a similar report if the vote had gone the other way, do you think?”
    Admittedly it was 20 years ago so my memory may be wrong, but I don’t recall a huge outcry when the 1997 Welsh Referendum brought in the assembly. This of course was on a 50.3%/49.7% vote split, with a turnout off 50.22%.

    I also don’t recall any other referendum getting such treatment either, but again my memory may be flaky on that.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 6th Sep '16 - 1:35pm

    @Tim “But it’s perfectly fine if you think the point of an election is to choose a government, rather then the composition of a debating chamber”

    I agree, i hate the idea of PR having seen how it worked in Scotland. It reduces accountability in my opinion. Ultimately governments are elected on their manifestos and under PR nobody gets their manifesto implemented. And they always have the perfect excuss for broken manifesto promises too, the other party wouldn’t let them do *that* bit.

    Anyway no remainer answered my question, one day, if public pressure forces us supporters of FPTP to defend the legitimacy of the voting system with a referendum, should alternatives to FPTP need a 2/3rds majority to pass? Would it be completely unacceptable to change from FPTP to PR if only 52% of the population vote for it?

  • Why should we have thresholds?

    When we joined the Common Market in 1973 – no vote at all. In the 1975 Referendum the Stay In was close to but under two-thirds.

    In the 41 years since then the Common Market turned into the EU and there were enormous changes with membership – none subjected to a Referendum vote.

    The 2/3 argument is simply not valid – no 2/3 to join, stay in in 1975 referendum and no referendum of any sort in all the multiple Treaty changes!

  • Why should we have thresholds?

    Well, as I wrote, it seems like this report is not so much a dispassionate analysis of the running of the referendum, but more a panicked response to the ‘wrong’ result.

    I’m pretty sure the reason there was no threshold for the referendum was that those on the ‘Remain’ side were confident they could win, but not confident they would win by 2/3rds.

    I note in passing that there is no 2/3rds majority required in the European Union Act 2011 (an Act which is, presumably, now irrelevant, but was at the time supported by both Coalition parties).

  • David Evershed 6th Sep '16 - 7:50pm

    If a referendum requires a two thirds majority to change from the status quo, then the government could simply make the change (eg LEAVE the EU) and then have the referendum.

    Thus the status quo can be manipulated in advance of the referendum to suit the government rather than the (50% – 66%) majority of the electorate.

  • The principled position for the LibDems, admittedly with benefit of hindsight, would have been to boycott the referendum

    Would have been politically a bit tricky, that, as having an in/out referendum was Liberal Democrat party policy long before it was Conservative policy.

  • Caron, you argue for thresholds of 2/3 for constitutional issues. So, I take it the for any referendum on ditching either First Past the Post or the House of Lords you would want a two-thirds majority to change the status quo?

  • Richard Underhill 8th Feb '17 - 1:07pm

    The 2016 EU referendum was hugely complicated, multi-layered and, like Punch’s cartoon the curate’s egg, subtle in parts. For instance the economy and immigration ARE the same issue, which David Cameron did not understand.
    He also said that the claim in the 2015 general election that a Labour-SNP coalition was likely was nonsense.
    Tim Shipman (Sunday Times) book All Out War (2016, 624 pages) included details about social media. Pages 407-408: “Controversially, Leave.EU also sought out overt racists to hit with their messages. Facebook adverts provide a tab you can click on to see what targeting was used to reach you. Banks was caught out early on when Tom Edmonds at Stronger In set up fake profiles for far right extremists, and found that Leave.EU adverts had been deliberately sent to supporters of the British National Party and Britain First. When the story appeared Leave.EU stopped that.”

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