Shortly before Parliament rose, the House of Lords Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, published its report on referendums in the UK.   The report not only provides recommendations on the use of referendums but is also an excellent pedagogic tool in that it provides an excellent summary of the arguments for and against the use of referendums.

Much of the evidence heard by the committee proved to be more sceptical of the value of referendums than one may have expected given the witnesses.  Baroness Kennedy, for example, who chaired the Power Inquiry, was highly critical.  So too was Dr Helena Catt, former New Zealand Electoral Commissioner.  Steve Richards of The Independent offered a tour de force in his opposition. 

The report reflected this sceptical approach.  The Committee was wary of referendums but took the practical view that, as some had been held and others were promised by the main parties, they were not going to go away and therefore it was important to consider when and how they should be held.  The Committee felt they should be held on fundamental constitutional issues but recognised the difficulty of deciding precisely what fell within this term.  It also wanted the Electoral Commission to have a statutory duty to formulate the question to be put in a referendum.  It wanted to see other changes to ensure that as far as possible referendum campaigns were seen to be fair.  Achieving that, not least in terms of funding, is far more difficult than one may think.


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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13 Responses to Referendums

  1. maldencapell says:

    I was quite tickled during the Second Reading of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill when you sniffed out the fundamental contradiction in the government’s commitment to a referendum on AV for the Commons, Lord Norton – that they want it because they support it, but won’t support a referendum on other options in case the people choose a different option from AV.

    In addition another Noble Lord noticed how the government was setting the question for the referendum, not the Electoral Commission, and quite poignantly asked what on earth the EC is for in this case.

    I also feel that referendums on highly polarised matters have to be dealt with very carefully. Particularly in European Union affairs as they quickly descend not into a consideration of the issue at how but into a slanging match of who hates the EU more. It doesn’t do the reasoned voice any favours.

    • Lord Norton says:

      maldencapell: Many thanks for that. On the Electoral Commission being consulted, if it wasn’t for me it wouldn’t even be consulted. When the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill was introduced, creating the Electoral Commission, there was no provision made for it to be consulted on the wording of a referendum. (I have since been told that this was not an oversight and that certain ministers were resistant to it.) I moved an amendment at committee stage to provide for it to be consulted. In response, the government conceded there was a case for it and brought forward their own amendment at report stage. Even then, it was fairly tightly drawn. It was at least a step forward.

      On your final paragraph, I agree completely. There is a problem confining debate to the actual issue of the referendum. There is also the problem that where it is a simple dichotomous choice (yes or no) it excludes other options. One cannot establish relative priorities.

  2. Carl.H says:

    I have to say that in general I`m against referendums, I really don`t think the whole of the electorate are educated enough in terms of most of the subject matter. This and the fact the media tend to lead people and their opinions.

    Regards Constitutional matters being put to referendum this imo would be very wrong if one is talking about how Parliament is made up. I am concerned the HoL perhaps may not be strong enough to withstand the barrage the other place is putting on it for reformation. There are some reforms that are common sense and I think most in the House are aware of these.

    To let a Party who sell their souls every 5 years choose the questions for any referendum on the make up of Parliament would be a travesty.

    I am concerned of late that Parliamentarians are allowing the media to judge too much and taking note. Not only was this seen with expenses but outside of politics it was seen recently with the P0pe and the abuse scandal. I feel that Parliament, mainly MP`s, jumped on the media bandwagon and have made the situation far worse than it should. They have also tried to foist a lot of change on the HoL when the furore was not directed toward it. This has led to the calls for an elected Upper House or a referendum on it, I hope it does NOT occur.

    MP`s seem to think because they are elected they are more legitimate, this is not the case. Parliament was built on equal legitimacy in it`s parts that it would work best. Asking ill educated people how they would like Parliament formed would only succeed in giving more power to Government and having an unbalanced House.

    Who is to choose what to hold referendums on? Would you give the electorate that right ? Many good laws are not always popular, no one should be able to pick and choose what the electorate should decide. If I chose a leader then he asked me what to do, I would have second thoughts about his leadership.

    No to referendums. Yes to a free upper house.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: I’m with you on both counts. I have argued in the House against referendums. A principled objection to referendums enables me to be consistent. The problem for Government – and not just the Government – is that it does not have a principled objection and so runs into all sorts of problems (not least in respect of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty). On Parliament, it is important not only that it gets its regulatory process in order but that it reclaims a confidence to call government to account. I think the Lords has a role to play here. You are correct that some people have used the present crisis of confidence in the political class to argue for an elected second chamber, but their arguments are frequently contradictory and often bizarre. ‘Elected MPs mis-use expenses, so let’s have a second body of elected politicians.’ Somehow, I don’t think electors will be swayed by that one. The case for the present House is compelling. We can improve what we do – we do a good job but not a perfect one – but what we do is, I contend, far better than can be achieved by an elected second chamber.

  3. Dave H says:

    While I am in favour of the principle of holding a referendum on various things, there will always be the catch that for many, it will be a relatively uninformed choice, most likely determined by the editorial policy of their favourite newspaper, and that many will not bother to attempt to inform themselves on the subject.

    Not that this is restricted to the wider population – I have observed in Westminster where a handful of MPs or peers are debating a subject and yet when the vote comes, several hundred have voted, presumably without hearing the debate and merely following the direction of someone else to the correct place.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dave H: You are correct in your latter observation, but the advantage of Parliament is that it provides an even playing field for debate of an issue, providing clear and consistent rules. With referendums, it is difficult to ensure an even playing field. In the 1975 referendum, the ‘yes’ campaign apparently out-spent the ‘no’ campaign by a margin of about ten to one. Had the ‘no’ campaign in Wales been better resourced in 1998 – I gather it was run on a shoe-string – the result may have been different.

      Voting in a referendum may also, in practice, be on something other than the precise question (for example, the performance of the government) and there may problems with the wording. On some questions (there is research on voting on propositions in US states on this) there may be a notable proportion of those who vote who cast their ballot for the side they actually oppose.

  4. franksummers3ba says:

    I am sure that European and Commonwealth precedents hold much more interest but in the States we have some where referenda of vsarious kinds are easily held and some where they are very difficult to secure and very limited in application. In my state of Louisiana a referendum very rarely succeds. But that does not mean it is useless. When the cunmbersome process gathers steam the engines of regular politics and journalism begin to react and address these problems. I think referenda are as assential to us as nuclear weapons are to the UK’s defense and in much the same way. We think California’s easy referenda weaken regular politics greatly. Some states have no referenda. I would think a referenda in the UK would be fitting if it were balanced with a one term (not one parliament) Monarch’s veto. Muddiness on the top and bottom might be good. But in both cases the best rules would be slow, cumbersome and long. Parliament would seldom allow them to come into play if they were. But I think one could argue for such a pair of laws.

    • Lord Norton says:

      franksummers3ba: The experience of the USA points to some of the problems. As you touch upon, California is a particularly good example, where voters have passed propositions that have tied the hands of the Governor and state authorities in attempting to tackle the state’s parlous economic condition. A referendum, in effect, allows voters to be irresponsible.

  5. The Duke of Waltham says:

    I cannot help noticing how similar the arguments against referenda are to those against universal suffrage. In short: an ill-educated public is swayed by demagoguery towards one side or another, often against the better judgement of those who actually think things through. I have to say I agree with this view, even though it will no doubt appear contemptuous to some (at least with regards to suffrage). I’d hate to see British politics turned into representative ochlocracy. The replacement of party ideology with doing everything with an eye on the polls is a destructive enough tendency without the mandate of a referendum on every major policy issue. If a referendum were to be held, I agree with the report in that it would have to be on “fundamental constitutional issues”, and only after a long and thorough informational campaign covering all the options.

    • Lord Norton says:

      The Duke of Waltham: To my mind, the principal arguments against referendums are nothing to do with the ability of electors, but rather derive from a principled position in relation to parliamentary democracy as well as from the practical problems associated with their use.

      • Carl.H says:

        I think a lot has to do with the ability or education of the electorate. We can take for instance the HoL, there is such a misguided view on the Lords by electorate at large due to lack of education that IT WILL result in something not as good imho.

        Referendums like elections will be a time when parties strive to suit the public, this is wrong in any type of leadership. Any leader, from a parent to a Company Director may ask the underlings what they think best but ultimately make a decision themselves in the best interest of the whole.

        Far better than referendums are places such as the blog and outreach programs, where everyone can be educated. If you give the choice to the children they`ll have all the sweeties now.

  6. ladytizzy says:

    Apologies in advance, but I would appreciate your (plural) insight on the Draft Local Government (Power of General Competence) Bill.

    I am on record as being against more powers for local gvt, mainly due to the abuse of existing powers and the toothlessness of the Standards for England, much as I had been with the problems of MPs expenses.

    The intro from the LGA indicates this Bill will have cross-party support and so will be enacted swiftly. However, I’m picking up blog chatter on the implications for parliamentary sovereignty and the constitution.

    Inevitably, my thoughts turned to you…

  7. Lord Norton says:

    ladytizzy: The draft Bill was published by the LGA in March as a contribution to debate. It notes that the parties in the past have supported a general power of competence, but that does not mean either that the main parties will necessarily support this particular Bill or that time will be found by an incoming Goverment for such a Bill. Even if time was found, there is no reason why it would be enacted quickly. There are no grounds for it to be fast-tracked. It would have to go through the required stages with the recommended gap between each stage – thus providing an opportunity for those outside the House to express their views to parliamentarians and for both Houses to examine it thoroughly.

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