The case against referendums

This evening I took part in a panel, organised by the Hansard Society, to discuss referendums.  I stood in at short notice for the Hansard Society Chair, Peter Riddell, who could not make it.  By short notice, I mean shortly before I caught the train to travel to London once I had finished teaching.

There were three of us on the panel.  Vernon Bogdanor made the case for referendums, though finding little merit in Thursday’s referendum.  Steve Richards and I argued against referendums.  I drew attention to the arguments for and against as rehearsed in last year’s report of the Constitution Committee on referendums.  I noted that the arguments for were hardly borne out by Thursday’s referendum.  (Does anyone think it will enhance public support for the system of government or that it will settle the issue?)  My principal objections to referendums, though, were that they were essentially misleading, unbalanced, and dangerous.

They are misleading because they do not necessarily reflect the true opinion of electors.  There is usually a simple and exclusive choice and electors may have other preferences.  Electors may be offered a choice between a and b in a referendum, but they may prefer c or d, and may prefer a to b, but c to a.   We cannot know why people vote as they do and do not know whether true preferences are captured.

They are unbalanced because one cannot guarantee an even playing field for the two sides of the argument.  One can introduce some controls, but what if all the parties, or the principal parties, combine on one side of the argument, or most of the print media fall on one side?  There is the additional problem of ensuring that the debate remains on the substance of the question and not some extraneous matter, such as the popularity of the government. 

They are dangerous because they constitute majoritarian tools (and may be the product of moral panics).  They can be deployed against minorities.  The decision may also be made by a small number of voters (if no threshold is applied) – as may be the case on Thursday.  And fundamentally, they undermine parliamentary government.  They can bind government in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to tackle serious economic or other issues (as has happened in California) – the electorate is in effect having the opportunity to act in an irresponsible way, since they do not then hold themselves to account – and, especially in the UK where we do not have a codified constitution, it de-legitimises issues not subject to a referendum.   People opposed to an issue will argue that it is not legitimate until subject to a referendum: x was subject to a referendum, so why not y?   We have no mechanism for drawing a clear and objective line.

I have a principled objection to referendums.  The problem is that succeeding governments have not had such an objection.  We therefore find ourselves in a situation that is confused and problematic.  Thursday’s referendum illustrates the problem.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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20 Responses to The case against referendums

  1. Chris K says:

    Maybe there’s room for one last referendum: One on our EU membership.

    Then perhaps Parliament may once again be able to make the decisions we elect it to make.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Chris K: Hmm, somehow cannot quite see that happening, even though if the EU Bill goes through we could potentially have several referendums on EU issues.

  2. Dave H says:

    However, they can be useful if there are a large number of people who want something and yet the vested interests of all major political parties don’t want it. Think EU referendum where we don’t even get a chance to discuss is because David Cameron considers we’re better off in Europe. Given that he’s supposed to be working for us, he ought to pay a bit more attention to what we apparently want. It’s not a brief fad, it’s a consistent and, with their budget increase shenanigans, probably growing feeling.

    If he’s convinced he’s right then he can put the case. Of course, I take your point that the question to ask isn’t necessarily a simple A or B, although you’d get plenty of takers for “Should we leave the EU?” and sort out the rest later.

    I’d personally like to see a referendum any time the EU attempts to increase our budget contributions higher than the rate of increase of national budget to see if we’re going to pay it or not. So if we’re actually cutting our budget, they should be asking us for less to reflect the fact that we’re tightening belts, not asking for ever more as they seem to do. It would certainly provide a powerful bargaining chip for a PM to know his level of support for what’s being asked, and might encourage other countries to question the level of spending too.

    They can be dangerous, but you have to admit the Swiss seem to manage fairly well most of the time.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dave H: A member of the audience did raise the issue of popular initiative. I said that if you favoured referendums as a means of getting people more engaged then it was logical to permit referendums to be triggered by popular initiative rather than simply leaving it to the government to decide what should and should not be subject to referendum. I did suggest that the audience may wish to reflect on the type of issues that may attract so many signatures as to trigger a referendum.

  3. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Lord Norton,

    The medievals have always to be taken with a rather large grain of salt. However, I think they would have regarded the royal wedding just past as a legally meritorious vox populi in acclamation. This was something still used as a hybrid similar to the referendum today. In that view the House of Windsor, the line and a particular third Heir and Consort would have received a legal vote of Confidence renewing the covenants of the social order. But one can see the modern referendum does tend to some aims more than others. Royalist ritual perhaps should be allowed to count for something if direct electoral ritual is allowed to count. There are mass rituals of direct law neither so broad and yet personal as the royalist nor so lawyerly as the refendum. We have all seen lots of this around the world but the best skilled practitioner was I think an Austrian-born German soldier and painter who crafted a rhetoric of hate and social simplicity which still affects many dark corners and public places in our world.

  4. Carl.H says:

    It was very quiet at the polling station, I don’t think my 57% is going to be right.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: I must confess that I thought your guess was possibly on the optimistic side!

      • Carl.H says:

        It was rather tongue in cheek though one would expect in such a constitutional issue that it would stir the general public. It may well be that less than 20% of the electorate decide the issue and what percentage of those are well informed is anyones guess.

        We’ll have to await until tomorrow evening for the outcome.

  5. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton,

    Tomorrow evening then?
    We should know something….

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  7. Dean B says:

    I find myself in the rare position of disgreeing with Lord Norton (who, if I am not mistaken, made a visit to the Steel City on Saturday? Someone matching his Lordship’s description was seen heading to Sheffield station around lunchtime…)

    To have a blanket argument against all referendums implies that either a) the constitution should never, ever change, or b) that parliament alone should be able to approve or deny all consitutional change. Where there is a groundswell of opinion on a matter of genuine constitutional significance, a referendum is really the only legitimate way to resolve the issue. Can your Lordship genuinely, for example, deny the right of the people of Scotland, or indeed Northern Ireland, to determine whether they remain part of the Union? Would he really have it solely in the hands of the English dominated Westminster parliament?

    Of course the AV referendum was an abomination, not remotely passing my test that there be a genuine groundswell of opinion, but rather being forced upon a reluctant population as the result of a grubby back room deal.

    Having allowed a referendum on AV it would be ridiculous for there not now to be one relating to any moves to create an elected House of Lords, but again grubby little deals – now enlightened by the realisation that the public are not stupid enough to vote for just any old change when fed platitudes about “fixing our broken system” etc – mean that we are unlikely to get one.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dean B: I was indeed in Sheffield on Saturday, doing an interview for Sky News. I see no case for referendums. Parliament determined constitutional issues up until the 1970s without recourse to referendums. I have a principled objection to referendums. The problem for successive governments has been that they do not, with the result we are in the situation that we now find ourselves.

  8. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the AV referendum – there was never a burning desire for electoral reform in the UK – so I can appreciate the various arguments against holding more in future. However, it seems to me that there’s an important distinction between holding a referendum on a policy issue (such as whether or not to make cuts to the NHS) and holding a referendum on a constitutional matter (such as whether Scotland should be independent or whether the UK should be a member of the EU).

    Whilst a referendum always runs the risk of being misleading, unbalanced and dangerous – it nevertheless confers legitimacy on constitutional change in a way that parliament sometimes cannot. If the Scottish people genuinely want independence and Westminster were to turn around and deny it to them – this would surely be seen as illegitimate. Isn’t a referendum the worst form of making constitutional decisions, except all the others that have been tried?

  9. John Dowdle says:

    I knew Professor Philip Norton when he was President of the Politics Association and he always made it completely clear then that he was a political conservative.
    As such, it meant that he believed that there had to be very good reasons for any form of change, particularly those which involve significant constitutional change.
    I tend to agree that referenda should only be employed for truly significant issues (though local iniatives could be employed for significant local issues).
    The point about plebiscites – particularly the one made about an Austrian house painter – simply highlights the need for complete impartiality on the part of the mass media, most specifically the BBC.
    Hitler’s plebiscitory “successes” have to be viewed in the actual context of a regime which exercised complete control over all forms of media and had banned all alternative forms of political expression. This is not, therefore, a valid form of objection to referenda.
    I was out of the country when the 1975 referendum on continuing UK membership of the then EEC was held so I cannot comment on what has actually happening here during that referendum campaign.
    However, I think it is now clear that the aspect of “ever-closer-union” was never spelled out properly to the UK electorate on that occasion and I believe if this had been properly explained to the British people they would probably have voted to come out of the EEC.
    Cameron and Clegg have both, at different times, opined that there should be a once-and-for-all-times referendum on continuing UK membership of the EU.
    The People’s Pledge has been established to campaign for just this sort of referendum and to pressurise prospective MPs to sign up to a pledge for such a referendum.
    Such a referendum will provide finality on this issue.
    I do not mind if we stay in or leave the EU but I do believe that the British people should be allowed a say in the matter. If nothing else, it will bring closure to the debate as to whether or not we should stay in the EU.
    We live in a different world compared to even as recently as 20 years ago.
    The traditional model of representative democarcy no longer works today.
    People today expect to be consulted on important matters as no party’s manifesto can possibly provide the degree of differntiation required for people to express complete support for all their policy commitments.
    In an age of twitter and Facebook, mass involvement in democracy is no longer impossible. We should embrace the future now.

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