Choosing the referendum question

Ballot-Paper-300x150The Government has agreed to the recommendation of the Electoral Commission that the question in the referendum on membership of the EU should be between ‘to remain a member’ or ‘leave’ the EU.  This is in place of a yes/no question.

This was a very welcome announcement.  I was pleased for two reasons.  One was that it was not likely to have occurred had I not achieved a change to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill as it was going through the Lords in 2000.  The Bill as introduced created the Electoral Commission, but did not give it a role in recommending or commenting on the question in any referendum.  I moved an amendment to give it a role.  The Government accepted the point and moved its own amendment to give effect to what I had proposed.  The Commission has tended to be proactive in proferring its view on proposed questions.

The second reason is because I have always argued that questions should offer a choice between two mutually exclusive propositions and not between a yes or no response to a particular question.  There is a bias in favour of a yes response, whatever the question, because of people wanting to be positive.  It is notable that a Comres poll in June found a 27-point lead for ‘yes’ over ‘no’ to the question as to whether Britain should remain  in the EU.  A question asking whether we should ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ produced a lead for remaining in the EU of 18 points.  It would have been interesting to see the result of the Scottish referendum had the question been ‘Should Scotland remain a part of the United Kingdom?’  (Some Unionists were not best pleased when the Government conceded the question that was put.)  Had the intention remained to employ a yes/no question in the EU referendum, opponents of remaining in the EU would have been well advised to press for a ‘Should the UK withdraw from the EU?’ question.

However, when some years ago I argued the case for two propositions, avoiding the bias favouring a ‘yes’ response, the then Chair of the Electoral Commission, Sam Younger, said they preferred a ‘yes/no’ question because of ease of campaiging: electors were lobbied to vote yes or vote no.  One can see that with some issues it may be less than voter-friendly to create two fairly complex propositions.  However, with the EU referendum, a ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ choice is clear and lends itself to straightforward campaigning.  It is good to see a change of heart.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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5 Responses to Choosing the referendum question

  1. tizres says:

    Thank you for your really clear, concise explanation on bias, though I note the Electoral Commission has been a bit on the gobby side, recently.

  2. maude elwes says:

    I agree with you on this, LN. It can cause no confusion. Stay or Leave.

    It is sad as I had perceived, without doubt, the EU would be a cause for furthering a unique civilisation. But it appears history always repeats itself and those in power end up being of the same ilk, no matter which century they are born in.

    I never once thought I would vote for the UK to be out of the European Union but I will. And the reason is not because I resent the others states having a say and joining us in our search for a good quality of life for all, but, because this noose we have around our neck, is without doubt, undemocratic. One big fix. And no changes to that are in the offing or wanted by those who run the show. They like it as it is. And look at them. Everyone on the take. And the last straw, after the Ukraine fiasco, is TTIP. And now this castastrophe of unstopable migrants. The result, in the main, of Schengen. Although I am well aware the UN has a great deal to answer for.

    Those in power, including the British contingent, have no idea how to run a continent safely, or, at all. And, after all the crep Blair dumped on us, the lot is only fit for the sewer. His mush always brings to mind cajonies (his) and the butchers ham slicer.

  3. Jonathan says:

    I think there’s a typo: “remaining in the UK” should be “EU”.

    My thought as soon as I saw this story was how the Scottish question could be considered fair if the EU question isn’t. But then, the SNP chose the question, timing, franchise, length of campaign, etc. and still couldn’t get the answer they wanted. I suppose it’s hard for David Cameron to rig the poll in the same way, as he doesn’t really know what he wants!

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