The 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.