5 things this EU vote has taught us about referendums

Whichever way you feel about the result, most people are glad the EU referendum campaign is over. To put it diplomatically, it wasn’t the highest quality debate in the world.

Particularly for those on the losing side, referendums can seem like the worst way to do democracy - an instrument that leaves as many dissatisfied as satisfied with the result.

But referendums aren’t good or bad in themselves; they are a democratic tool with positives and negatives. The quality of information and debate can vary enormously. Nowhere have we seen this reflected more clearly than the EU referendum.

So what can we learn from the twelfth major referendum in the UK since British voters were last asked about EU membership in 1975?

  1. You’re never just voting on the question

This referendum has proven that a referendum isn’t a pure exercise confined to the ‘exam question’. There’s always a proxy element: voters often choose to cast judgement about the government of the day – as we saw with the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum, when the Liberal Democrats’ support for electoral reform was undermined by the unpopularity of some of their decisions as part of the coalition government.

On this most recent vote, there were people voting for Brexit based on almost a whole manifesto of different issues: from immigration, to a left-wing ‘Lexit’ vote, to a protest vote against the establishment to ‘send a message’ without necessarily expecting to succeed.

With any ‘umbrella’ question such as Scottish independence or EU membership, there are a huge range of motives relevant and outcomes possible - all slotting awkwardly into that one binary, simple question which we’re eventually given.

  1. Politicos feel the campaign is endless before most people have woken up to its existence

Journalists often get tired of the debate pretty quickly during these things, but referendums can seem out of the blue for people whose life isn’t all about politics.

The problem with a short campaign - as in this referendum and unlike the Scottish independence vote – is that the public lack the time to catch up and get to grips with issues on their own terms. That leaves the formal, official campaigns dominating the debate.

The nastiness may have made many long for the campaign to be over, but in truth a longer campaign would have allowed the public to become less confused and more informed – something borne out by our polling which showed levels of ‘informedness’ double from 16% in February to 31% in June. There was still much more that could have been done and more time to spend to make this a truly well-informed vote.

  1. This referendum has rewritten the rules on ‘party cues’

According to studies of referendums around the world, the established practice is that on an unfamiliar issue and when facts are scarce, voters look to party leaders they trust for a signal as to how to vote. UKIP was the only party whose formal policy was to leave the EU. The Prime Minister and every other established party’s policy was for Remain – yet it was UKIP’s stance that prevailed.

Certainly David Cameron’s stance had influence, and there was a rush to get Labour figures speaking out in the final couple of weeks of the campaign, as Labour voters sought clarification of Labour’s official position.  But with strong anti-establishment feelings and a weakening of party ties, just attaching a party label to a campaign is not nearly enough to sway many voters.

  1. Failing to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote was a missed opportunity

Votes at 16 in the Scottish referendum allowed for a huge amount of excitement and engagement in the campaign, which spilled over into other age groups. The same could have happened in the EU referendum - especially among the 18-24 year olds, under half of whom actually voting last Thursday.  

Instead, the distance felt by many younger people from the campaign - and concern that an older generation would decide the younger generation’s future - became another negative feature of the campaign.

  1. Referendums are just one way of determining a big issue - and they’re rarely the end of the matter

They may resolve a question for a while, but more often than not referendums are a staging post. Look no further than the Scottish referendum on devolution in 1997, which it was thought would put an end to independence sentiment.

But referendums have knock-on consequences. Nicola Sturgeon has been fast to confirm that a second independence referendum is a ‘highly likely’ step to ‘protect Scotland’s relationship with the EU and our place in the single market’.

If referendums are to become a regular fixture of our democracy, we need to work out why to hold them, when to hold them and above all how to hold them so that they stimulate inclusive political debate.

Since they’re becoming a regular feature, and now that we’re learning the lessons, let’s have a root and branch review of why, when and how we do referendums in the UK.

 Josiah Mortimer

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