After four referendums in six years – two UK-wide and one each in Scotland and Wales – our latest annual Audit of Political Engagement shows that the public exhibit declining support for more of this method of decision-making to determine important questions.
Support for more referendums on important questions
A clear majority – three in five British adults (61%) – agree that important questions should be determined by referendums more often than today. However, this is significantly below the level of support for referendums recorded in Audits prior to the EU poll last June. In Audit 9 (2012) and 13 (2016) support for referendums stood at 76% and 72% respectively. Interestingly, support for more referendums among Scots has declined to 55%, a drop of 19 percentage points from the 74% recorded in the last Audit published in 2016.
Support for more referendums is now lowest in Scotland compared to other parts of Britain, indicating perhaps a level of ‘referendum fatigue’ following two referendums in less than two years and with the Scottish government talking of a third when the EU result had barely been counted. Those who are strong supporters of UKIP are most likely to support the use of referendums to determine important questions. Nearly nine in 10 (88%) UKIP supporters do so. In contrast, the supporters of the most avowedly pro-EU party, the Liberal Democrats, are least likely to support the use of referendums as a decision-making mechanism; only four in 10 (42%) of their supporters do so.
The views of Labour and Conservative supporters are broadly identical; 59% of them support greater use of referendums to decide important questions. In contrast, those who say that they do not support a political party are more likely than either party’s supporters to favour referendums; nearly seven in 10 (69%) would like to see greater use of referendums in the future. Unsurprisingly, three-quarters (74%) of ‘leave’ voters support greater use of referendums in the future; just under half (47%) of ‘remainers’ agree.
The best way to make a decision?
In the aftermath of the EU referendum, when questions were raised about how government and Parliament would take the decision forward, we decided to test public attitudes to a range of decision-making mechanisms across several different policy scenarios.
We asked which mechanism people thought would work best to produce a decision in Britain’s best interest: government taking a decision without a vote in Parliament; a parliamentary vote; local government deciding for their own area; or the public deciding through, for example, a referendum. Each option was put across five different policy areas, covering national and local issues, constitutional and ethical matters:
- the method for electing MPs – a national, constitutional question – like that posed in the 2011 AV referendum;
- a financial matter in relation to the NHS - a key national policy area with local delivery implications;
- ‘fracking’, a controversial environmental issue with important local ramifications;
- assisted dying - a moral or conscience issue where citizens might arguably have stronger personal views or indeed knowledge than they might, for example, have on constitutional questions; and
- our future relationship with the EU, the subject of the recent nation-wide referendum.
Overall, public opinion was split; no decision-making mechanism attracted majority support for any of the policy scenarios. However, overall, decisions by the public, through a referendum, were the most popular. The option that was closest to attracting a majority was a referendum to choose the method for electing MPs, which was supported by 47% of the public.
On the constitutional (election of MPs and EU future) and ethical questions (assisted dying), four in 10 of the public selected themselves – the public via something like a referendum – as the best way to take a decision in the country’s interest, significantly ahead of the decision being taken by government or Parliament.
Only in relation to deciding how much money the government should spend in a policy area like the NHS did the public think that Parliament would be better placed to decide than citizens through a referendum or similar mechanism. And almost as many people thought that local government should decide as thought the public should do so.
And while a decision by the public was still the most popular option to address the difficult issue of fracking, here support was lower than in relation to the constitutional and ethical questions. Only three in 10 opted for a decision by the public, and it was on this question that a decision by local government attracted the most support compared to others.
Young people apart, those who voted ‘remain’ are less likely to think that important questions should be determined by referendums and more likely to select a vote in Parliament as the best way to make a decision across all the scenarios we tested.
Conversely, older people apart, those who voted ‘leave’ are more likely to think that the public should decide, for example through a referendum.
Referendums and Parliament
But if events following the referendum have demonstrated anything, it is the indispensable role of Parliament, with the Supreme Court confirming the need for a parliamentary vote to trigger our exit under Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union.
The referendum result triggered the exit process but there is still a need for decisions to be made by our representatives as we seek to navigate the complex political and policy landscape created by the Brexit vote. Whereas more direct forms of democracy tend to entrench views and attitudes and give a megaphone to those prepared to shout the loudest, parliamentary democracy can mediate between and balance competing interests. If there were to be another referendum in the next few years, much greater thought must be given to the interface that any decision thus taken would have with Parliament.
Enjoy reading this? Please consider sharing it
With respect to the importance of delegated legislation, the next stage of the Brexit process is unlikely to be much different from the last. Without urgent, substantial reform of delegated legislation scrutiny in the House of Commons, much of the detailed implementation of Brexit will be done by the executive with limited parliamentary oversight.
The process for getting House of Commons select committees re-established after the general election is so far broadly on track. However, government reorganisation and the Labour leadership contest could yet cause delays and disruption. And this time, there are particular reasons to get committees into place urgently.
Articles in this latest edition cover topics as diverse as political finance regulation, devolution, young people and the EU referendum, candidate campaigning in general elections, the policisation of abortion and the electoral success of women candidates, as well as reflections on the Turkish, Australian, Irish and EU Parliaments.
Schools making up an ‘electorate’ of over 46,000 young people returned their results to the Hansard Society’s 2019 Mock Elections, which were held to coincide with the December general election and continued a series extending back over 50 years. Labour emerged as the clear ‘winner’ of the 2019 mock poll.
At the start of a new Parliament a series of ceremonies and procedures must take place before the Members of the two Houses can get down to business. Our special collection of procedural guides takes you through them, in the order they take place.
A set of laws, conventions and Standing Orders govern how and when a Parliament starts and ends, how it is divided into sessions and sitting periods, and what ceremonies and procedures take place at different points. This guide takes you through them.