Parliamentary democracy or referendums? Public attitudes to decision-making

26 Apr 2017
UK and EU flags next to each other

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.

Dr Ruth Fox, Director , Hansard Society
Director , Hansard Society

Dr Ruth Fox

Dr Ruth Fox
Director , Hansard Society

Ruth is responsible for the strategic direction and performance of the Society and leads its research programme. She has appeared before more than a dozen parliamentary select committees and inquiries, and regularly contributes to a wide range of current affairs programmes on radio and television, commentating on parliamentary process and political reform.

In 2012 she served as adviser to the independent Commission on Political and Democratic Reform in Gibraltar, and in 2013 as an independent member of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee Review Group. Prior to joining the Society in 2008, she was head of research and communications for a Labour MP and Minister and ran his general election campaigns in 2001 and 2005 in a key marginal constituency.

In 2004 she worked for Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign in the battleground state of Florida. In 1999-2001 she worked as a Client Manager and historical adviser at the Public Record Office (now the National Archives), after being awarded a PhD in political history (on the electoral strategy and philosophy of the Liberal Party 1970-1983) from the University of Leeds, where she also taught Modern European History and Contemporary International Politics.

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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.

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.

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.

Fox, R. (2017), Parliamentary democracy or referendums? Public attitudes to decision-making, (Hansard Society: London)

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