How do you solve a problem like referendums?

By January 27, 2017Public Affairs

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It’s hard to remember a time when the country has been more divided – yes or no, in or out – the last few years have brought more than their fair share of political turmoil.  But how much of that turmoil can be laid at the door of referendums?  A whole lot I’d argue.

In recent years the fortunes of many of the most prominent political leaders have been impacted by the outcome of referendums in the UK.  Michael Gove and David Cameron have arguably left frontline politics battered and bruised, whereas others such as Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon have seen their reputations go in the opposite direction.

Yet the political impact of a referendum result is not restricted to individuals, as our political parties have found out.   For example, it’s claimed that the downturn in fortunes of the Scottish Labour Party came about at least in part because of their alliances during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum and we’ve seen a divided Conservative Party as a result of the recent referendum on EU membership.

Therefore given the political damage which has been inflicted on the UK’s largest political parties as a result of referendums – you’d be forgiven for thinking that governments would be reluctant to use this form of democracy in future.

Yet speculation is rife that Italy, France and the Netherlands will be in the vanguard of EU countries seeking to hold referendums on their EU membership in the not too distant future.

With elected representatives held in such low esteem it’s quite easy to see why referendums are popular.  A form of direct democracy which gives the public the opportunity to vent their frustration to the people running their country.

But behind this popularity we need to be aware of the serious problems with referendums.

While there is no more simple question than one which demands a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.  The simplicity of the question often does not do justice to the complexity of the issue.

Our recent experiences of referendums have borne this out with complex issues surrounding currency, trade and taxation for example, being boiled down into simplistic terms and forcibly shoved into boxes marked ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

There’s also the danger of the public confusing the question of the referendum, either deliberately or via external influence.  For example, the 2011 referendum on the alternative voting system was meant to be about a change to the UK electoral system, but instead became linked to the popularity of Nick Clegg as voters weighed up the possibility that Clegg would be kept in Government via the power of second preferences.

With the recent Scottish independence and EU membership referendums the notable exceptions, generally referendums inspire lower turnouts than general elections.  This means that referendum results often depend less on the balance of public opinion and more on which side has the more energised supporters – an issue which we’ve explored before at Indigo.

Many smart referendum campaigns try to unite support across partisan lines, so as not to become a protest vote against the current government.  That was very much the case during the recent EU referendum where the vast majority of mainstream political parties and politicians backed continued membership of the EU.  However this left a vacuum for parties and politicians once viewed as being on the fringes, such as Nigel Farage, to grab the attention by espousing the opposing argument and stirring populist anger around immigration and the future of the NHS – therefore changing the campaign from an examination of a whole spate of complex issues to a few hot button issues.

Now it’s not to say that referendums are all bad – indeed many can bind a country together.  The referendum on Scottish devolution was an example of a strong majority of the Scottish people demanding the creation of a Scottish Parliament and an element of home rule.  Referendums can also be a power for social good – Ireland’s 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage was an important milestone in both the nation and world’s changing attitude to the issues.

However, that being said, given the unexpected consequences and political fallout from recent referendums then I suspect our politicians will think twice as viewing referendums as an easy solution to a political problem -something that Nicola Sturgeon may be considering right now.  Indeed if she needs an illustration of what can happen to a political career after a referendum then she need look no further than David Cameron.

Colin McFarlane is a Senior Account Manager at Indigo