Referendums: A tool for democratic engagement or division?

On Tuesday evening Unlock Democracy held our event in Parliament ‘Referendums: a tool for democratic engagement or division’. We had some brilliant speakers and fantastic participation from the audience. 

Frances Foley, our former Europe Project Coordinator, talked about her experience running deliberative events in the lead up to the 2016 referendum. She spoke about how deliberation could help people make up their minds and also foster mutual understanding between people with different opinions. She said that she found people often shared common values but came at them from different perspectives. One common theme during the workshops was the fact that people found it difficult to access high quality, unbiased information. 

Frances then went on to discuss how we can run better referendums. She highlighted that the process of holding referendums can often be very opaque and inaccessible and should be opened up. She argued that referendums should not be an aggregation of existing preference. The questions should provoke thought and genuine contemplation of the issues. The electorate should be able to approach the question with an open mind. She put forward three things that are necessary to ensure referendums promoted democratic engagement rather than division; time to debate; high quality neutral information; and deliberation. Deliberation can promote trust between the people and politicians and between the people themselves. 

Lindsay Aqui, PhD candidate at Queen Mary’s University London, gave us a comprehensive comparison between the referendums on Europe in 1975 and 2016. She started by highlighting the fact that in recent times referendums have been more frequent that general elections and yet they have less regulation and we are continuing to debate this. She argued that people felt more informed during the 1975 referendum campaign and with one exception there were fewer outrageous claims. She said that in 1975 people tended to vote the same way as the politicians they liked and respected. There was a perception that politicians during this campaign had conviction in their beliefs and this in turn made voters more certain of their choices. In 2016 politicians were seen as less convincing, reluctantly or insincerely supporting a side. 

There was some fantastic questions from the floor on the role of the media and the need for thresholds. The panel and the audience discussed the role that the unrepresentative voting system and highly centralised government may have played in need people felt to ‘take back control’ from the European Union. The point that both 1975 and 2016 referendums on Europe were held to manage internal party divisions not because of public demand was raised and the possibility of citizen led initiatives explored. Issues around the lack of a process to follow in the result of a leave vote and problems with our unwritten constitution were also voiced. There was lively debate and discussion much in the spirit of deliberative democracy. 

All round the event was a great success and enjoyed by everyone. Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed; to our speakers; and to our chair Jack Maizels.