Fixing British Politics Part 1: More Referendums, not less

In July 2016 we held a major national referendum on whether to leave or remain in the European Union. This was an political gamble which attempted to settle a lengthy and bitter divide in British politics that was being exploited by niche parties like UKIP. The somewhat unexpected result was a narrow majority in favour of leaving. In the aftermath of the referendum, we can point to many issues, but the two most obvious flaws were:

  • Facts – both sides ran their campaigns poorly, with highly negative campaigning from the Remainers and a lack of vision from the Leave side. As a result I don’t believe the public had a real grasp of the situation and what was at stake. We were fed soundbites such as “£350 million a week goes to the EU”, and “economic ruin if we leave”. Neither were true. We had endless TV debates where politicians argued over the case for staying in the EU, but there was always someone from the other side arguing just as passionately to leave. Then there was the press – an ever-present blight on British politics, with bitter and misleading reporting from the likes of the Daily Mail. Were the British public really equipped to take in all of this and filter the lies from the truth?
  • Voting strategies – some of the Leave votes were protest votes against the Government, the EU, or even the establishment in general. Given the disenfranchisement and trust issues already explored on this blog, this is quite understandable. The trouble with protest voting is that it’s somewhat lazy because there is no requirement to think about the issue in any detail, and as a result those voters failed to accurately answer the question that was asked of them. I suspect that our political establishment will deal with this by problem by never having another referendum, eliminating the chance of another result that goes against establishment expectations. The excuse will be that the public simply cannot be trusted to make complex decisions.

I believe that the answer to the woefully-executed 2016 referendum is to “lean into the pain” and have more of them, not less. Holding regular referendums on a wide range of issues must surely be the single biggest thing we could do to re-engage people with politics. The possibilities are endless – imagine a Conservative government is in power but holds a referendum on whether to increase taxes to fund the NHS properly. That could lead to a number of interesting outcomes, such as right-wing voters being able to “switch sides” for something they believe in, and support a choice which might traditionally be perceived as socialist. The opposite is of course true – left wing voters might opt to privatise an industry because they’ve had enough of government bureaucracy and inefficiency.

It sounds like a much more robust decision-making process than lurching between left wing and right wing governments every ten years or so, and letting them spend years undoing each others work. Frequent referendums would mean that it would be less important which party was in power. When the party we don’t like wins an election, we usually retreat into a sulk for four years and hope for a different result next time. Frequent referendums would keep us all engaged in the running of our country.

Getting people comfortable with regular voting on a wide range of issues will have the benefit of taking political bias out of referendums. Instead of “sticking it to the man”, the chances of rational voter thought on the issue increase. There should be other positive effects such as people taking more personal responsibility for their opinions and the way they vote. Sooner or later, everyone will feel the effects of the decisions they make at referendums, no matter how small.

It’s unlikely that this process would need significant oversight or regulation, but any proposed referendum must be reviewed independently before being launched, to ensure it is a sound proposition and the arguments are clear and factual.

The EU referendum was a major decision, so the process ran for a long time and was expensive. A more frequent referendum schedule sounds costly, but each instance would be on a smaller scale than the EU one. Switzerland has held an average of nine referendums a year over the last 20 years.

Just imagine how different the world could be today if there had been a referendum on going to war in Iraq without a UN resolution.

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