A referendum is a form of direct democracy but a referendum is rarely used in British Politics. In most issues, as befits representative democracy, the government decides policy after Parliamentary debates etc. Referendums put the onus on the voter in what is essentially a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice. The Labour Party promised two in its 1997 manifesto on the issue of whether we join the Euro or not and whether the country needed another electoral system to replace the First-Past-The-Post system. Five years later, both these referendums have yet to be called.
Between 1973 and 1997, there were 4 referendums in Britain. Between 1997 and 2000, there have been 4 more. However, 7 of these were for local issues and only one was for a national question. Two have been on Northern Ireland, 4 have been on devolution, one has been on the issue of the Lord Mayor of London. The national one was on whether Britain should join what was then the EEC (European Economic Community). This national one was held in 1975. Since then there has not been a national referendum.
In the past, referenda have been on controversial issues (such as whether to join the EEC or not) and such issues have threatened to split party loyalty. The results of a referenda can unify a split party as they will know exactly what the public thinks on an issue and adjust its approach accordingly -after all, a political party exists for power as opposed to a life in opposition.
Arguments put forward in favour of referendums are:
1. They are a very real form of direct democracy
2. They increase political participation; voting does not take place just every five years.
3. Referenda can be a check on “elective dictatorships” during a government’s 5 years span.
4. Referenda provide a clear answer to a question the government might be ‘asking’.
5. Referenda deal with a flaw in the mandate theory as voters can voice an opinion on a major issue. If the government listens to the people, it is likely to be gaining public approval and support.
6. Referenda can unite a divided party.
7. Referenda can provide a mandate for controversial policies.
8. Referenda legitimise important constitutional issues such as devolution.
Arguments put forward against the use of referendums are:
1. Referenda are inconsistent with the belief in parliamentary sovereignty.
2. Issues might be too complex for a mere yes/no vote or for the public to understand.
3. The regular use of referenda could lead to apathy among the public.
4. There are effective alternatives : opinion polls and by-elections.
5. A low turnout can distort results. Only 34% of those who could have voted in the “Do you want a Mayor for London?” actually voted. 72% of these voted ‘yes’, 28% voted ‘no’. But 66% of Londoners failed to vote at all. This low turn out clearly favoured the supporters of the Mayor.
6. The results of a referendum might not be decisive. For Welsh devolution there was a 51/49 split.
7. Funding differences can affect results as government money can pour into a referendum and the group on the other side may well be not so well financed.
8. Referenda might result in “the tyranny of the majority”. If the majority votes for it, does the government go ahead with it ? What about the wishes of the minority ? How are these safeguarded ?
Local referenda have taken place that purely affect a distinct region :
In 1998, Milton Keynes had one on Council Tax; in 2000, Scotland had one on Section 28; East Grinstead, West Sussex, had one as a town on whether a new Arts Centre should be built or not.