How referendums are the most effective way to maintain the status quo & what it means for Lords reform

by Stephen Tall on May 24, 2012

Warning: this post contains paradoxes and thinking in progress…

Paradox 1: When asked, most people in this country say the current system of British politics needs to change. Yet the public consistently votes for small-c conservative parties and causes.

Paradox 2: As both a liberal and a democrat, I want a more participative democracy. Yet I’m sceptical referendums are the best way to achieve this.

A brief history of referendums in this country

Let’s take a look at our three most recent experiences in this country of referendums:

  • Just three weeks ago, 11 cities in England voted on whether or not they want to their local authorities to be run by an elected mayor. Of these, 10 voted to maintain the status quo, with Doncaster voting to retain its decade-old mayoral system, and Bristol the one outlier which voted for change.
  • In the referendum on the alternative vote in May 2011, there was a decisive rejection of changing from first-past-the-post, with just 10 UK areas out of 440 voting in favour of AV.
  • Two months prior to that, in March 2011, Wales voted to extend the law-making powers of its national assembly — a vote for change, true, but one that simply extended existing Welsh assembly powers and was supported by all four established parties in Wales.

We can go back further in time.. The first ever UK plebiscite was the 1973 Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum — which overwhelmingly re-affirmed the population’s wish to remain part of the union. Then two years later, in 1975, Harold Wilson asked the British people if they wanted to remain within the Common Market — again the status quo prevailed.

Six of the next seven referendums held in the UK focused on devolution:

  • in Wales, in 1979, devolution was rejected, while in Scotland there was a slim majority in favour (though not enough to satisfy Westminster);
  • 18 years later, both countries voted in favour of devolution, albeit Wales by the narrowest of margins;
  • then London followed up the following year by voting to restore its London-wide assembly, this time to be run by an elected mayor;
  • while in 2004 the North-East rejected its chance to vote for its own regional assembly.
  • The other referendum, the all-Ireland vote on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, resulted in an overwhelming endorsement of that stage of the peace process, having been backed by all Northern Ireland’s parties other than Ian Paisley’s DUP.

    Between 2001 and 2012, there have been 47 referendums held by local authorities on whether to introduce elected mayors to run the council — of these, 33 have resulted in no change.

    My two conclusions from all this

    That’s my brief run through the full list of our UK experiences of referendums, from which I draw two conclusions:

      1. A good rule-of-thumb is that the public will vote for the status quo when asked in a referendum. Put simply, voters tend to dislike change (no matter what they may tell pollsters when asked an abstract question). It’s a variation, I suspect, on the ‘loss aversion’ explanation of human behaviour: people prefer to avoid losses than to make gains;
      2. The exceptions to this rule-of-thumb being when the change proposed in a referendum is backed by a coalition of most/all the major parties.

    And that leads me to the following tentative views on the two contentious issues currently the subject of debate on whether we should hold referendums to settle them… First, an in/out referendum on British membership of the European Union would almost certainly result in the ‘in’ side winning. And, secondly, on House of Lords reform those opposed to reform (ie, in support of the status quo) would most likely win.

    A Lord reform referendum proposal

    There are, therefore, two options open to Nick Clegg to square the circle of accepting a referendum on Lords reform and maximising his chances of winning the reform argument.

    The first is to hold a referendum in which he — together with David Cameron and Ed Miliband — would lead the campaign for a democratically-accountable chamber: an enthusiastic alliance of the three main parties might persuade a majority of the public.

    An alternative to that is to promise a referendum to be held after the Lords-replacement second chamber has been in operation for (say) five years, at which point the public would be asked if they want to stick with it, a ‘future-proof’ lock to offer the public the chance to revert to political patronage if they find democracy unappealing.

    In some ways, this latter suggestion is a cynical one: I’m deliberately putting forward the option I think would be most likely to result in my preferred option, a reformed second chamber, winning. But, then, that’s also what those who favour the status quo are doing. The difference with my proposal — of a post-reform referendum — is that the public would be able to base their vote on real-life experience of both systems.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.