The Brexit vote teaches us that we should be practicing how to do referendums

A Guardian columnist named George Monbiot is arguing for more referendums in the UK. His reasoning is pretty good: the problem with the EU Referendum was that it was a large, complex question boiled down to two answers given to a populace inexperienced in referendums. Referendums, especially significant ones, shouldn’t be a ‘learning-on-the-job’ experience; the populace should be well versed in this participatory element of its democracy.

The populace isn’t practiced in attending and voting in a referendum, there are essentially two options: stop all referendums, or have more! The problem with having none is that it leads to a ‘participatory democracy’ that has been hijacked; a party wins the position of “Government” and uses that as an absolutist mandate and consent to push through every policy they have: the ones they popularised during their campaign, the ones spelled out in their Manifesto but never spoken of, the ones alluded to but never spelled out, and the ones they have invented since the election. As Monbiot puts it: “Even if your party is elected, it washes its hands of you when you leave the polling booth” (Monbiot, 2017).

There are, of course, strengths to a representative democracy and a Parliament that can hold Government to account. But, watching politics in the UK recently, Parliament appears to be losing its power. And so the second option looks increasingly tempting: have more referendums. We only need to look to other countries to see how this works. In Switzerland, they have a dozen questions put to a referendum each year and this empowers the electorate to make changes to their Constitution. (It has a lot of scope in the UK, as this could be a chance to actually have a ratified Constitution and put elements of it to a vote.)

And the Swiss electorate are not bored of politics, either. Participation breeds a sense of ownership which in turn leads to a more responsible approach (Arnstein, 1969). Applied to politics, this suggests participation would lead to fewer protest votes and higher turnout. This seems to be the case looking at Switzerland; Swiss Referendums reliably get 63% turnout (Wikipedia contributors, 2017a), which is higher than many of their Parliamentary votes (Wikipedia contributors, 2017b).

(If you go to those Wikipedia pages, they link you to the Swiss Government’s website, which Chrome will translate for you. But referencing the 9 or so pages that show the trend is ugly.)

This is not calling for an end to Representative Democracy. However, it would mean putting more power in the hands of the people and that would mean much of the Government’s role would become administrative: trying to accurately legislate the elected will of the people. There would be a key role for a Constitution in all of this, as well: if it becomes apparent something significant was wrong with the information the electorate had to vote on, our representatives in Parliament should be able to call for ignore the result or have another vote; that should be a Constitutional protection. (I’m deviating away from Monbiot’s proposals now.) In addition, unlike the American Constitution, the document should be a living document: it’s not just a fixed document with a history of interpretations, but the actual text can be updated, amended, removed and added to according to the result of Referendums.

This is not replacing Parliament so much as creating another House in the political process for some issues. Many policies will pass without a Referendum, and nothing changes for those. But there are always popular motions for votes. In the UK, Universal Credit could have been put to a vote and the EU Referendum could actually have been several questions (a “referenda”) about not just Leave and Remain, but conditions for Leave. It does change the principles of British democracy, but allowing the citizens to have a voice at a finer resolution; at present, a citizen votes every four years on a whole-block manifesto and not issue by issue. Annual referendums will stop that.

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Arnstein, S.R. (1969) A Ladder Of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners. 35 (4), pp. 216–224.

Monbiot, G. (2017) Referendums get a bad press – but to fix Britain, we need more of them [online]. The Guardian 18 October. . Available from: [Accessed 18 October 2017].

Wikipedia contributors (2017a) Swiss referendums, 2016. Available from:,_2016&oldid=781635009 [Accessed 18 October 2017].

Wikipedia contributors (2017b) Voting in Switzerland. Available from: [Accessed 18 October 2017].

7 thoughts on “The Brexit vote teaches us that we should be practicing how to do referendums”

  1. I contest the concept that “The populace isn’t practiced in attending and voting in a referendum” or more accurately, that they “don’t know how attend or vote in a referendum”. It’s really pretty simple, you show up where you always show up to vote, and pick “A” or “B”, depending on which you agree with (or have been led to agree with). More referendums are indeed good, but not because people “get used to them” or “learn to how to participate”.

    Let me suggest that the most important thing about getting the people to participate in referendums is to make it “worth their while”. No, I’m not suggesting they be rewarded; I’m saying that if you hold a referendum, then abide by the freaking results! Don’t play games and not do what what was decided by the voters.

    Oh, and the “multiple choice” idea is guaranteed to sway the vote to “no”, since the “yes” vote will be split. First have a referendum to select between “yes” and “no”, then if yes, hold a referendum for method A, B or C. Or you could combine these by having two questions on the referendum. “Yes” or “no”, and “A”, “B”, or “C”.

    1. Referendums, I hope, are about a lot more than turning up on the day. You need to know how to collect the data to form a decision. Everyone seems to think they know how to do this, but that’s essentially not true.
      The UK walked right into the big stakes game and made its bet on the first run of the country’s epistemology. Nearly everyone has been proven wrong, because nearly everyone thought they knew what was going to happen and, no matter what the outcome eventually is, it’s all apparently uncertain right now. Everyone who thought they knew has been demonstrated to be wrong on the ground of thinking they knew.

      More importantly, “No deal” was one of the things we were promised wasn’t an option, and now it’s being talked about as a likely outcome. So, again, no one knew.

      We have to get used to Referendums because the public, ideally, would be support a referendum with a reliable epistemology. To develop or tune your epistemology, the likelihood is that you have to get a few things wrong and have an opportunity to dissect why.

      We weren’t given that. We were given an opportunity to get it wrong and then — as this is the big stakes game — we were held to it.

      Imagine a series of referendums as close as the EU Referendum: first vote is binary (Leave or Remain) and gets a 51.8% win, and then a second vote for details is equally close but three ways (say: Canadian deal, Schengen deal, World Trade Organisation deal) and the win is 35% of the turn out. Well, 35% of 51.8% is 18.1%. 18.1% is not a majority.

  2. Well, doing your homework for ANY election is necessary, but often neglected. Referendums are no different. But people tend to NOT do that; they accept what is presented to them which resonates with the way they feel, and reject the “other side”. So usually, what they are voting for is not what they think it is. This is why we tend to refer to the masses as “sheeple”.

    And yes, the aftermath of the vote was what I was talking about. Those who “won” find that they didn’t win anything, and those who “lost” find that they didn’t lose anything. Sure would encourage me to vote in the next one…

    And yes, a winning vote is almost never a majority, because a significant portion of the population doesn’t bother to vote A majority of those who voted is always the best you can hope for, and if a person doesn’t vote, they don’t have any right to whine about the outcome.

    “Pseudo majority rule” is the way it is, and always has been, and will always be unless it is made mandatory to vote.

    1. Except, it’s not pseudo majority rule. In the UK we have a representative democracy. The House of Parliament is filled with representatives from different constituencies and from different parties. Their job is to moderate the power of the “winning” party in Government. The opposition party’s power is proportional to its number of members in parliament.
      (It’s slightly messier than that.)
      But, a 51% majority does not and should not hand 100% of the power to that party. Brexit is fundamentally different, in that 52% majority is being seen as an absolutist mandate.
      The fact that people don’t do their homework is lamentable, but it is also moderated by the fact that power is ultimately split by the representatives in parliament. In an all or nothing referendum, the urgency of the matter will eventually ring home. But not when they are so very seldom.

      Also, I don’t know what you mean by this: “Those who “won” find that they didn’t win anything, and those who “lost” find that they didn’t lose anything”

      1. When I said “psuedo majority” I was talking about a majority of those who voted. On the one hand, it sounds “unfair”, but those who did not vote actually DID vote – “I don’t care, whatever the rest of you decide”.

        Let us say there is a referendum which says that every person in the country over the age of 17 will be given 5 pounds. Say that 52% vote “yes”. But once it passes, the government finds they don’t have that much money available and a group of 16 year olds file suit that it is unfair they don’t get the 5 pounds, and not only is the 5 pounds not handed out, but there is no indication when of if it ever will be. The winners didn’t (yet) get anything and the losers didn’t (yet) lose anything. Which would tend to discourage those who voted from going out of their way to vote in the next one.

      2. And I’m saying it’s not majority rule, pseudo majority rule, or majority of turn out rule: representative democracy means a metered and balanced rule. That is coated with something like brexit, especially as a particularly unfettered and unbalanced “hard brexit” is on the cards.

        Now, you seem to be talking about winners not winning and losers not losing in the context of having the vote reversed. I’m not sure why, that’s not what this post is about. It’s about having more referendums.

      3. I got two reasons for having more referendums from the post. 1) to get people “used to and competent in” voting in referendums and 2) to increase the say of the people in how the country changes (or stays the same)..

        All I’m saying is that either goal is less likely if “games” are played with the results.

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