Referendums and how they are used

What is a referendum?

A referendum or plebiscite is where people a vote on a particular issue, usually requiring a yes/no response. It is an example of direct democracy . In the UK there is no constitutional mechanism requiring prime minister to hold a referendum; so they are called at the discretion of the government. Technically they are advisory and the result does not have legal force and it has to be approved by Parliament, which has legal sovereignty. However, in practice it is highly unlikely that the country's elected representatives would ignore the will of the people.

Referendums were unknown in the UK until 1973 when voters in Northern Ireland were asked whether they wanted to stay in the UK. The first national referendum was held in June 1975, when Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave the electorate a vote on whether they wanted to stay in the European Economic Community. Since the election of the New Labour government in 1997 they have become more common. Indeed, there is now an expectation that a referendum will be called when an important, constitutional change is be proposed, such as devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is unlikely that the decision to leave the European Union, would not have occurred had it been left up to Parliament. The vote for 'Brexit in the June 2016 referendum led directly to a change of prime minister and confronted Theresa May's government with a hugely complex challenge, to negotiate the terms of Britain's departure.

Since 2000 the conduct of referendums has been regulated by the Electoral Commission. This independent body is responsible for checking the wording of the referendum question, as proposed by the government, to ensure that it is as objective as possible. In the 2016 EU referendum, the government had originally proposed to ask: 'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?' The Commission considered this to be insufficiently neutral, and insisted that the ballot paper should present two options: 'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?' The Commission also monitors expenditure by the rival campaigning groups, and designates one approved 'lead campaign organisation' on each side. In the EU referendum, the official groups representing the two sides were 'Vote Leave' and 'Britain Stronger in Europe'. This designation entitled them to receive a pre­determined amount of public funding.

Referendums tend to be held when:

· Legitimising a major constitutional change. Since the advent of the Blair government, it has become the accepted practice to secure a demonstration of public support before embarking on important, possibly irreversible constitutional changes. The 1997 referendums on devolution for Scotland and Wales, and in Northern Ireland on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, are examples.

· When the government faces a political problem Referendums have been used when a government faces an internal party disagreement. By handing the decision to the people, and insisting that colleagues then rally behind the popular verdict, the government can maintain its unity. Harold Wilson held a referendum in 1975 because his party was split between pro- and anti-European factions. David Cameron faced similar problem with a divided party and a threat from UKIP.

· The 2011 referendum was the result of a deal between political parties David Cameron agreed to hold a vote on changing the electoral system for Westminster because this was a demand of the Liberal Democrats, as part of the coalition agreement establishing the government in May 2010.

· In response to pressure to hold a referendum Before UKIP there was the Referendum Party which was a Eurosceptic, single-issue political party that was active in the United Kingdom from 1994 to 1997. It promoted the view that only \a referendum could overturn the cosy consensus between the main political parties. While David Cameron initially did not want to hold an in/ out EU referendum. He joined forces with the Liberal Democrats and Labour in October 2011 to defeat Conservative backbenchers who were pressing for a referendum. He changed his mind in January 2013 as the demand refused to go away, and he began to fear the possible loss of Conservative voters to UKIP if he did not concede. By announcing that he would hold a referendum if re-elected in 2015, he took the issue off the agenda at the ensuing general election.