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Constitution Unit: The UK has voted to Leave. Now we need an inquiry into referendum conduct.

24 June 2016

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The UK has voted to leave the European Union.  

This has no direct, immediate consequence: the UK remains a full member of the EU while negotiations on the terms of departure are conducted.  We have set out the steps on the road to Brexit here.

Beyond this, however, fundamental thinking is now needed about the future of our democratic system.  Constitution Unit researchers are calling for an inquiry into the conduct of referendums in the UK.  Serious concerns were raised by the campaign.  Many observers were appalled by the prevalence of misinformation and sometimes of outright falsehoods.  Some worried that the government’s involvement before the period of purdah tilted the playing field unfairly.  We summarised these issues here.  A letter by over 250 scholars to the Daily Telegraph coordinated by the Unit’s Deputy Director, Dr Alan Renwick, said, ‘When the dust from this referendum settles, we must review means of strengthening campaign truthfulness without curtailing legitimate free speech.’  (The full list of signatories is here.)

This review should cover the following questions:

  • How can greater prominence be given in referendum campaigns to impartial information?
  • Can campaigners be prevented or dissuaded from making false or misleading claims, without damaging free speech?
  • Should the rules around government involvement, including purdah, be changed to ensure a level playing field?
  • Should the designated campaigns be subject to enforceable rules as to how they conduct their campaigns or use public resources?
  • Have broadcasters interpreted the requirement for impartiality appropriately, and should anything in their practice change?

In order to garner confidence from all sides, this review should be conducted independently of government.  It should be informed by international experience – learning, for example, from the extensive information materials compiled by the Electoral Commission in New Zealand before referendums and the work of Referendum Commissions to foster informed debate in Ireland.  Such examples suggest that we could be doing better than we are.

Dr Alan Renwick said, ‘No democrat could be content with the referendum campaign we have just been through.  Voters have been left confused and bewildered by misleading claims and counterclaims and have struggled to know whom to trust.  Such problems are very hard to solve.  But some possible improvements are clear and others deserve careful consideration.  We should try to ensure that the next referendum held in the UK, whenever it comes, is better designed to deliver a fair, informed, and considered outcome.’

Professor Robert Hazell said, ‘The referendum has raised some sharp and painful issues about the nature of our democracy.  The Constitution Unit has a longstanding interest in the regulation of referendums, having first established a Commission on the Conduct of Referendums 20 years ago. Some of those issues badly need revisiting, and we expect the inquiry we are calling for to do just that.’

Notes for editors

Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell are both available for interview.  Their contact details are:

The Constitution Unit is an independent, non-partisan research centre based in the Department of Political Science at University College London.