Quality political discourse is an essential part of democracy. But recent developments – including the rise of digital campaigning, as well as events such as the UK’s 2016 EU referendum campaign and the 2016 US presidential election campaign – have led many people of all political persuasions to worry that the quality of discourse is currently too low. Particular concerns focus on the need for balanced and reliable information and on the dangers posed by the easy availability of seductive misinformation.
This project has sought to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. By examining existing practice in the UK and around the world, as well as proposals for innovative reforms, the project has developed proposals for how the conduct of election and referendum campaigns could be reformed to improve the quality of campaign discourse.
The report’s core recommendation is that a new ‘information hub’ should be established to give voters ready access to information during election and referendum periods. Information of many types should be available, including:
- basic information on where, when, and how to vote
- factual information on who the candidates are in any given area
- ‘voting advice applications’ that help voters compare their policy preferences to parties’ positions or to referendum options
- policy analyses exploring, for example, how policy proposals would affect the state of the economy or the health of public services
- evidence from deliberative exercises on what ordinary citizens think about the issues at stake when they have the chance to learn about, discuss, and consider those issues in depth.
The authors argue that, to ensure quality and sustainability, the information hub should be publicly funded and run by an independent public body. This body would not generate all the materials itself, but would gather them from diverse sources, vetted for quality and impartiality. Wherever possible, processes of deliberation among citizens would be integral to the development of all these materials.
The project was generously funded by the . It was led by , with Michela Palese as Research Assistant and McDougall Fellow.
- Renwick, Alan, and Michela Palese, Doing Democracy Better: How Can Information and Discourse in Election and Referendum Campaigns in the UK Be Improved? (Constitution Unit, March 2019).
Articles and Book Chapters
- Renwick, Alan, and Jess Sargeant, 'The Rules of Referendums', in Julie Smith (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of European Referendums (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), pp. 67–90.
- Renwick, Alan, and Michela Palese, 'Misinformation in Referendums: Lessons from Anglophone Democracies', in Sandrine Baume, Véronique Boillet, Vincent Martenet (eds.), Misinformation in Referenda (London: Routledge, 2021).
- Renwick, Alan, Michela Palese and Jess Sargeant, 'Information in Referendum Campaigns: How Can It Be Improved?' Representation 56, no. 4 (2020), 521–37.
- Renwick, Alan, and Michela Palese, 'Can Democracy Be Done Better?' Political Insight 10, no. 2 (May 2019), 10–13.
- Renwick, Alan, Michela Palese, and Jess Sargeant, ‘’ Political Quarterly 89, no. 4 (October–December 2018), 545–52.
- Professor Alan Renwick gave oral evidence to the DCMS Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation, 23 September, to inform its inquiry into the government’s proposed Online Safety Bill.
- Professor Renwick gave oral evidence the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee to infrom its inquiry into the challenges and the opportunities for democratic practice created by the rise of digital technologies. The Committee's report fully endorses proposals made by Professor Renwick during the evidence session: to develop an independent ‘democratic information hub’ to help voters access key information, particularly at election times.
- Renwick, Alan, and Michela Palese, 'Doing democracy better: a positive blueprint for the future', Constitution Unit blog, 06 March 2019.
- Palese, Michela, ‘’, Constitution Unit blog, 19 April 2018.
- Palese, Michela, ‘’, Constitution Unit blog, 25 September 2017.
- Renwick, Alan, and Michela Palese, ‘’, Constitution Unit blog, 30 May 2017.
- The research for this project contributed to the Unit’s work for the .
- It contributed to the Unit’s project on .
- It contributed to Alan Renwick’s work as advisor to the Council of Europe’s January 2019 report on .
- Alan Renwick has previously conducted research into discourse during the UK’s electoral reform referendum of 2011. This was published in .