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Reworking referendums?

Mike McCartney

24th September 2021

The Irish abortion referendum might be something of a template as to how future UK votes are handled

Personally, I feel that referendums are no way to run a democracy.

As a recap, here is a brief overview of the arguments for and against their usage.

Advantages of using referendums to determine political issues

  • It is the most direct, purest form of democracy.
  • The fact that the people have made the decision grants it a great deal of legitimacy.
  • Referendums are useful in securing the consent of the people for important constitutional and governmental change.
  • There is a citizenship issue in that referendums give people the opportunity to participate directly in politics and so may increase their attachment to political institutions.
  • They have an educational function, raising citizens’ awareness of issues
  • It can help to entrench constitutional change in a system which has an uncodified, flexible constitution.
  • Sometimes referendums can solve a problem for government itself when there is a good deal of internal conflict.

Disadvantages of using referendums to determine political issues

  • If referendums become too frequent there will be a danger of ‘voter fatigue’, resulting in low turnouts and apathy.
  • Referendums may have the effect of undermining respect and authority for elected institutions.
  • There is Rousseau’s and John Stuart Mill’s argument that referendums represent the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Minority interest would be swamped by the power of the democratic majority.
  • Many issues may be too complex for the average voter to understand. Perhaps these decisions are best left to those who have knowledge and the means to reflect of the various complexities.
  • Similarly voters may respond to emotional, rather than rational arguments.
  • There is a danger with referendums that voters would be swayed by campaigns of newspapers, notably tabloids, or by wealthy vested interests who can afford to spend large amounts of money on the campaign.
  • Similarly voters might make illogical choices in referendums, for example voting for tax cuts which might result in the collapse of public services that they want to see funded.

But in an article published in the Guardian in the wake of the abortion referendum in 2018, the author argues that deeper and longer engagement among voters in advance of a vote helps to ensure a better outcome.

For example:

"A crucial part of what happened in Ireland was an experiment in deliberative democracy. The question of how to deal with the constitutional prohibition on abortion – a question that has bedevilled the political and judicial systems for 35 years – was put to a Citizens’ Assembly, made up of 99 randomly chosen (but demographically representative) voters. These so-called ordinary people – truck drivers, homemakers, students, farmers – gave up their weekends to listen to 40 experts in medicine, law and ethics, to women affected by Ireland’s extremely restrictive laws and to 17 different lobby groups. They came up with recommendations that confounded most political and media insiders, by being much more open than expected – and much more open than the political system would have produced on its own."

I use this as stimulus material when discussing what can be quite a dry topic.

Source: If only Brexit had been run like Ireland’s referendum | Fintan O’Toole | The Guardian

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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