Study Notes

Referendums - How They Differ From Elections

AS, A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 9 Sept 2017

Both referendums and elections involve direct citizen participation and voting, campaigning around specific political issues, huge media involvement, and mass fundraising and lobbying at local and national levels. Clearly though they differ fundamentally in relation to several functions, features and outcomes:

  • An election gives voters the opportunity to choose representatives who will form representative institutions and government, whereas a referendum offers us a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ choice in a debate clearly polarized between two possible outcomes, one of which is then implemented.
  • In an election we must decide between several different political programmes which range across the full set of issues a government would have to take responsibility for, whereas referendums usually only feature one question and are centered on a single issue. Some parties, such as UKIP, are more focused on single issues like the EU and immigration but still publish an election manifesto addressing other policy areas.
  • An election grants a mandate to a new government; they subsequently have the authority to implement their manifesto policies. Due to parliamentary sovereignty a UK referendum is not binding although it is difficult to imagine parliament ever denying the outcome of a public vote. Still, a referendum will typically only lead to change or continuity in one area whereas an election would generally be expected to have further-reaching consequences.
  • An election is a verdict on the performance of the government in power and general elections in the UK now occur at fixed five-year intervals, barring a vote of no confidence or a two-thirds vote in the House of Commons for an early election. Referendums have been more frequent and run the risk of becoming protest votes – Clegg, unpopular over tuition fees, damages the AV cause – but they are fought at the discretion of government and occur only when there is a major constitutional issue to be resolved. A simple majority is usually sufficient to win a referendum although minimum turnout criteria can be imposed, such as in Scotland in 1979, whereas the PR systems used in elections held in the UK require absolute majorities and involve the re-distribution of votes. The General Election is still decided by simple majority but even here the outcome might not be straightforward, as with the 2010 Hung Parliament leading to the Coalition Agreement.

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