Referendums Are Not the Answer

The small margin of victory to Vote Leave in this year's EU Referendum throws into question the legitimacy of referendums altogether.


When news filtered through that the Leave campaign had won the referendum on June 23rd, it was clear that our nation’s and Europe’s future had changed forever. Brexiteers were delighted that we had ‘taken back control’ whilst Remainers were left distraught at the electorate’s recklessness. However, one change that was not anticipated may be the way in which we operate our democracy; in particular future referendums.

‘Ill-informed’ and ‘dire’ are two words the Electoral Reform Society used to describe the EU referendum in a report released a couple of weeks ago. The campaign, they say, was dominated by personality over substance with the media preferring to focus on the Boris v Dave show rather than the real issues. Whilst Brexiteers will shrug this report off as sour grapes, there are without a doubt some important lessons to be learnt.

Almost three months on, it is now generally accepted that both campaigns tried to deceive voters with blatant fabrications of the truth and, in some cases, downright lies. Vote Leave insisted that the £350 million a week that we as a result of being in the EU (which incidentally was found to be incorrect) would be spent on the NHS. They even splashed it onto the side of a bus! Since then, Farage, Johnson et al have repeatedly tried to distance themselves from the pledge and today Vote Leave officially abandoned it. Remain were just as guilty, claiming that there would be economic Armageddon if we voted leave. Whilst exchange rates have suffered and there was a sharp dip in the economy in the short-term, things now appear to be returning to normal.

In future referendums it is important that we have stricter rules on what campaigns can say. The Electoral Commission needs to be given more power to intervene as with the current rules, it is utterly toothless. This enabled lies to be presented as facts to a public who desperately wanted to be informed.

Another thing that needs to be looked at is a validity threshold. In June, 51.9% voted Brexit in a turnout of 73%. This equates to roughly 38% of the entire electorate. Is this a high enough figure to change something so important and irreversible? In a 1979 referendum on whether to introduce a Scottish parliament, it was decided that 40% of the electorate had to back the proposal. Whilst over 50% of the voters backed it, turnout was low so it did not equate to 40% of the entire electorate, meaning it failed. Had something like this been in place for the EU referendum, we would not have left on such a small majority. As a result of using a simple majority rule in this referendum, its legitimacy is questionable as the vote was split almost 50/50. In cases when it is so close surely, the status quo should remain?

Finally, are referendums compatible with a representative democracy? We elect MPs to represent us in Parliament, so surely they should make a decision like whether or not to leave the EU rather than passing it on to a less well-informed electorate who are constantly being lied to.

Overall it is difficult for me as a Remainer to see any positives for the EU referendum. Our democracy has been undermined by the fact that we left on the whim of 38% of the electorate and our country is more divided than ever. Hate crimes are on the rise and right-wing populism is at its strongest since the 1930s. Perhaps our Government should consider this when they plan our next referendum.


  1. I disagree with almost all of this. The ERS was right in how woeful both the official campaigns were, but almost everyone I spoke to realised as much. Debates between friends and family online and in person will have played a much greater role in forming opinions on the subject. Your characterisation of the vote being a reckless and ill informed one is characteristic of the condescension many on the remain side display towards the electorate. Nobody I met believed either the £350m figure from VL, or the prophecies of doom from SI. Voters are more canny than you think.

    Moreover, this wasn’t ‘almost 50/50’, there was a clear 4 point difference, and more importantly, a majority of nearly 1.3 million people. More people voted to leave the EU than have voted for anything else in recent British history, and with a turnout of 72%. Whatever you think of the result, suggesting it is insufficiently representative is nonsensical.

    That said, a legitimacy threshold would be desirable if we move towards Swiss style direct democracy. I sense you oppose this, but it is something we should absolutely be looking to achieve. There is little sense in resting control back from the EU only to leave it in the hands of a parliament that was all too happy to give it away in the first place.

    If you give people more responsibility, they will act more responsibly.

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