This Briefing Paper provides background to the increasing use of referendums worldwide to settle constitutional issues and to the holding of referendums in the UK; a table of all referendums held in the UK to date is provided. The use of thresholds in referendums is discussed and information provided on the administration of referendums and regulation of the referendum campaigns.Jump to full report >>
The use of referendums has had a mixed history but in recent years they have become an increasingly popular tool and have become an established mechanism for validating constitutional initiatives in the UK.
Referendums have been seen as a means of enhancing democracy by giving voters greater opportunities for involvement in the political process. Some of the claimed positive features of a referendum are given as:
However there are also claimed negative features. These include:
There have been three UK-wide referendums in the UK, the 1975 and 2016 votes on membership of the European Community/Union and the 2011 vote on changing the way MPs are elected to the UK Parliament.
There have also been a number of votes in various parts of the UK on issues such as devolution.
The main regulatory framework for referendums in the UK is set out by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000. However, each referendum still requires separate legislation to enable the referendum to take place. The separate legislation sets out requirements such as the franchise to be used and the question to be asked.
It is sometimes argued that referendums on important constitutional changes should be subject to some sort of threshold. This is usually in terms of turnout - that a specified number of voters must have voted (either overall or that the option for change must be approved by a certain number of eligible voters) or supermajority - for example that a two-thirds majority is required.
Some argue that threshold requirements distort the results by not affording votes equal value or encouraging voters who disagree to stay at home. It is argued that this is dangerous precedent for democratic engagement.
The House of Lords Constitution Committee concluded in 2009-10 that there should be a general presumption against the use of turnout thresholds and supermajorities. However, it did recognise that there may be examples where this may be appropriate, for example in divided societies.
Campaign regulation relates mainly to spending, donations and loans and is overseen by the Electoral Commission.
Anyone can spend up to £10,000 on campaigning without being regulated. Any organisation or individual wanting to spend over £10,000 must register with the Electoral Commission as a 'permitted participant' (also known as a 'registered campaigner'). Spending limits apply. A campaign group designated as a lead campaigner is entitled to higher spending limits.
Political parties are also subject to spending limits, which are based on their vote share at the most recent general election.
There is no limit on how much campaigners can raise in donations and loans but there are requirements relating to all donations or loans over £500. Donations or loans of £500 or less are not regulated.
The Electoral Commission does not regulate or monitor the content of campaign material. There is a requirement that campaign material has an 'imprint' - details of who has promoted and published the material so voters know which group is responsible - but the content is the responsibility of the individual or campaign publishing it. The content is subject to the general restrictions on criminal and civil law, for example material should not libel or incite racial hatred or violence.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-7692
Authors: Neil Johnston; Isobel White; Vaughne Miller