Ten things we should do to avoid the mistakes of the EU referendum

The Electoral Reform Society finds 'glaring democratic deficiencies'. How can we improve future referendums?


Whatever your views on the result of the EU referendum, few would say it was a model of how to put a decision to the public.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has found ‘glaring democratic deficiencies’ in the way the referendum was held, in particular:

  • a lack of information, despite high public interest
  • too much personality politics, with ‘big beast’ politicians like Boris Johnson turning voters off
  • negative campaigning, from sensational warnings about Brexit to xenophobia in the Leave campaign
  • a lack of deliberation, such as informed face-to-face discussions

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the ERS, said:

‘This report shows without a shadow of a doubt just how dire the EU referendum debate really was. There were glaring democratic deficiencies in the run-up to the vote, with the public feeling totally ill-informed.’

The ERS suggests ten key changes to improve any future referendums to address these problems:

  1. Scrutinise the referendum Bill for at least three months, with the public involved.
  2. Six-month campaigns so there is time for a real debate.
  3. Publish a rulebook so everyone knows the details of how the referendum works.
  4. Let 16-year-olds vote in all elections and referendums so young people have a voice.
  5. Citizenship education in schools to cultivate an informed and engaged electorate.
  6. An independent website with information so everyone has access to the basics.
  7. Fact-checking by an independent body like the Electoral Commission that intervenes over misleading claims by official campaigns
  8. Publicly-funded support for deliberation, giving people the resources to discuss and debate the issues.
  9. Citizens’ debates and events like the ERS’s ‘Better Referendum’ initiative, with help from a ‘toolkit’ on how to do this from the Electoral Commission.
  10. Better media coverage by public broadcasters, with more deliberative and less combative formats, following a review by Ofcom.

The ERS report also calls for a ‘root and branch’ inquiry into how the UK should hold referendums, which would consider these ten ideas.

Ghose added:

‘It’s time for a root and branch review of referendums, learning the lessons of the EU campaign to make sure the mistakes that were made in terms of regulation, tone and conduct are never repeated.

Let’s make sure that future referendums guarantee the lively and well-informed discussion that voters deserve.’ 

See: Farage and Le Pen must not claim Brexit as their victory, says Lib Dem leader

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