Political

10 lessons for winning or losing a referendum

Back in July 2010, I first blogged about an excellent post from Neil Stockley on how to win a referendum. He was writing about the alternative vote referendum, before it or the subsequent Scottish independence and Brexit referendums had been held. That makes very impressive how well his list of 10 key factors now read after we’ve seen how all three of those referendums were all conducted and concluded.

So here are his key points once more, relevant too to the continuing political struggle over Brexit:

Holding a public vote on changing the voting system is a radical step for the UK. But it has been done before. In 1993, my home country, New Zealand held the second of two referendums to decide how to elect MPs. An established Westminster democracy voted by a 54:46 per cent margin to get rid of first past the post (FPTP) voting and put in its place the German-style mixed member proportional (MMP) system…

Of course, the UK in 2011 will not be New Zealand in 1993 and, for that matter, AV is not a proportional voting system. But I believe that some valuable lessons can still be drawn from the New Zealand experience.

You can read his full piece here from which I’ve extracted his 10 key headlines:

  1. Reformers need to convince supporters of at least one of the major parties that a change will be better for their cause than the status quo.
  2. Reformers should be prepared for attempts by pro-FPTP MPs to booby trap the process and/or make the reform option less appealing to voters.
  3. The pro-reform campaign must be grassroots-based and above and across party politics.
  4. Reformers shouldn’t be surprised when the forces opposed to reform are well-funded and fight hard.
  5. The government should invest in educating the public about both first-past-the-post and AV.
  6. Debates about electoral reform are won by using the most powerful frames.
  7. Those making the case for reform will need to engage with the way voters feel about politics and politicians at the time of the referendum.
  8. As is usually the case, this referendum will be about the government almost as much as the questions on the ballot paper.
  9. The reform campaign will succeed by embodying its narrative as the cause of the people against the powerful.
  10. All this suggests that politicians of all parties may be well-advised to take a back seat during the referendum campaign.
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