Referendums should be used sparingly

Dalbeattie_Town_Hall cropped.jpg

In Dumfries and Galloway, 46.9% voted to Leave (image: Dalbeattie Town Hall, Wikimedia Commons)

Alasdair Duke 

Constitutional referendums should be avoided if it is likely that the winning side will only carry 50-59 per cent of the vote. This margin leaves too many people disappointed, and the bargaining begins. The trade-offs that follow may not be popular or transparent, so they risk undermining the whole democratic process. A referendum on a minor single issue might withstand a narrow winning margin, but constitutional change benefits from a greater consensus.

I suspect that hardly any readers of this blog will welcome the recent vote to Leave the EU, but politics is about listening to what people say. We heavily filter what the public tells us through our own belief and value systems, but listening is vital in a representative democracy. In England and Wales at least, they must now Leave.

Even in Scotland, nearly 2 in 5 people voted to Leave the EU. That was on a turnout of 67 per cent: 17 per cent lower than at the independence referendum in 2014, but 12 per cent higher than the recent Scottish Parliament election. Many of the habitual non-voters who participated in our recent referendums did so because they cared more than usual about which side won, or they sensed a rare chance to make their vote count. I would suggest that the following lessons require to be learned sooner rather than later, before further referendums take place on any significant issue.

1. High voter turnout is always a good thing

At one time or another, most political activists have murmured that a low turnout may benefit their side “if the other lot stay at home”. I have said it myself. But regardless of the short term efficacy of this approach, a high turnout is a sign of a public that cares and that wants to assert its wishes. It reminds politicians that every person’s vote has value and makes the result all the more legitimate. All those years of local parties employing “target to win”, obsessing over “key marginals” and “floating voters”, have left behind people whose votes are taken for granted, if they are considered likely to vote at all. Among those left behind previously will be many Leave voters, written off because they live in “safe” seats. Electoral reform at Westminster seems essential; towards a proportional system that doesn’t exclude small parties nor fetishise a tiny number of “swing seats” which tend to be in middle class areas.

2. We can’t ignore right wing voters, even in Scotland

The debate in Scotland is quickly turning to the prospect of a second independence referendum, conjoined to the prospect of Scotland remaining in the EU, but 39 per cent of Scots voted to exit the EU (or slightly fewer when you include adopted Scots from EU countries). If we strive for Scotland to remain an equal and socially harmonious country, and not become a bitterly divided one, then we must listen to the concerns of Leave voters, and of people who voted No in 2014, whether or not they are the same people. There is no wisdom in staging further referendums on a major issue until a resounding majority is assured; sewing up our constitutional future without overwhelming support just doesn’t chime with the inclusive and responsible style of politics that Scottish independence is supposed to offer. We will only create disillusionment and potentially experience social unrest if we ridicule or belittle this section of the electorate while trying to push through a slim majority in favour of Scottish independence within the EU.

3. Some aspects of globalisation and post-industrialism just aren’t popular

The free movement of people is essential to our islands, which have always seen migration in both directions. Britain would be unrecognisable otherwise and is greatly enriched by people from everywhere who have chosen to live here. Let’s not pander to racism in any form but the free movement of jobs is an issue. Britain has leeched relatively high wage jobs in industry and manufacturing to other countries, some of whom pay lower wages and have worse safety records than the UK allows. This – not immigration – has caused unemployment, scarce insecure work, and poverty. Jobs in textiles, coal, steel and manufacturing have gone to many places, ironically mostly to outside the EU, and this has caused poverty and resentment. It is not just the EU’s fault – I blame Thatcherism more – but the high Leave vote should remind us that outsourcing manual work is not popular and has led to a dearth of decent jobs in many communities, especially outside the big cities. This issue must not be bound up in racism and xenophobia but we should hear the Leave vote as a call for decent, permanent jobs regardless of one’s “transferable skills” or university education.

4. Older voters are not going away

A majority of older voters voted to leave the EU, and turnout among older voters was relatively high. They are not avid users of social media. They don’t get some of the pithy memes and politically correct banter that pops up daily on the internet. They may or may not have different priorities to their younger counterparts. The key for newer political parties and “young” progressive movements is both to get younger voters registered and in the habit of voting, and to win the trust of older generations through means such as better-advertised local events and widespread use of print media. It is hard work.

Assuming that Scotland can remain in the EU by gaining independence, the right way to make this happen is to engage with anti-EU, anti-independence voters, and persuade them that their quality of life would improve in an independent, European Scotland. Independence can eventually gain the support of a broader majority if it presents a vision for uniting conservatives and non-voters with the narrative that a more equal society is better for everyone. This can be done by focusing on jobs, secure employment and economic development outside of large metropolitan areas. We must avoid snobbery and show a true understanding of how people who voted No and/or Leave actually feel, and how confident we are that we can offer something better.

The government of the day will have failed if the next big referendum yields a result of less than 60-40 either way.



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