Saturday, 15 March 2014

EU: Another Empty Referendum Promise?

It's rather symbolic when in a week where we lose two eurosceptics of “Labour past”, that their successors in the form of Miliband et al reveal their intentions to try to rig a future referendum ensuring we stay as EU members.

This blog and Richard North expressed our deep concerns that with Labour changing the dynamics of a future referendum by shifting the status quo effect in its favour we would inevitably lose an in/out referendum under Labour. This shift was expressed with this promise: "[Labour] guarantees that there will be no transfer of powers from Britain to the European Union without an in/out referendum".

This scenario was most likely given that Labour is very much expected to win the General Election in 2015. Even the Tories are now apparently giving up.

There can be no doubt that Labour knew what it was trying to do. It has been alleged that privately Ed Balls has been arguing that Ed Millband goes for a referendum precisely for the very reasons Richard North urges caution. The out camp is likely to lose and it will settle the question for a generation at least.

Labour cannot be unaware of the status quo effect. Peter Kellner President of the pollster YouGov has written about the status quo effect inherent in referendums in the Guardian:
As in so many referendums round the world, when there is no settled national consensus, the status quo will prevail.
Kellner is also married to the unelected EU representative Baroness Ashton, so we can safely assume that that the issues of the status quo and the impending EU Treaty has been well-discussed domestically thus helping to influence Labour’s latest referendum position.

However one problem has emerged with Labour’s position – the Electoral Commission.

As it notes itself the Electoral Commission is required under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to comment on the "intelligibility of referendum questions". This it did most recently with this 81 page report in response to "The European Union (Referendum) Bill" - a private Members’ Bill introduced by James Wharton MP, which passed its second reading on 5th July 2013.

Thus the Electoral Commission had to initiate their standard question assessment process. And as per page 49, and here, the Electoral Commission question confirms that its assessment guidelines are as follows, the question should:
  • Be easy to understand
  • Be to the point
  • Be unambiguous
  • Avoid encouraging voters to consider one response more favourably than another
  • Avoid misleading voters
And here Labour's promise clearly fails the Electoral Commission guidelines. By throwing in the prospect of leaving the EU in a referendum on whether to answer a simple question on a new treaty Labour's proposal effectively becomes two questions in one. For example those who may wish to oppose a new EU treaty but support EU membership will be forced to vote for a Treaty they oppose or vote against the Treaty and so consequently for exit which they don't agree with.

Unambiguous Labour's proposals are not, and nor can it be said it "avoids encouraging voters to consider one response more favourably than another". The prospect of the "nuclear option" does precisely that.

Regarding misleading voters, one considers that even on the basics of a simple 'in or out' question still left voters' confused, as per page 24:
“If you ask me to leave the Tory party, you first have to find out if I’m a member before you ask me to leave.”
(Male, aged 55, mini-depth, London, English as second language)

“Not everyone understands that we are in Europe already?”
(Focus group participant, aged 25-44, C2DE, Colwyn Bay)

“I don’t think we are a member – I’ve never heard of it [European Union].”
(Female, aged 63, mini-depth, Nottingham)
Labour's two questions in one clearly breaches those guidelines. By reading the report in full one can see that the Electoral Commission is nothing if not pedantic. We have similiar examples on the AV referendum and the Scottish referendum (page 12):
  • Completion: participants were asked to answer a proposed question as if for real and identify any words or phrases they found clear, or more difficult to understand .
  • Understanding: participants discussed what they thought the question was asking and any difficulties they had with the question, and the reasons for this.
  • Neutrality: participants were asked to consider whether they felt the question was encouraging people to vote in a particular way, and if so, why they felt that.
  • Improvements: participants considered what improvements they would make to the question wording and discussed their suggestions
  • Comparing alternatives: participants were shown alternative question wording and asked to compare it to the original, and consider whether or not the changes improved the question
Which led to this:
The Scottish government has agreed to change the wording of its independence referendum question, after concerns it may lead people to vote 'Yes'.
SNP ministers wanted to ask voters the yes/no question: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" in autumn 2014.
The wording of the question will now be altered to: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" The change was suggested by the Electoral Commission watchdog.
With this in mind this blogger will be contacting the Electoral Commission asking them to clarify their position on Miliband's promise. I will update readers on any response I receive.

What is becoming very clear is the Tories can’t deliver on a referendum by 2017 as Cameron as promised and now Labour almost certainly can’t deliver on a referendum promise because it contradicts electoral law. Again we see our political parties desperate to appear in touch with a domestic audience while actually being completely and hopelessly out of touch with political reality.

One would expect the UK’s most prominent Eurosceptic party to point this out, but I guess its leader has trouble multi-tasking


  1. The Tories could deliver on that promise. A majority Conservative government could hold a referendum on any subject, whenever they wanted, including whether we should ban green garden gates. Note that a government is not obliged to follow the results of a referendum.

    They can't deliver on a promise to have a referendum following meaningful negotiations in the two years before 2017, but that's a different thing. It could follow what they call negotiations or be forgotten because things have changed and the national interest requires it.

    All I see is the Labour Party responding to an itch to have a referendum in a significant minority of the electorate, so they're seeming to offer something without offering anything.

    Neither the red team nor the blue team want to leave the EU and they are determined that we won't as far as they can arrange it.

    I've always thought the Tories only went so far with their referendum talk because they assumed the next GE was lost. If they'd had a serious prospect of a comfortable majority, they'd have said nothing about referendums.

    Whichever team is in office next will only give a referendum if their arms are twisted and will do everything they can to get the result they want, which is that we stay in the EU, come what may.

  2. Unfortunately, whilst everything you contend is true, whilst 'Democracy' as defined by Westminster remains a forlorn and wounded beast, it's all academic.

    First for a genuine and sincere process we need a charter of restraint on our Parliament. A kind of 'Six Demands' you might say, which compels the accountability and sets limits on those who choose to represent.

    However, Miliband's stance might technically be more honest. Since the 'No' votes from France and Holland, mid-decade of some years ago, Lisbon adopted a principle in which any nation not signing up to a Treaty will be deemed to have withdrawn from the EU. If any particular Government has already gone through the Treaty negotiating process and come up with the text they're presenting to the electorate, it already - presumably - means they're content with that text, and equally presumably it's effectively already Government policy. Certainly if that has gone through the multiple levels of approval in the HoC & HoL. Under that logic, 'No' to a Treaty can be defined to mean 'No' to the EU.

    As to the Electoral Commission rules however, something a little worrying is the implied ruling that people who refuse to engage in even the most basic forms of making themselves aware of the world around them can hold the democratic process to ransom. I understand the reasoning but it doesn't make it acceptable.

    What I would like the Electoral Commission to be able to lawfully demand is a clear and unambiguous statement of intent in advance of any referendum as to the actions it will propose in both cases. What they will do if the vote is 'In'. What they will do if the vote is 'Out'. Officially a referendum is for the electorate to make the choice and not the Government, so such an advance clarity should not - under those terms - be seen as an obstacle.

  3. There is a basic fault with the idea of a "referendum". Because of the attitude of our politicians, few know anything about the EU and therefore cannot vote with any confidence or sense. There is also the point that the FUD spreading has already started to mud the waters already. Then naturally, we know that re-negotiation is not possible.

  4. There will be a referendum on our leaving the EU exactly like there was a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. All will pretend, and all will lie and trot out their excuses why the time is not right or some other shite.
    The snot gobbler just signed anyway and Cameron is as much use as a cast iron life jacket.
    Aint going to happen, no way no how. Not until they fear for their lives.

  5. I just do not see any reason ever to vote Labour. What can they give the country?

    1. An interesting point. I'd probably have voted for them before the war, even up to the early 60s. By then they weren't really the party of the working class any more than the Tories were really ever about enterprise.

      After the fall of the Iron Curtain and getting rid of Clause 4, what were they about? I think they were a functioning shell with all the machinery in place and the brand loyalty to sell something or other.

      So we really end up with two teams of managers and PR spivs riding herd over a large system of government which they can't practically do much about. Civil Service, the EU, QUANGOs, "Organised Civil Society".

      I can't see any point in voting Labour nor Conservative. I can see some point in voting UKIP, for now, but as a political party and especially being as they are, they are bound to be drawn into the same game.