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
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.”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):
(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)
- 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
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…