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Does your vote in a referendum matter?

On Monday David Cameron and Alex Salmond signed an agreement allowing the Scottish government to hold a referendum on independence. The Scotland independence referendum will be the latest in an ever growing list of referendums held in the UK that began in earnest with the Blair government. Even when referendums have not been held there have been calls for them on a variety of topics: from reforming the House of Lords, to Britain’s membership of the EU. With the electorate increasingly consulted directly on a broad range of issues you would be forgiven for thinking that the use of the referendum had brought about a golden age of democracy. You would however, be wrong.

The Scottish independence referendum will be on a single yes or no question to whether Scotland should become independent, leaving out a proposed second ‘Devolution Max’ question, which would grant the Scottish government considerable further powers whilst remaining part of the United Kingdom. The exclusion of the Devo-Max question has disappointed many because, as Lesley Riddoch points out in the Guardian, public opinion polling suggests that this is actually the option that Scots want.

That there will only be a single question is a good example of something well known to those that study social choice theory: the power that someone with control over the agenda has over the outcome of voting. The power of the agenda setter has been long known: In his book Theory of Voting Robin Farquharson relates a tale of Pliny the Younger attempting to manipulate the Roman Senate by changing the usual voting procedure. The full extent of the possible effects of agenda control was first noted by a colourful 18th Century French mathematician, the Marquis de Condorcet who in his famous paradox noted that in a situation with a tie between three options a voter can determine the outcome of an election by voting insincerely on one of their preferences. In 1976 Richard McKelvey went much further, in a complex series of mathematical proofs, establishing that given control over a voting agenda it was possible to bring about almost any outcome the agenda setter desired.

That there will only be a single question on the Scottish independence referendum is a good example of the power of agenda control in action. Unless public opinion changed drastically by the time of the referendum the Devo-Max option would have been a clear winner if it had been included. Excluding it suits the purposes of both those who favour complete independence, who will hope they can convince Devo-Max supporters that full independence is better than the status quo and those who oppose a further transfer of power away from Westminster. It should not be surprising then that David Cameron and Alex Salmond, who completely disagree on what the outcome of the referendum should be, found common cause over a single question fairly easily.

The power of agenda setters to manipulate the outcome of referendums helps to explain a frequently observed paradox of referendum voting: high levels of public support for general change frequently don’t translate into support for specific change. It helps explains why in the UK, where support for a more proportional electoral system has hovered above 60% for 30 years, 68% voted in favour of keeping the First Past the Post system. Or why in 1999 Australia, where support for becoming a Republic has also long been around 60%, 55% voted in favour of keeping the monarchy. In both cases the referendum question was largely determined by a Prime Minister who was strongly in favour of the status quo.

The power of agenda control means we should be wary of those that call for the use of referendums. As we saw in the debate over Lords reform, the strongest voices in favour of a referendum are often those that oppose the very change they offer. These are not benevolent democrats, but Machiavellian calculators. Those that decide to hold referendums will claim that they do so in order to provide democratic legitimacy to an issue. My own research, which I’ve discussed on this blog previously, shows that strategic considerations by governments, designed to maximise electoral success, are a better predictor of when referendums will be held.

Referendums look a lot like democracy. It may seem strange to say that a process where voters are consulted about their views on an issue is not in fact democratic. Unless the issue at stake is truly binary however, the outcome of a referendum tends to reflect not the views of the electorate but those of the person who set the question. Although no electoral system is perfect, and the UK’s First Past the Post method is worse than most, parliamentary elections are a better expression of democracy because unlike a referendum, there is no clear agenda setter: the agenda is contested between parties and candidates, the media, and, increasingly, via the internet, the voters themselves.  Those who think of themselves as democrats would do well to remember these issues. The referendum is not an instrument of democracy. It is a tool of politics.

Chris Prosser is a DPhil student in Politics at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.



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  1. Stuart White
    October 18, 2012 at 12:34 pm — Reply

    What if the terms of a referendum are set not by a political elite, to advance its members’ purposes, but by a more democratic process?

    For example, imagine that the terms of a referendum are set by a specially convened citizen assembly, of size and composition to be representative of the population, with time to hear views and evidence from a range of sources?

    Could one argue that in this kind of case, the referendum turns from an instrument of (elite) ‘politics’ back into an instrument of ‘democracy’?

    (Graham Smith at Southampton University has argued for a combination of small-scale deliberative and wider referenda initiatives akin to this at the EU level.)

    • October 18, 2012 at 7:11 pm — Reply

      You raise an excellent point, which is perhaps something I should have made explicit in my original post: my objection to referendums is as they are, not as they might be. My objection is solely based on the problems with agenda setting. I have no objection to the plebiscitary side of referendums. If we could come up with a sufficiently democratic way of determining when referendums are called and what question is used then they could well become an effective democratic check on political elites.

      However I do think actually developing a process along those lines would be difficult to achieve – the potential for the deliberative process to be co-opted by elites in the same way as I argue referendums have been would be very high. Any social decision process is susceptible to the deficiencies of its decision making rules. Even if you took the agenda setting power away from the government, there would still be a good chance that agenda setters will still have a high influence on the process.

      A good example of this is actually happening is the Australian Republic referendum I mentioned in the blog – there was a Constitutional Convention held in 1998 to decide whether to hold a referendum on the republic question and what the question should be. The selection process for the convention fell well short of ideal – half the delegates were appointed by the government and the other half were elected by a voluntary postal ballot but the delegates were far from being representative. Opinion polls at the time suggested that the majority of Australians favoured a directly elected President to replace the Queen as Head of State. However the outcome of the convention was that the Republican model on offer would be a President elected by parliamentary super-majority. An outcome which was heavily influenced by the Monarchist delegates, led by the Prime Minister at the time, John Howard.

  2. beki
    December 22, 2013 at 12:21 pm — Reply

    This is my first consideration of this issue, and I just want to thank you Chris for a lucid and easily understandable presentation.

  3. Faith Holmes
    September 25, 2014 at 11:02 pm — Reply

    I absolutely agree with Chris Prosser here. I live in Scotland and have watched my fellow citizens become absolutely infatuated with the ‘yes’ campaign, particularly those who are active in social media. The mix is much worse now, as agencies with huge experience of appetite manipulation for large companies and with a sophisticated knowledge of social behaviour and psychology have plugged in to find out what ‘ticked’ peoples’ boxes and applied this in the world of politics. I came across some analysis fed back over two years ago by Brandwatch to the ‘yes’ campaigners in Scotland- which fits exactly with the emergence of the so-called ‘grassroots’ movement. Online conversations and key groups were identified years ago and gently manipulated through appropriate links, comments etc, and all the while the people believing they were part of a great democratic movement! I am left wing, but also have a background in advertising and marketing – somehow my scarce use of social media meant I was able to stand back a bit and think about where this was all coming from and do a bit of research. And still today, many people have no idea they were manipulated – but are still busy accusing the mainstream press of bias. At least any mainstream bias is obvious – but the use of unseen professionals directing social media in these ‘democratic’ movements I find sinister and worrying.

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