Published on March 13, 2014

Referenda are not the only fruit: Politicians need to broaden the agenda on engaging the public

By Amy Pollard

Dr Amy Pollard is Deputy Director at Involve. She has over 10 years experience working on accountability, policy and power, and a passion for using effective public engagement to drive positive change.

Last night’s top story on BBC News was about Ed Miliband, announcing that an EU referendum is “unlikely” to take place if Labour wins the next general election.

The question over whether to have a referendum, or not, on Britain’s EU membership has become a key point of difference for the main political parties.  Immediately after Miliband’s speech a  windblown David Cameron took the opportunity to assert that only the Conservatives would “guarantee” a vote.  The issue has been a point of pressure on Nick Clegg for some months.

But why focus on a referendum?

The position of all three political parties on the referendum issue is carefully calibrated around a series of judgements and assumptions: how much room for negotiation there is with European partners on the terms of membership; how a referendum question would be framed; the political timing; and how the votes would eventually fall.

Despite appearing to give voters the ultimate say in deciding on an issue, the position of the main parties on whether to hold referendum in fact reflects their own political views, and the likely scenario that they envisage.

Referenda are notoriously blunt instruments, heavily influenced by the way that questions are framed – and often measuring something other than the question being asked.  Britain’s 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote, for example, arguably reflected the speculation over which party would gain and who would lose from a reformed voting system, at least as much as it reflected public views on which voting system was fairer and more democratic.  They represent the ever illusive challenge of capturing a single, immutable ‘Public View’, a problematic concept as my colleague Simon Burall has explored here.

Referenda are particularly limited tools for dealing with complex, equivocal issues, where perspectives are hedged with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and people’s views may change according to changing circumstances.  On these terms, Britain’s membership of the EU is a textbook unsuitable question.

But these are the very same qualities that make the issue ripe for the deeper, richer methods of participative engagement that Involve has championed.  If Britain’s politicians really wanted to show their commitment to democratic values on an issue that has divided the public and bedevilled political leadership for generations, then perhaps they should be making a commitment to a serious, nuanced and deliberative public engagement effort, rather than an in-out referendum.

The challenge for politicians is to think outside the narrow binary of ‘yes or no to a referendum’, and to engage with the deeper question of how to give citizens a voice in a complex, sensitive political issue.  They should take the opportunity to seize back the agenda, and show that a real commitment to democratic values may mean looking beyond the tired methods we have limited ourselves to in the past.  It would be a risk, but with potentially wide-ranging impacts on the legitimacy and trust in our political system.

The challenge for participation advocates would be to design a public engagement process which is robust enough to withstand the inevitable challenge that would come from being placed at the heart of the political spotlight on a major, contentious issue.  If the political will was there for a major, participative process (with an equivalent status and significance as a referendum), could our tools for deliberation withstand the political heat?  What would an ‘announcable’ method look like? And could it be credible in media terms?

These are difficult questions for both sides, but it’s worth considering how politicians and participation experts alike might broaden their repertoire.  Perhaps referenda are not the measure of political commitment to democracy.  Perhaps thinking beyond them is.

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