Do referendums work in practice?

Posters from the Irish referendum campaign (picture infomatique / Flickr)

A great many political ideas sound great in theory but need to prove themselves in practice. Proposals for reform of the electoral system have to pass this test, and, yes, federalism has to do so, too. But let me apply that test also to the idea of referendums.

The Irish government has published today some research into the referendum No vote in the summer. What were the reasons why people voted the way they did?

Of the No voters, 42 per cent said that they did not have enough information. 40 per cent voted No to protect Ireland’s low levels of corporate taxation. And one-third of No voters were concerned to prevent the introduction of conscription to a European army.

Of course, the Lisbon treaty had no bearing on corporate tax rates and certainly would not lead to conscription – it would not even lead to an army – so the lack of information is amply borne out.

So what kind of a constitutional device is it where the crucial decisions are taken by people so uninformed? We would not be happy if 42 per cent of jurors didn’t know what was going on in court cases.

The notion of a referendum makes fine theoretical sense, but it only works in practice if the voters are properly informed.

Of the issues that actually were at stake in the Lisbon treaty, such as the number of members of the European Commission, only four per cent thought this was a reason to vote No. This is one-tenth of the number who voted on the strength of misinformation about the tax system.

When the idea comes up of what could be done to satisfy the Irish people in order to make possible a second referendum, the discussion is about tweaking various aspects of the details of the treaty, but the Irish research shows that this is all beside the point. The referendum is a fine theoretical tool, but does not lead to popular judgement on the EU in practice.

It is not only in Ireland that there is this mismatch between theory and reality. Remember Iain Duncan Smith’s confession in the House of Commons, reported on this blog here, that he did not know what the referendum in 1975 was all about. If an eminent political figure like him can be so confused, what does this say about the rest of us?

Just so that I am not misunderstood, I like the idea of referendums on constitutional issues, but there are some formidable obstacles to overcome in practice.

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