Criticisms of Referendums

Referendums have been criticised because the public may lack the education on the topic to accurately vote for the good of the country. The system of politics in the UK uses representative democracy, meaning we elect politicians who are experts in their field to make decisions for the best interests of the public. Therefore, referendums in a sense undermine this and also may lead to results, that negatively affect the country. For example, there is much debate about whether the EU referendum really was based on an informed decision. The leave campaign’s promise of an extra £350 million a week after Britain left the EU has now been widely discredited and shows that many voters were making decisions under false pretences, hence without the proper information that those in Parliament would have. This is significant because the judgment made by members of the public was a misinformed one and hence this questions the validity of the result. Therefore, it is evident that lack of education is a flaw of referendums.

Additionally, results of referendums can be very unreliable due to influence from media and campaigning. The public receive its information on the referendum decision from the news and campaigns and hence once we question the reliability of these sources it reduces the validity of the result. For example, the media was very pro-Europe in 1975 during the first EU membership referendum, which might have swayed the vote in favour of joining. The result of 67.2% in favour of joining reflects this. Additionally, the great amounts of money that the leave campaign in 2016 had at their disposal meant that they were able to advertise much more publically, evidenced by the ‘Lets Fund our NHS instead’ Brexit bus. This is significant because the leave campaign attracted much more attention from the public than the ‘remain’ campaign and this again questions how independently the public made their decision to leave. Therefore, it is clear that the results of referendums can be unreliable due to external influences such as media or campaigning, which is a common criticism of referendums.

Referendums have also been criticised for being a means for voters to express their dissatisfaction with the government. This would greatly reduce the validity of the result because instead of focusing on the single issue at hand the public see referendums as a way to demonstrate their objection to the current party in government. For example, in 2011, it has been suggested that the “yes to AV” referendum lost so heavily, receiving just 32.1% of the vote, because many voters saw the referendum as an excuse to punish Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems due to their failed promises after the coalition. This is significant as it greatly inhibits the effectiveness of referendums as a means of getting public legitimacy on difficult decisions. This is further shown by the low turnout of just 41%, showing a further sense of apathy towards referendums. Thus, referendums have often been criticised for not producing effective results because voters use them as a means to express their dissatisfaction with the government.

Georgina Trott

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