Five Lessons from the EU Referendum

  1. Referendums in the UK are not be legally binding, but they might as well be

David Cameron strongly supported the Remain camp during the EU debate, but even with a result as close as 52% leave to 48% remain, he accepted the decision made by the British electorate. To not do so would have almost certainly resulted in intra-party and wider calls for him to be removed as the Prime-Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, especially with many of his own MPs, such as Boris Johnson, having campaigned against him. This also comes as on 22nd February 2016, Cameron addressed Parliament and said ‘For a Prime Minister to ignore the express will of the British people to leave the EU would be not just wrong, but undemocratic’.


  1. Constitutional change in the UK does not require special provisions

With matters of constitutional importance, such as Scottish independence or EU membership, the UK government often opts for a referendum. With an unwritten constitution and no special provisions needed for constitutional change, this has become convention in this country. A simple majority at the referendum is often the course of action taken by the government. Indeed the process of withdrawing from the EU does require special procedures at EU level, but not at national level. However, for the US for instance, constitutional change requires the support of three-quarters of its states (38 out of 50). A recent petition argues that the result needed to remain or leave should have been set at a 60% threshold with a 75% voter turnout, and if this wasn’t achieved, their should be another referendum.


  1. Social media: an antidote to Britain’s political apathy?

Questions of a democratic deficit has been floating in the UK for recent years, especially with lower than average voter turnouts at local, and even general, elections. However, 72% of the electorate (over 30 million people) came out to cast their vote on 23rd June, which is higher than the last general election. Many 16 to 18 year olds also used social media to express their anger of not being able to vote, especially as those in Scotland were allowed during the Scottish independence referendum in 2015. After the result of the EU referendum, many people continued to keep politically engaged, especially via social media. It remained a trending topic on Facebook and Twitter, and many petitions were opened up, with one petition on the official Parliament petitions website reaching the 3 million signatures mark, at one point causing the website to crash. However at the same time, turnout by age group showed that only 36% of 18-24 year olds voted, in comparison to over 60% of over 65s voting.


  1. Demographics can affect voting behaviour – and the state of the British union

Certain patterns emerged after analysing how different demographic groups voted at the EU referendums. The average remain voter in England was likely to have a higher level of educational attainment, a higher annual income, and to be a young voter. The average leave voter was likely to have a lower level of educational attainment, to be from a C2DE social class, and to be an older voter. The fact that approximately 75% of 18 to 24 year olds who voted chose to remain, and over 60% of over 65s voted to leave suggests a marked difference between age groups in the country’s population. This may cause problems for using referendums, as a simple majority ignores the complexities in society, and different cleavages. Geographic differences mean that the overwhelming support to remain in Scotland may trigger a second independence referendum, having further implications for the UK as a whole.


  1. Party leaders are being held accountable

On the one hand, the resignation of David Cameron came as a shock to many. However, it was also acknowledged that having campaigned so strongly for the remain side, his failure in securing victory for this camp meant that he must accept political responsibility and step down. Again, the consequences of not doing may have led to intra-party conflict, in the same way that the Labour Party is facing after Labour MP’s began a petition calling for a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. This was soon followed by what has been termed a ‘coup’ on Corbyn, with many shadow ministers resigning from their post in opposition to the party’s leadership. These MPs claim Corbyn did not effectively campaign for the Remain camp. Corbyn is not yet showing any signs of stepping down, but this does show the extent to which whilst the power of the executive did seem to be increasing in recent years, the shadow cabinet and backbench MPs are also exerting significant scrutiny and pressure on party leaders.

Salisa Kaur

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