Redefining referendum results

Image: Bryn Salisbury

Image: Bryn Salisbury

With the Conservatives nearly a month into their first majority government in 18 years, some parts of the government have already begun to contradict each other. In what may be clever political manoeuvring and spinning, a strange double standard has arisen in the government’s approach to referendum results.

Following the General Election result, 230,000 people have signed a petition on calling for votes to match seats in Parliament. In what the Electoral Reform Society has called the most disproportionate election in British history, the Conservatives gained 0.8% more votes than in 2010, and gained 24 seats, while labour increased their vote share by 1.5% but were down 26 seats. Last week, the Electoral Reform Society handed the petition to Downing Street and received a dubious response.

John Penrose, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for electoral reform replied with a short but controversial letter. The letter began by thanking the ERS for submitting the petition and presenting the views of the signatories to the Government, but stated that we had already had a referendum in which the public overwhelmingly rejected proportional representation.

The referendum Penrose referred to, was the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Voting system, which was rejected by a whopping 68% to 32% of those who voted. The only issue is, that AV is not a proportional system and that the referendum wasn’t much of an endorsement of First Past the Post.

The campaign was fought in the early days of an unpopular coalition government, attached to the first local elections that voters had the chance to ‘punish’ the government in, on top of that neither the ‘Yes’ or the ‘No’ side spent much time arguing for their preferred voting system. The ‘No’ side focused on the cost of changing the voting system, highlighting how the estimated £250 million could be better spent on bulletproof vests for soldiers or on new cardiac units for children.  While the ‘Yes’ campaign painted AV as the savour from all of the UK political ills.

However, not everyone in the government are so respectful of the referendum results. A year after the AV vote, another referendum took place in many of the UK major cities. Large cities were given the option to have elected mayors with additional powers. 9 out of the 11 cities given the option, rejected elected Mayors. However, cities like Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle may all soon have elected mayors imposed upon them from central government.

Under plans by George Osborne to create a Northern Powerhouse of highly connected cities across the North of England, cities will be given large amounts of power over the local economy and vital policy areas such as transport. With additional powers, greater accountability will be required, and the Chancellor’s solution is to insist on elected mayors.

Since the agreements to create Northern Powerhouses are drawn up from negotiations between local government and Westminster, it is unlikely that the electorate will have any say on their creation. If the 2011 AV referendum result prevents any consideration of electoral reform, how can the results of the Mayoral referendum be any less binding? That is, if this was principled opposition based on referendum results, rather than political manoeuvring. Politician’s willingness to rewrite results and meanings of referendums poses the question of just how well they will respect the result of an in/out EU referendum.



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