The EU referendum question included in the Conservatives’ private members’ Bill is both highly biased and vague: it would actively misinform UK voters

The Electoral Commission is now consulting on the highly loaded question that the Conservatives have proposed in their EU referendum private members Bill. Patrick Dunleavy shows how the Tories’ question wording falls at the first hurdle on fairness and specificity grounds. He sets out a more balanced and definite alternative, but also explains how every reader can help the Electoral Commission do its job here. Lastly he raises the importance of the loss of European citizenship rights that the Eurosceptics are so cavalierly proposing to strip from all of us. Should this not also be included in the referendum question itself?

Credit: Notarim, CC BY 2.0

Credit: Notarim, CC BY 2.0

Last week David Cameron, Tory MPs and a handful of Labour and Liberal Democrat Europhobes paraded through the half empty lobbies to give a private members’ bill, the EU (Referendum) Bill a second reading. It provides for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union to be held before 2017. The Bill includes the referendum question that will be put to voters at the referendum in the event of it being passed as follows:
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”
This question is highly misleading in two dimensions. First, it implicitly suggests to voters:.
–          Either that the UK is not already a member of the European Union.
–          Or that our membership is up for renewal in some kind of routine, regular or unprompted way.
Either way the question actively contributes to misinforming voters.

Second, the question reads like a proposition for an academic seminar. It only asks about whatpeople think should happen and not directly about the action choice that voters are being asked to make. There are many senses in which someone might think that the UK ideally should not be a member of the EU (e.g. nostalgia for the British Empire) and yet recognize that leaving would be infeasible or impracticable.

James Wharton

James Wharton MP, who introduced the Tory bill (Credit: BBC Parliament)

Voters are being asked in a referendum to take an action – so any remotely fair question must focus on the action choice being given, and it should be balanced in mentioning both option choices. A fair question on these lines would be:
“Should the United Kingdom stay a member of the European Union?
Or should the UK leave the European Union?”
–          STAY
–          LEAVE

This does not focus on a YES or NO choice, as has been traditional in past UK referenda. But in my view this is a virtue. This question makes clear the actual choice voters face far better than any Yes/No question could do. It would also allow very clear Campaign labels on either side, which would lead to strong branding and recognition of the choice by voters. The course of action that the STAY and LEAVE campaigns were each advocating would be much clearer throughout the campaigning process than would be the case with a Yes/No question.

Any Yes/No question cannot be balanced – it must inherently ‘lead’ voters by effectively suggesting one course of action. This is what has happened with the Scottish referendum question approved by the Electoral Commission, which asks: Should Scotland be an independent country? If the result ends in a ‘Yes’, then Alex Salmond and the SNP will be thanking their lucky stars that because of the Commission’s credulity and conservatism the option of staying in the UK was not explicitly brought to the attention of voters in the polling station.

Help the Electoral Commission consider the EU Referendum question

Whether you agree or disagree with my arguments above, or believe that a different question altogether should be considered, there is an important opportunity for UK citizens to influence the process by which any eventual question is framed. Under the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000, the Electoral Commission now has an immediate statutory duty to assess the intelligibility of the Conservatives’ question. In order to inform our assessment, they are seeking your views on the wording of the proposed question in the Bill ( which is, again: “Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”

The Commission’s aim is to look at the proposed question from the perspective of voters, to see if it is written in a way that means they are likely to be able to easily understand and answer it. They have produced referendum question guidelines that we use to assess whether a proposed question is clear, simple and neutral. These guidelines can be found on their website here.

So if you would like to let the Commission know of your views or suggestions it would probably be helpful if you could consider the Tories question in the context of these precepts, or you could be wasting their and your time.

European citizenship rights – should they be included in the question?

In closing, let me introduce a second, and far more general issue that I believe the Electoral Commission should consider in the framing of any EU referendum question. This is how far the referendum question itself should spell out the consequences of the decision that voters are being asked to make. At present all UK citizens are also European citizens with many attendant rights, which are of considerable economic and social value. For instance, as European citizens people from the UK currently have the right to travel freely across the EU, to work in any member state and to move capital freely across borders, and to have their children enjoy all of these rights also.

In my view any remotely fair eventual EU referendum question must make perfectly plain to all those voting, at the point in the ballot box where the decision has to be made,  that a UK decision to leave the EU will strip away those rights, not only from the voter concerned but from their children or other family members, and all other members of UK society.

Traditionally the Commission’s position has been that the consequences of referendum decisions are deeply contested, and so they should be spelt out only by the Yes or No campaigns in their literature, marketing and activities. They should thus not be explicitly triggered by the referendum question. That tradition has been maintained in the Scottish referendum question, as we have seen above.

But arguably here the citizenship consequences of the decision to become an independent country, and to leave the United Kingdom, are well understood by Scottish voters as part and parcel of the whole concept of national sovereignty. However, in the EU case, these consequences are not so well understood by British voters. So here in my view there is a case for saying that the completely certain consequences of an action choice should be spelt out in a minimal and completely neutral and factual way – perhaps as follows:

“Should the United Kingdom stay a member of the European Union, maintaining UK citizens’ rights as European citizens?
Or should the UK now leave the European Union, so that UK citizens no longer hold rights as European citizens”
–          STAY
–          LEAVE

I recognize that this is a more contestable formulation. Yet it is very important that what is being voted on should be completely clear to all citizens, in the actual ballot box, at the point where they are voting. The Electoral Commission, which has performed so woefully in recent years, notably over the Police Commissioner elections turnout and campaign arrangements fiasco, must step up to the huge task of running any EU referendum with a clear understanding that this decision has immense significance for all UK citizens. Sticking to their old, very limited conventions and ways of doing things, insisting on a Yes/No question or refusing to mention the absolutely clear-cut legal consequences of an in/out decision, could produce a catastrophically poor decision process in this era-defining case.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog on which it also appears, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy in the Government Department at the London School of Economics.

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