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Dissonant referendum design and turmoil in representation

Dissonant referendum design and turmoil in representation
Dissonant referendum design and turmoil in representation
The fruit of a referendum should be political clarity. The people have spoken; the state will act in accordance with their wishes. Yet the Brexit referendum had the opposite effect. After a majority of the UK electorate who voted in the referendum indicated a preference to leave rather than remain in the European Union, the representative government fell into divisive conflict over what policy should be adopted as a response to the expression of popular will. This is the antithesis of the clarity that a referendum should produce. Why has this happened? This Essay argues that, beyond the political and social complexities of Brexit, the subsequent instability can be traced to the humble realities of referendum question design. The referendum pitted a concrete proposal with clear legal consequences (Remain) against a question of principle with no explicit indication of subsequent government action (Leave). In doing so, the Brexit referendum deviated from well-established principles of referendum design by presenting voters with two non-comparable alternatives. Damningly for post-referendum governance, the result of the referendum offered the government little clear legal guidance, but rather simply constrained its policy-making flexibility. Such a referendum outcome forces representative government to exercise general policy-making discretion, but with a constrained palette of policy options which specifically exclude the first-choice preference of many voters. This Essay uses classical tools of political science to interpret this confusion in democratic governance, and draw forth general lessons regarding the interaction between referendum design and representative politics. Specifically, it applies spatial modelling of political competition to identify how flawed referendum design upsets the relationship between representatives and voters.
referendum design, democracy, spatial modelling, representation
0033-3565
622-632
Eisler, Jacob
a290dee3-c42f-4ede-af9a-5ede55d0135a
Eisler, Jacob
a290dee3-c42f-4ede-af9a-5ede55d0135a

Eisler, Jacob (2019) Dissonant referendum design and turmoil in representation. Public Law, 622-632. (doi:10.2139/ssrn.3378642).

Record type: Article

Abstract

The fruit of a referendum should be political clarity. The people have spoken; the state will act in accordance with their wishes. Yet the Brexit referendum had the opposite effect. After a majority of the UK electorate who voted in the referendum indicated a preference to leave rather than remain in the European Union, the representative government fell into divisive conflict over what policy should be adopted as a response to the expression of popular will. This is the antithesis of the clarity that a referendum should produce. Why has this happened? This Essay argues that, beyond the political and social complexities of Brexit, the subsequent instability can be traced to the humble realities of referendum question design. The referendum pitted a concrete proposal with clear legal consequences (Remain) against a question of principle with no explicit indication of subsequent government action (Leave). In doing so, the Brexit referendum deviated from well-established principles of referendum design by presenting voters with two non-comparable alternatives. Damningly for post-referendum governance, the result of the referendum offered the government little clear legal guidance, but rather simply constrained its policy-making flexibility. Such a referendum outcome forces representative government to exercise general policy-making discretion, but with a constrained palette of policy options which specifically exclude the first-choice preference of many voters. This Essay uses classical tools of political science to interpret this confusion in democratic governance, and draw forth general lessons regarding the interaction between referendum design and representative politics. Specifically, it applies spatial modelling of political competition to identify how flawed referendum design upsets the relationship between representatives and voters.

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Jacob Eisler - Brexit Referendum Design Article V 3.0- 24 April 2019 - Accepted Manuscript
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Accepted/In Press date: 24 April 2019
e-pub ahead of print date: 25 May 2019
Published date: October 2019
Keywords: referendum design, democracy, spatial modelling, representation

Identifiers

Local EPrints ID: 430453
URI: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/430453
ISSN: 0033-3565
PURE UUID: 8ab8372a-7b8f-49b3-874e-0b7c9145595f
ORCID for Jacob Eisler: ORCID iD orcid.org/0000-0003-4422-5255

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Date deposited: 01 May 2019 16:30
Last modified: 13 Dec 2021 03:31

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