A referendum (sometimes known as a ‘plebiscite’) is a vote on a ballot question, which involves the Government asking all members of the eligible voting public (the ‘electorate’) to cast a vote to accept or reject a certain proposition.
Like voting in a General Election, voting in a referendum involves people attending their nearest polling station and answering a question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, by ticking a box on a ballot paper.
Once a referendum result is in, the Government reserves the right to make the final decision. Whilst the Government is likely to respect voters’ wishes and let the referendum result carry the day (particularly if it called the referendum in the first place), equally, the Government can always choose to set it aside.
Referendums and direct democracy
A referendum is a form of ‘direct democracy,’ in which people vote on policy initiatives directly, as opposed to ‘representative democracy,’ in which people vote for representatives who then vote on policy initiatives. In this way, members of the general public are given an opportunity to make their voices heard and, in turn, help the Government to decide important issues. Voting in a referendum can, for example, help Parliament (a body of law-makers) to decide whether to pass a new law.
The Government will only call a referendum for a matter of some importance. Referendums in the UK have centred on democracy: for example, the decision to set up the Scottish Parliament. However, the Government can call a referendum on any burning issue of the day.
Mandatory and advisory referendums
There are two types of referendum: mandatory and advisory (or ‘facultative’). A mandatory referendum means that the law requires the Government to refer certain matters to a public vote for approval or rejection, such as signing international treaties.
An advisory referendum, by contrast, can be called at the will of the general public through a petition mounted by a specified number of voters. For example, in London, a referendum was held to decide whether to elect the city’s mayor. The majority of voters were in favour of this; therefore, elections now take place every four years to choose the next Mayor of London.
Referendums in the UK
There have been nine referendums in the UK, only two of which have been put to the entire UK electorate. The first, in 1975, was to measure support for the country’s continued membership of the European Economic Community (now the European Union or ‘EU’). Sixty-seven percent of voters pledged their support. As a result, the UK remains part of the EU.
The second referendum, in 2011, was to vote on changing the current ‘First Past the Post’ electoral system to the ‘Alternative Vote.’ Some 68 percent of voters chose to continue using the current system.