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71% think independent body should draft referendum question

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[First Published on Wednesday 6th October 2010]

This archive item is a window onto issues as they appeared at the time. It contains facts and opinions which may have been superseded by subsequent events.

Opinion polls on AV over the summer have tended to highlight a general scepticism towards the proposed system but have remained largely focussed on voting intentions.  An on-line poll carried out by YouGov on behalf of The Constitution Society has now probed public opinion on a broader range of issues surrounding electoral reform and the government’s referendum proposal, with remarkable results.

For a full analysis, including graphs and other data, see the following briefing paper.

Voting intentions 

Despite widespread concern about political apathy amongst the British electorate generally, respondents to our poll appear committed to turning out for an eventual referendum, with a clear majority of both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ voters either ‘certain’ or ‘highly likely’ to cast a vote on the day.  What’s more, with voting intentions at the beginning of the poll very evenly split (‘yes’ 32%, ‘no’ 33%), the balance of the vote will rest with the ‘don’t knows’.

Our poll provided some rudimentary information about AV and asked participants if this changed their views; there appeared to be little impact on those that support a change in the voting system, but it seemed that the availability of more information tended to harden the opposition amongst those who are initially undecided.  If correct, we can anticipate that the ‘no’ vote will gain more from the referendum campaign this winter.

Voting reform is not the public’s top priority

Asked which constitutional issues they would most like a referendum on, respondents prioritised British membership of the EU (43%).  While changes to the voting system clearly resonate, respondents considered it second in importance (33%) – there is an obvious discrepancy between where the voters feel they are owed a voice and where the Government is willing to listen.

Party allegiance complicates the question further with a stratification of public opinion.  An equally high majority of Conservative supporters highlighted the need for a referendum on Europe(64%) as Lib Dem supporters prioritising voting reform (63%).

Unhappy with the limited scope of the referendum

The Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill deals not only with a switch to AV, but also the question of equalisation of constituency sizes.

52% of respondents thought a referendum should extend to both issues.  Only 29% agreed with the Government’s decision to refer the referendum to just one half of the Bill.

Not a simple case of ‘yes’ and ‘no’

The comments supplied by respondents reveal that a vote ‘yes’ is not necessarily an endorsement of AV whilst a vote ‘no’ is not necessarily a vote in support of First Past the Post.

  • A majority of respondents – including a significant proportion of those indicating they would vote ‘no’ – said they would rather be offered other choices, including a proportional representation system such as the STV
  • Many in the ‘yes’ camp feeling that ‘anything’ would be better than our current system, or that AV should be regarded only as a first step to PR
  • Only 48% of people who gave reasons for their intention to vote against AV said they were happy with the status quo.
  • Over 30% of the ‘no’ camp voted no because they felt the AV system was defective or over-complex.

Who should have set the question?

Few respondents, across all party allegiances and both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ voters, were happy with the procedure for drafting the question.  An overwhelming majority (71%) of respondents felt that the drafting should fall to either an independent commission or a citizens’ jury.

Parliament is clearly still lacking esteem in the eyes of the public, with worrying consequences for the apparent legitimacy of a referendum question which was included in neither of the Coalition parties’ manifestos.

Understanding what it means

The legitimacy of the referendum perhaps also hangs on the issue of whether the public understand what they are being asked to vote on, and in this regard the poll produced some significant results:

  • A large majority of respondents had either never heard of AV(32%) or were not sure how it worked (35%)
  • Only 23% of respondents are fully confident they understand the workings of First Past the Post, despite its largely unmodified use in Britain across numerous generations
  • Respondents in both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps say they want toreduce the likelihood of further coalitions or hung parliaments
  • Respondents on both sides seem to think that AV will favour smaller parties, but they are divided on whether this is a good thing
  • A significant proportion of those both for and against reform use the words ‘fairer’ or ‘more democratic’ to justify their decision
  • Respondents who expressed themselves to be ill-informed or confused all opted to vote ‘no’.

The poll points to the need for both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns to explain to the public the import of the referendum question if we want to be confident that the outcome of the referendum will represent an informed decision.

To see the questions asked in the poll and a full analysis of the results see the following briefing paper.  The full data sheet can also be accessed here.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.