Hot off the plane from Bogota where he was advising on the upcoming referendum, Quintin Oliver tells us his ten commandments on referendums:
- Referendums are not elections – there are no candidates and no posts to win, and although parties are involved, they and the voters are addressing an issue; campaigners must ‘unlearn’ their election campaigning instincts. First mover advantage often goes to those who successfully ‘frame’ the terms of debate. Think Brexit, as ‘taking back our country’.
- Voters often answer the wrong question (Charles de Gaulle) – referendums are susceptible to ‘capture’ by other players, and voters often use them to register a protest against the government of the day, or against the political elites. Think the Swedish Euro vote of 2003 vote, led by Abba, Volvo and Saab, which was expected to pass.
- Referendums, especially on big national issues, against a background of conflict, usually become more emotional, than rational; voters express their instincts, rather than their cold, rational, evidence-based selves. They remember the past and are reluctant to embrace an uncertain – or overly idealistic – future. Think Scotland 2014.
- Most referendums are lost (albeit narrowly) – indicating that promoting the ‘change’ case is harder, especially if complicated, recently published and containing tough concessions, unless there is a huge consensus that the change is overwhelmingly acceptable And much more attractive than now. This is exacerbated mid-term (when governments tend to be less popular) and in tough economic times, when the risks of change may seem higher. Think Cyprus 2004, when the Greek south was entering the EU, regardless.
- Winning a ‘No’ campaign in a referendum is easier – opponents can scatter objections and complaints, untruths and deceptions, with impunity, while the Yes side has to articulate its change proposition lucidly, coherently and cogently; they must not become defensive and bogged down in detail. Think the Alternative Vote debacle of 2011, when a 2:1 polling lead was reversed.
- Referendum debates can be volatile and uncertain – with shifts in opinion and voting intentions as (sometimes unexpected) issues gain prominence and traction. The status quo can become more attractive against a kaleidoscope of untested options, especially if a credible Plan B (renegotiation) is promoted. Think Nice l and Lisbon l in the Republic, both reversed after concessions.
- Referendums allow many more voices – voters tend to look first to their political party of choice for advice but then seek other cues from voices they trust, or who appear widely to be opinion-formers (churches, labour unions, NGOs, artists, celebrities, athletes…); voters especially like to see traditionally opposing politicians putting aside their differences in the national interest and sharing platforms to promote their unified case, especially if this contrasts with the opponents. Think Good Friday Agreement poll in 1998.
- Referendums permit a significant space to organised civil society (usually excluded from traditional elections) – since it can articulate bottom-up, grassroots depth and richness around the issues for debate, with knowledge and experience, credibility and authenticity. Elections are rarely ‘fun’, but referendums can give expression to creativity, satire, parody and excitement; music and art can capture and shift the national mood. Think the 2015 Equal Marriage plebiscite in Ireland.
- Referendums are rarely well played by the media, especially where there is no embedded referendum culture – the media seek ‘presidential’ or ‘gladiatorial’ style’ contests, polar opposite positions, argument and conflict, as in elections, whereas the policy content of a plebiscite should permit richer, textured discourse; shades of grey should be encouraged, not pummelled into submission; doubt, worry and concern are legitimate feelings. Think Netherlands overturning the obscure EU-Ukraine trade deal.
- Referendums are often susceptible to undue diaspora influence, both in terms of out of country votes, but also contribution to the debate, positive and negative, funding and campaign support. The international media often look first to local (to them) voices, and ‘frame’ their hypothesis accordingly. Think various recent Greek polls…
Quintin Oliver ran Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement YES Campaign in 1998, and advises globally on referendums, with Colombia and Cyprus polls upcoming soon.