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Electoral Reform Society slams management of ‘dire’ EU referendum

The debate around the EU membership referendum shows the need for more laws on future referendums, the Electoral Reform Society has said.

In a new report, ‘It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote’, the society said that the referendum was conducted in an atmosphere of ignorance.

Polling by the society showed that just 16% of respondents described themselves as well informed or very well informed about the referendum when campaigning started in February, and this rose to just 33% by the week before the referendum.

Both sides were heavily criticised for their conduct during the referendum. For example, Leave campaigners produced a slogan saying that leaving the EU would allow £350m funding a week to be given to the NHS. The day after the referendum, UKIP leader Nigel Farage said that he “would never have made that claim”.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “This report shows without a shadow of a doubt just how dire the EU referendum debate really was. There were glaring democratic deficiencies in the run-up to the vote, with the public feeling totally ill-informed. Both sides were viewed as highly negative by voters, while the top-down, personality-based nature of the debate failed to address major policies and issues, leaving the public in the dark.

“It offered a stark contrast to the vibrant, well-informed, grassroots conversation of the Scottish independence vote – a referendum that left a lasting legacy of on-going public participation in politics and public life.

“From a campaign period that was too short to foster a decent debate, to the fact that misleading claims could be made with total impunity, there are so many lessons to be learned – and this report lays out both the facts and the way forward.

“Now that the dust is starting to settle after the EU referendum, we need a complete rethink about the role of referendums in the UK. They are becoming more common, but the piecemeal nature of the how, when and why they’re done means we could simply end up jumping from referendum to referendum at the whim of politicians.

“It’s time for a root and branch review of referendums, learning the lessons of the EU campaign to make sure the mistakes that were made in terms of regulation, tone and conduct are never repeated. Let’s make sure that future referendums guarantee the lively and well-informed discussion that voters deserve.”

The society said that all future referendums should be subject to three-month legislative scrutiny and be accompanied by an official ‘rulebook’ from the Electoral Commission.

It also said that referendums should have a minimum six-month regulated campaign period to allow for more informed debate.

Other recommendations include giving the Electoral Commission or another regulatory body the power to intervene when official campaigns spread “overly misleading information”, citizenship education in primary and secondary school, and lowering the voting age to 16.

The referendum led to a 52% vote in favour of leaving the EU, causing David Cameron to announce his resignation as prime minister.

The new prime minister, Theresa May, is currently chairing a Cabinet meeting at Chequers to prepare for the UK’s exit from the European Union.

A spokesperson for the prime minister said that the Cabinet has agreed that the deal with the EU should emphasise limiting immigration and that Parliament will not get the chance to vote on the process.

“There was a strong emphasis on pushing ahead to article 50 to lead Britain successfully out of the European Union – with no need for a parliamentary vote,” they said.

“Several Cabinet members made it clear that we are leaving the EU but not leaving Europe, with a decisive view that the model we are seeking is one unique to the United Kingdom and not an off-the-shelf solution.

“This must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade goods and services.”

The Electoral Reform Society has previously criticised the conduct of the police and crime commissioner elections and called for citizen assemblies to increase public participation in the devolution process.

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