Friday, 3 September 2010

Questions, questions...

It should surely be no surprise to anyone that the Electoral Commission has concluded that there were problems with the proposed referendum question, and has proposed an alternative of its own. I'm not sure how much of an improvement it really is, though.

The real problem isn't with the question at all; it's with the mess created by the 2006 Act itself. Trying to explain the implications of moving from Part 3 to Part 4 bearing in mind the restrictions of the various schedules means, I fear, that there is no simple way of asking the right question without a complex preamble of some sort; and the longer the preamble, the more scope for disagreement about it.

We are, in reality, having the wrong referendum about the wrong issue, and we're doing it because firstly it was the only way that Hain could get the Act through Parliament, and secondly, because he believed that the referendum would not actually be triggered for a decade or two. And, as if that wasn't enough, it looks increasingly likely that one or both sides of the campaign will find themselves campaigning on questions which are not on the ballot paper anyway.

Whilst the outcome of the referendum certainly matters, does it matter how we get there? For those of us who believe that referenda can and should play a part in politics, of course it does, but there are times in life when we have to accept that "we are where we are".

Hopefully, some lessons will be learned about when we do and when we don't need a referendum. To be a meaningful part of our political life, they need to be clear and focussed in a way that this one can never be.

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