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Referenda and General Elections

November 5, 2011

It’s time for some clarity among Liberal Democrats on the issue of referenda.

General Elections decide the government. Going in to these elections, all parties issue a manifesto and tell the voters what they will do if elected. So the first thing to say is that if the new government has promised a referendum within their manifesto (or within the coalition agreement), then there should be a referendum. And vice versa, if there is no mention of a referendum on a listed issue, then it is for parliament to decide.

This leaves the unknown in politics. These are the issues that spring up unannounced and unplanned. Scottish independence could be one, succession to the throne of the United Kingdom another. Let me try to set out some rules for deciding whether these decisions should be taken by parliament or by referendum enabled by parliament.

National Decisions

Is the decision Strategic? – is the decision of national importance with long term implications over many parliaments that cannot easily be reversed.

Does the Government not have the Authority to take the decision? – if Government feels that it doesn’t already have the mandate from the country, then a referendum is a possibility.

Must the decision be taken by this parliament? – there must be a valid case that the decision cannot be taken by the next government with a new mandate.

Can the decision wait for a few months until a referendum decision? – when the decision is not too urgent or destabilising for the delay in having a national referendum.

Is the decision Controversial? –there is no clear consensus within government or cross-party for a decision by parliament.

If the answer is yes to all these questions, then a national referendum should be considered.

Non-national Decisions

These additional questions need to be answered.

Is the decision specifically affecting only part of the UK? – leading to nationally enabled local referenda for one-off decisions.

Does the Government not have the Authority? – where the government has no mandate to impose a decision on a specific local area, and where the local decision making body does not have the authority to take the decision.

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