Working with pollster Find Out Now, Electoral Calculus has run a poll asking people about referendums and their views of potential future referendums.
The UK has seen an increase in referendums recently. There have been two national referendums in the last ten years (on voting reform and EU membership) plus many regional referendums on local government, devolution and the Good Friday Agreement.
Some voices, particularly after 2016, have said that referendums are a bad idea and should not be used again. But what do the public think?
To find out, we started by asking the public "Do you think Britain should hold referendums more often or less often to decide important matters?". A plurality (32pc) of people said that referendums should be held more often, and a further 31pc said they should continue at about the current rate. Taken together, that gives 63pc of the population wanting to keep going with referendums. Only 20pc of people said that referendums should happen less often. A further 17pc of people weren't sure.
A key feature of referendums in other countries is the ability of the public to propose the referendum question. This is a notable feature of democracy in Switzerland and some US states, such as California. But would such a constitutional innovation be welcomed by the public. We asked them "In choosing a question to be decided by referendum, do you agree or disagree that voters should be able to propose a referendum question through an organised petition?".
The most popular answer was "neutral" with 38pc. But those either in agreement (32pc) or strong agreement (16pc) made up 48pc of all those who answered the question. Only 14pc were either opposed or strongly opposed.
There is much more support than opposition to the idea of citizen ballot initiatives. This may reflect a perception that the people's elected representatives do not always perfectly represent the people's opinions.
Finally we asked people some hypothetical referendum questions, to see how they might cast their votes on some political and constitutional issues.
The seven hypothetical referendum proposals are:
|The right of everyone to free speech and freedom of religion should be enshrined clearly in law||68%||4%||28%|
|The House of Lords should be fully elected by voters, instead of its members being appointed.||60%||8%||32%|
|The death penalty should be brought back for the most serious crimes.||52%||29%||19%|
|The electoral system should be changed to a more proportional system.||47%||12%||41%|
|The production, distribution, sale and possession of cannabis should be legalised||47%||30%||23%|
|Ethnic and religious minority groups should be protected by law from criticism or ridicule||27%||34%||39%|
|The British monarchy should be abolished and replaced with an elected head of state.||20%||56%||24%|
These results can also be seen in graphical form.
Although freedom of speech has come under attack in recent years, the British public are still very keen on it. An overwhelming 68pc of the public supports a "Bill of Rights" style establishment of freedom of speech and of religion.
On constitutional matters, there is another clear majority (60pc) for a fully elected House of Lords. This is one case where the political class does not represent the public. From Westminster's point of view, the current arrangement transfers power from the public to themselves and they do not want change. But the public does. A referendum would be a good way to settle the issue.
On a populist topic, there is also a majority for restoration of capital punishment for serious criminal offences. Politicians may have thought this issue as solved when the death penalty was abolished in 1965, but the public seems to disagree.
Electoral reform is less certain. Although there is a plurality for a switch to a more proportional system, there are a large number (41pc) of undecided voters. But a substantial number of people want change in this area. Again, any government in office will be less keen to change the system which has just rewarded them.
Legalisation of cannabis, as has been done in Canada, also attracted a plurality of support, albeit with the smaller margin over those opposed. This may be an issue where public opinion is leading political opinion.
Freedom of speech was also tested with the sixth proposal which rephrased the issue in terms of protection of minorities from uncomfortable speech. In this case, the public again favoured freedom of speech by opposing the proposal, but by a small plurality.
A proposal to replace the Monarchy with an elected head of state was opposed by a clear majority of the public.
Find Out Now conducted several separate polls as fieldwork. Each poll had a minimum sample of 2,000 voters, and polling was conducted between 19 March and 1 April 2021. The sample was filtered to be representative of the GB population by gender, age, social grade, region and past voting. You can also view the full tables from Find Out Now.
Percentages shown exclude those who refused to answer, but include "don't knows".