Referendums in the United Kingdom

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This article is part of the series
Politics of the United Kingdom

Referendums (or referenda) are only occasionally held by the government of the United Kingdom. Nine referendums have been held so far, the first in 1973; only one of these covered the whole UK. There is at least one planned for the future.

Contents

Status of referendums

Referendums have traditionally been rare in the UK. Major referendums have always been on constitutionally related issues. Before Tony Blair's Labour government came to power in 1997, only four referendums had been held.

There are two types of referendum that have been held in the UK, pre-legislative (held before proposed legislation is passed) and post-legislative (held after legislation) is passed. Referendums are not legally binding, so legally the government can ignore the results; for example even if the result of a pre-legislative referendum was a majority of ‘No' for a proposed law, Parliament could pass it anyway.

Legally, Parliament at any point in future could reverse legislation approved by referendums because the concept of parliamentary sovereignty means no Parliament can prevent a future Parliament from amending/repealing legislation. However, it is unlikely many governments would attempt to reverse legislation approved by referendums as it would probably be controversial and potentially damaging to their popularity.

Finally, under the 1972 Local Government Act, there is a little-known provision under which non-binding local referenda on any issue can be called by small groups of voters. Six local voters may call a meeting, and if ten voters or a third of the meeting (whichever is smaller) agree, the council must carry out a referendum in 14 - 25 days. The referendum is merely advisory, but if there is a substantial majority and the results well-publicised it may be influential. [1] (http://www2.prestel.co.uk/rodmell/local.htm)

Planned referendums

Since 1997, the Labour government has held five referendums on devolution, four of which received a yes majority. One concerning the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe looks likely to happen - unless other countries' referenda reject the constitution first. Another, on the Euro, depends on the government being willing to recommend it.

The Labour manifesto for the 1997 general election stated 'We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons.' [2] (http://www.labour-party.org.uk/manifestos/1997/1997-labour-manifesto.shtml) The 2001 manifesto did not make such a promise, and it is unlikely such a referendum will be held in the foreseeable future.

Organisation

Until 2000, there was no body to regulate referendums. In 2000, the government set out a framework for the running of future referendums when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 or PPERA was passed, given the Electoral Commission responsibility for running referendums.

List of major referendums

List of minor (local) referendums

Thirty local referendums have taken place in local authorities to establish whether there is support for directly-elected mayors. Eleven received a "Yes" majority and twenty a "No" majority. The highest turnout was 64% in Berwick-upon-Tweed and the lowest was 10% in Ealing. On average, the turnout was similar to that of local elections.

The majority of these were held between June 2001 and May 2002 - a further four have been held since.

"Yes" majority shown in green, "No" majority shown in red.

Source: Electoral Commission; Ceredigion County Council (http://www.ceredigion.gov.uk/index.cfm?articleid=1044)

Local authority Date Yes Votes Yes Vote % No Votes No Vote % Turnout %
Berwick-upon-Tweed 7 June 2001 3,617 26 10,212 74 64
Cheltenham 28 June 2001 8,083 33 16,602 67 32
Gloucester 28 June 2001 7,731 32 16,317 68 31
Watford 12 July 2001 7,636 52 7,140 48 25
Doncaster 20 September 2001 35,453 65 19,398 35 25
Kirklees 4 October 2001 10,169 27 27,977 73 13
Sunderland 11 October 2001 9,375 43 12,209 57 10
Brighton & Hove 18 October 2001 22,724 38 37,214 62 32
Hartlepool 18 October 2001 10,667 51 10,294 49 34
Lewisham 18 October 2001 16,822 51 15,914 49 18
Middlesbrough 18 October 2001 29,067 84 5,422 16 34
North Tyneside 18 October 2001 30,262 58 22,296 42 36
Sedgefield 18 October 2001 10,628 47 11,869 53 33
Redditch 8 November 2001 7,250 44 9,198 56 28
Durham 20 November 2001 8,327 41 11,974 59 29
Harrow 6 December 2001 17,502 43 23,554 57 26
Plymouth 24 Jan 2002 29,559 41 42,811 59 40
Harlow 24 Jan 2002 5,296 25 15,490 75 25
Newham 31 Jan 2002 27,263 68 12,687 32 26
Southwark 31 Jan 2002 6,054 31 13,217 69 11
West Devon 31 Jan 2002 3,555 23 12,190 77 42
Shepway 31 Jan 2002 11,357 44 14,438 56 36
Bedford 21 Feb 2002 11,316 67 5,537 33 16
Hackney 2 May 2002 24,697 59 10,547 41 32
Mansfield 2 May 2002 8,973 55 7,350 45 21
Newcastle-under-Lyme 2 May 2002 12,912 44 16,468 56 31.5
Oxford 2 May 2002 14,692 44 18,686 56 34
Stoke on Trent 2 May 2002 28,601 58 20,578 42 27
Corby 1 October 2002 5,351 46 6239 54 31
Ealing 12 December 2002 9,454 45 11,655 55 10
Ceredigion 20 May 2004 5,308 27 14,013 73 36
Isle of Wight 5 May 2005 28,786 43.7 37,097 56.3 60.4

Edinburgh Transport Referendum

The City of Edinburgh Council held a postal-ballot referendum in February 2005 over whether voters supported the Council's proposed transport strategy. These plans included a congestion charge which would have required motorists to pay a fee to enter the city at certain times of the day. The result was announced on February 22, 2005 and the people of Edinburgh had rejected the proposals. 74% voted against, 26% voted in favour and the turnout was 62%.

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