An analysis of referenda in the UK, AV 2011 case study

An analysis of referenda in the UK, AV 2011 case study


Problems and Purpose

The purpose of this case study is to investigate the use of referenda when making significant policy changes in the UK. Referenda are fairly novel in the UK, and thus this democratic innovation will be the focus of this case study, with particular reference to the analysis of citizen engagement and participation. Various problems are associated with referenda, including the lack of (productive) debate, the unusualness in their nature of citizen involvement and the significance of policy that is based on the outcome.

The Alternative-Vote (AV) referendum was the second national referendum held in the UK, following the 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership to the European Communities. Referenda are especially popular in Switzerland (who held 204 referenda between 1900 and 1975 [1]. They are also held frequently in Ireland, Denmark and France, among other European democracies. It’s worth noting that Switzerland, Ireland and Denmark have mandatory referendum provisions in their constitutions, yet this is still evidence that referenda are a common use of public consultation and decision making in many states.

Thus, why are referenda not used as frequently in the UK; as of 2016 only three national referenda have taken place. Are they a suitable method for public decision making? 


The AV referendum (held on Thursday 5th May 2011) asked the public to vote either in favour or in opposition to the proposal of replacing the first-past-the-post system with the alternative-vote method of electing MPs to the House of Commons. The proposal to introduce AV was rejected by 67.9% of the vote, with a national turnout of 42%. Following this, on 8th July 2011, the AV provisions were repealed, bringing the statutory process that had initiated the referendum to an end [2].

The alternative vote electoral system, is a voting method used in single-seat elections with more than two candidates. It is a majoritarian system [3] but also preferential, where voters can rank the candidates in order of preference and the votes for the bottom-placed candidate are redistributed among the remaining candidates. This continues until one candidate is the top remaining choice with a majority of the vote. 

Originating Entities and Funding

Discussions surrounding electoral reform had been happening throughout the 1900s and has floated in and out of party support through the years. One could say that the last significant legislative reform to the electoral process was granting women the vote in 1928. Further reform such as the electoral system and the minimum voting age are still important themes in contemporary political discussion.

In February 2010 the Labour Government, which had been in power since 1997, used their majority to pass an amendment to their Constitutional Reform Bill to include a referendum on the introduction of AV to be held in the next Parliament. In the 2010 General Election campaign, the Labour manifesto supported the introduction of AV via a referendum, the Liberal Democrats argued for proportional representation (preferably STV, single transferable voting) and the Conservatives wanted the retention of the first-past-the-post system.

Therefore, this arguably mild option of electoral reform was a compromise between the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Due to the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power within the hung parliament in 2010, this was part of their deal with the Conservative Party to form a coalition. Yet, it’s clear that the Conservatives limited the potential for reform to AV, rather than a proportional representational system, as Nick Clegg (the leader of the Liberal Democrats at the time) called the referendum ‘a miserable little compromise’ [4].

AV was arguably never going to satisfy either side of this debate. For the Liberal Democrats AV wasn’t a satisfactory alternative, as it is not a proportional representational system. The Conservatives were strongly against AV in favour of retaining first-past-the-post, Labour were in favour of STV and so voted against AV. This is despite that fact that AV is viewed as a stepping stone to proportional representation and although (according to Labour and the Lib Dems) is not a satisfactory change, it would be a vast improvement on first-past-the-post, which is arguably outdated and unsuitable.  

Participant Selection

Referenda are open to the whole electorate, so this section is not particularly relevant to the discussion of this case study.

However, it’s worth noting that the referendum was held on the same day as the devolved elections in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and local elections in Northern Ireland and parts of England. This concerned many Conservatives as they feared it would lead to a distorted turnout. For example there were none of the above elections in London, so turnout could have been lower in this area as residents had less to vote for. Over 45 MPs (most of whom were Conservative) signed a motion to move the date [5]. Yet, nationally there was a turnout of only 42% for the referendum and according to data from The Guardian [6], turnout was roughly within 30-50% across the whole of the UK. 

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

One of the main features to comment on when considering this referendum was the stark lack of public knowledge and discussion surrounding the electoral systems. There seemed to be a significant lack of understanding of how both first-past-the-post and AV systems work to elect representatives, and thus the low turnout of around 42% was unsurprising.

The quality of argument in the public sphere is very important in democracy, especially when the debate and discussion is providing the information to determine individual opinions of an important topic, such as electoral reform. Deliberative discussion is therefore important to improve the moral or intellectual qualities of the participants. It is generally acknowledged that when an individual is not overly informed they will have minimal interest in that issue, and will not engage in discussion or actions surrounding it.

This argument highlights the importance of the media and political parties informing the public of the key issues which need to be understood and considered in a referendum debate. There are three significant aspects that should be present during a referendum debate: a high quality of debate, an evenly balanced debate, and high-quality reasoning of arguments used in the debate [7]. For a considerably technical topic such as electoral reform, there ought to have been a much greater level of discussion and information available to the public [8]. There is a consensus among political commentators that the poor turnout in the AV referendum was mainly due to the lack of understanding and information available to the electorate.

The public interaction of this case was in the form of a national vote. Each member of the electorate had one vote to cast in this directly democratic innovation. On Thursday 5th May 2011 all eligible members of the population who had registered in time (around 46 million people) were able to cast their vote in answer to the question: ‘At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?’

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

As stated above, the result of the referendum was that AV was rejected by 67.9% of the vote.  

Therefore, no change was made to the electoral voting system and first-past-the-post is still used in the UK today. However, this is not to say that the discussion surrounding electoral reform has been silenced, or the result of the referendum satisfied those who still support electoral reform.

For example, the Electoral Reform Society maintain that first-past-the-post is ‘the worst possible system for electing our representatives’, and that ‘the way we elect our MPs is bad for voters, bad for governance and bad for democracy’ [9]. 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

It’s important to consider why a referendum was chosen to satisfy the demands for electoral reform. The main case in favour of holding referenda is linked to firstly, participation, and secondly, legitimation [10]. Participation of the public is important when considering constitutional change, and a referendum obtains a mandate from the electorate, arguably increasing the legitimacy of a decision following the results of a referendum. This legitimacy is reliant on three things [11]. Firstly, the actions and decisions of a state need to be compliant with its own laws. Secondly, the laws themselves need to be justifiable to the greater population. Thirdly, this justification must be seen to have been successfully made by the people demonstrating their consent. Thus, the justification of laws to the public is reliant on clear debate and reasoning, and obtaining the consent of the public is reliant on turnout. If turnout falls under 50% (as it did in 2011), can the outcome be considered a legitimate mandate to carry out the decision? Moreover, the electorate is forced to make a yes/no decision on a complex issue which requires a complex answer. Therefore a decision is made, but a consensus is not reached, often meaning that the issue is not solved, and further debate is sparked.

Furthermore, the impact the media has on public interest during a referendum was clearly demonstrated in the 2016 campaign and decision on the UK’s membership to the European Union. Due to the ongoing political commentary through media outlets and various televised debates, there was increased awareness of, at the least, the existence of the referendum and the vague understanding of the debate. For example, the 2016 EU referendum received a turnout of roughly 72.2% [12], despite the public’s serious lack of understanding of what the European Union actually was (due to the fact that the day following the referendum the most googled question was ‘What is the EU?’ [13]. This seriously suggests that the participation among the public is at least somewhat proportional to the ‘attention’ the issue at hand receives from the media. This then contradicts the simplistic argument that a lack of understanding prevents the public from participating in referenda, however this factor could be dependent on the perceived ‘importance’ of the issue, thus a combination could explain the public’s relationship with referenda.

Although a referendum could be seen as a democratic way of asking the public for their opinion on a complex issue, the extent to which the public can affect policy is still minimal. For example, the government are able to choose the phrasing of the question, and the time the referendum is held. This provokes the question of whether the electorate is suitably qualified to make decisions which have such impact on the constitution. It could be argued that it undermines the representative system of democracy which operates in the UK, as the electorate chooses a Member of Parliament to act in their interests on their behalf. Given that referenda are held on high priority issues such as electoral reform and EU membership, would it not make more sense to leave that responsibility with those who are employed to make such decisions?

However, if referenda are to become more common as a participatory method in the UK, it seems necessary that legislation is introduced to ensure that the conduct of referenda follows Renwick’s outline of having a high quality, evenly balanced debate, and high-quality reasoning of arguments in the debate [7]. For example, an evenly-balanced debate is of huge importance, and is what the public largely relies on to make their decision. In Ireland, it is compulsory for both sides of the argument to be represented in all debates.

Therefore, these are important factors to review and consider for future referenda. If referenda are to become more common-place in the UK, it’s clear that changes need to happen. It is essential that high quality debate from both sides is accessible to the public, and that the public is able to inform itself sufficiently before they go to the polling station. 

Secondary Sources

[1] Butler & Ranney, Referendums, pp11-13, 52-62, cited from O’Hara, K. (2006) The Referendum Roundabout, UK.

[2] The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act (2011) [online] Available from: [Accessed: 02.11.2017]

[3] Lijphart, A. (1999) Patterns of Democracy (2nd ed). Yale, USA.

[4] The Guardian (2011) [online] Available from: [Accessed: 02.11.2017]

[5] BBC (2011) [online] Available from: [Accessed: 03.11.2017]

[6] The Guardian (2011) [online] Available from: [Accessed: 05.11.2017]

[7] Renwick, A. (2011) The 2011 Electoral System Referendum in the UK: The Quality of Debate in the Print Media. Conference Papers – American Political Science Association, 2011, pp1-37. UK.



[10] O’Hara, K. (2006) The Referendum Roundabout. Exeter, UK.

[11] Beetham, D. (1991) The Legitimation of Power. Basingstoke, Palgrave.

[12] BBC (2016) [online] Available from: [Accessed: 07.11.2017]

[13] Google Trends (2016) [online] Available from: [Accessed: 05.11.2017]

Lupia, A., and Matsusaka, J.G. 2004. Direct Democracy: New Approaches to Old Questions. Annual Review of Political Science 7:463-82. 


Case Data


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United Kingdom
United Kingdom
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Start Date: 
Sunday, January 31, 2010
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Thursday, July 7, 2011
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46 000 000
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