Three referendums that could change Britain as much as losing the empire

In the next five years, the Scottish independence referendum, an in/out EU referendum and a border poll on Northern Ireland could force a rethink of the entire British state.

"Devices for despots and dictators". That was Clement Attlee’s brisk dismissal of referendums and it held sway as the default view in British politics until the 1975 national referendum on continued British membership of the-then European Economic Community.

Since then, the growth in the use of referendums – and in calls to use them – seems inversely proportionate to the natural authority our risk-averse political leaders now wield. The bigger the decision, the less they want to take it.

As a result, there are now three big constitutional referendums lumbering into view over the next five years. Each is significant, but their combined effect could represent the biggest shock to the system since the break–up of the British empire.

The first is the referendum on Scottish independence. Alex Salmond knows that timing here is crucial and a date is so far elusive, although we know it is likely to be in autumn next year. Like a bee’s sting, he has one go at this. If he mistimes the vote and a majority of Scots opt for the status quo, his lifelong project will be over. It is likely, however, that a consolation prize will see extra concessions wrung out of a relieved Westminster in the form of 'devo max'. Don’t ask what that means though; as Scottish Secretary Michael Moore recently pointed out, it’s a "brand without a product".

The second referendum is more speculative. Sinn Fein is agitating for a ‘border poll’ on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status in 2016 – the centenary of the Easter Rising. So far, so predictable; that’s what an Irish republican party is for. But the Good Friday Agreement makes allowance for such votes and what makes this call slightly more intriguing is the reaction of some unionist commentators and politicians. The Democratic Unionist’s Arlene Foster recently said her party might "call [Sinn Fein’s] bluff" on the issue and support a vote. "Sinn Fein are trying to cause instability in Northern Ireland," she claimed.

"If we have the border poll then that instability goes away and, in actual fact, what we have is a very clear validation of the Union and that’s something we’re looking at at the moment."

With the recent census demographics still showing a majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland (albeit tentatively) could this be a smart move by unionists, a last decent chance to show a majority want to remain part of the UK?

The third referendum is, of course, David Cameron’s promise of an in/out EU vote following a renegotiation of Britain's membership. The PM has not set out what powers he wants to repatriate, nor if he would campaign to remain in the EU if his demands were not fully met. By 2017, the date a Conservative-led government would expect to hold the poll, both Northern Ireland and Scotland could conceivably already find themselves outside the UK.

For believers in the constitutional status quo, winning the three votes is not likely to settle grievances in the long-term. Scottish nationalism will continue to be an electorally potent reaction against Westminster rule, while the hope that Northern Ireland’s disputatious existence will be neatly resolved is the supreme elevation of optimism over reality. But winning a referendum on British membership of the EU would be a powerful fillip for pro-Europeans and would help put eurosceptics back in their box, at least for a while.

If all, or any, of these plebiscites were won by the forces of separatism, the shockwaves would force a rethink of the entire British state from its very foundations. In terms of importance, 'losing Ireland'; is the least significant, strategically and economically.

The intriguing question is which of the other two is more important: Scotland going its own way, or the whole of Britain voting to leave the EU? If both came to pass, might the new United Kingdom of England and Wales download the application form for NAFTA membership?

David Cameron and Alex Salmond attend the Drumhead Service in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.