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Referendums (or referenda) are only occasionally held by the government of the United Kingdom. Nine referendums have been held so far (excluding referendums held under the Local Government Act 1972 - see below), the first in 1973; only one of these covered the whole UK. There are at least two planned for the future. Although few referendums have been held at national or regional level, there have been numerous referendums at local level to determine whether there is support for a directly-elected mayor.
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 such 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 were 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 referendum 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 referendum as it would probably be controversial and potentially damaging to its popularity.
Finally, under the Local Government Act 1972, there is a little-known provision under which non-binding local referendums 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 are well-publicised, it may be influential.
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 was cancelled, given the French and Dutch rejections of the treaty. Another, on whether the UK should adopt the euro, depends on the government's 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.' Despite the research carried out by the Jenkins Commission in 1998 suggesting an AV+ system for Westminster elections, the 2001 manifesto did not make such a promise, and it is unlikely such a referendum will be held in the foreseeable future.
Since the Government of Wales Act 2006 became law, there can be referendums in Wales asking the people whether the National Assembly for Wales should be given greater law making powers. The Welsh Labour Party - Plaid Cymru Coalition Government in the Welsh Assembly have promised such a referendum before 2011.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Scotland plans to hold a referendum on Scottish independence prior to the next Scottish general election in May 2011. As stated in its 2007 manifesto, in its third year as the Scottish Government it intends to bring the Referendum Bill before Parliament in January 2010, in order to lead to a referendum to be held in November 2010. It is not however expected to pass due the SNP's status as a minority government, and due to the opposition to the Bill from the 3 unionist opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament.
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, giving the Electoral Commission responsibility for running referendums.
There are some potential referendums:
Additionally, the Government of Wales Act 2006 can invoke further referendums in Wales on increasing the powers of the National Assembly of Wales. Per the coalition agreement "One Wales" between Welsh Labour Party and Plaid Cymru, this will be done before the end of the current term, i.e. by 2011.
Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), stated prior to the Scottish parliamentary election in May 2007 that a referendum on Scottish independence would be a condition for his party joining a ruling coalition in the Scottish Parliament.
The Liberal Democrats who are opposed to Scottish independence and such a referendum refused to go into coalition with the SNP after the May 2007 elections. This led to the SNP's running a minority administration and any referendum bill placed before the Parliament will likely fail as pro-unionist parties have a majority of members in the Scottish Parliament.
Thirty-five local referendums have taken place in local authorities to establish whether there is support for directly-elected mayors. Twelve received a "Yes" majority and twenty-three 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 those were held between June 2001 and May 2002—a further eight have been held since.
In 2008 a reorganisation of Stoke-on-Trent's system of local government required a further referendum; this abolished the post of Mayor.
Campaigns are now under way in three of the eleven local authorities with elected mayors (Doncaster, Hartlepool and Lewisham) to hold referendums to abolish the posts.
"Yes" majority shown in green, "No" majority shown in red.
Source: Electoral Commission; Ceredigion County Council
|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||6,239||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|
|Torbay||15 July 2005||18,074||55.2||14,682||44.8||32.1|
|Crewe and Nantwich||4 May 2006||11,808||38.2||18,768||60.8||35.3|
|Darlington||27 Sept 2007||7,981||41.6||11,226||58.4||24.7|
|Stoke-on-Trent||2 May 2002||14,592||41||21,231||59||19.23|
The Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881 mandated that all public houses in Wales be closed on Sundays. The Act was extended to Monmouthshire in 1921. Under the terms of the Licensing Act 1961, on the application of 500 local electors, a referendum could be held in each local government area at seven-year intervals on whether that district should be "wet" or "dry" on the Sabbath. Most districts in the border area and the southern industrial area went "wet" in 1961 or 1968, with most others following suit in 1975. In 1982, the last district, Dwyfor, in western Gwynedd, went "wet" and it was thought that the influence of the Sabbatarian temperance movement had expired and few referendums were called, but surprisingly a further referendum was called in Dwyfor in 1989 and the area went "dry" for another seven years on a 9% turnout. The whole of Wales was "wet" from 1996, and the facility for further referendums was removed by the Sunday Licensing Act 2003.
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 22 February 2005 and the people of Edinburgh had rejected the proposals. 74% voted against, 26% voted in favour, and the turnout was 62%.
In September 2007, villagers in East Stoke in Dorset forced a referendum, under the Local Government Act 1972, on this question: "Do You Want a Referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty? Yes or No?" Of the 339 people who were eligible to vote, 80 voted: 72 votes for Yes and 8 votes for No. The poll was initiated by a supporter of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party. The poll was criticised by the chairman of the parish council as "little more than a publicity stunt."