“We will follow the recommendation of the Electoral Commission by tabling an amendment to the bill. The government’s approach has been to follow the Electoral Commission’s advice.”
So said David Cameron's spokeswoman to the media last September when the Electoral Commission recommended the referendum's question and answers be altered to removed a perceived bias to the pro-EU side. The government's approach seems to have changed more recently, by ignoring the Electoral Commission's advice on the timetable for the referendum.
Now is an ideal moment to revisit various recommendations on the timeline and conduct of referendums - brought to light by the formidable research of The Leave Alliance - to expose how Cameron not only lying about his non binding and entirely reversible 'dodgy deal' with the EU, but is also fighting dirty in an effort to win 'his' referendum at any cost, and keep Britain subordinate to the EU.
First, let's look at the timeline issue. To set the referendum date the Government must table an order in both Houses of Parliament, which is then debated and almost certainly approved. The Electoral Commission recommended that:
Once the date Order has been approved, the legislation requires that there are a minimum of 10 weeks between the Order setting the date of the referendum and polling day itself. The Commission continues to recommend that best practice for referendums is that all legislation (including the introduction of regulations to Parliament for approval) should be clear at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with, although this is not a legal requirement.Cameron has chosen to ignore this so he can rush to a vote in less than four months. Rather than separate the designation of campaigns from the referendum period, it looks certain that such activity will take place during the referendum period, shortening the time that will be spent on actual campaigning, to give the Remain side an advantage.
Something else the government has chosen to ignore are the findings of both the independent Commission on the Conduct of Referendums, a joint endeavour of The Constitution Unit and the Electoral Reform Society, and the the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life concerning the conduct of referendums.
The commission said that the responsibility for the publication and management of information relevant to a referendum should be exercised outside of Government - by an independent commission. It also recommended that the conventions which require the Civil Service to avoid engaging in political or public debate and which limited its actions to the provision of factual information, should be maintained.
Meanwhile the Neill Committee went further and said:
We believe it is perfectly appropriate for the government of the day to state its views and for members of the Government to campaign vigorously during referendum campaigns, just as they do during general election campaigns. But we also believe that, just as in general election campaigns, neither taxpayers’ money nor the permanent government machine – civil servants, official cars, the Government Information Service, and so forth – should be used to promote the interests of the Government side of the argument. In other words, referendum campaigns should be treated for these purposes in every way as though they were general election campaigns.The committee stated the obvious observation that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the government to offer purely objective and factual information in the course of a referendum campaign, especially when it is a party to the campaign. Because of this the committee said it believed governments should not participate in referendum campaigns in this manner, just as it would be thought to be wholly inappropriate during a general election campaign for the government to print and distribute, at the taxpayers' expense, literature setting out government policy. The committee recommended therefore:
The government of the day in future referendums should, as a government, remain neutral and should not distribute at public expense literature, even purportedly 'factual' literature, setting out or otherwise promoting its case.Cameron, by ignoring the Electoral Commission, an independent commission and the findings of Neill Committee, has shown he is determined to use the full machinery of government to fight a heavily slanted campaign to remain in the EU. His co-opting of the civil service to actively help that side of the referendum argument, and his instruction to deny ministers who want Brexit, access to any official documentation relating to EU matters while making it available to the pro-EU ministers, shows how dishonest and dishonourable he is.
Cameron's former Professor of Government at Oxford, Vernon Bogdanor, said that:
"One purpose of a referendum is to secure legitimacy for decisions where Parliament alone can not secure that legitimacy. For that legitimacy to be secured, the losers have to feel that the fight was fairly conducted"Dirty Dave Cameron's fight has been anything but fair:
- He has been forced to change the referendum question and answers after pressure from the Electoral Commission
- He has been forced to make concessions on his plans to ignore the purdah period so the government could pump out pro-EU information at taxpayers expense, against the recommendations of the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life
- He has chosen to make the taxpayer funded Civil Service an actor in the referendum campaign to promote the government's pro-EU agenda, also against the recommendations of the Neill Committee
- He has treated the recommendations of the Electoral Commission on the referendum timeline with utter contempt by completely ignoring them
- He has ignored the European Commission for Democracy through Law's
Code of Good Practice on Referendums by ignoring its statement that must be a neutral attitude by administrative authorities, and that equality of opportunity must be guaranteed for the supporters and opponents of the proposal being voted on - which he has breached by denying pro-Leave ministers access to official documents relating to the EU.
With those fives strikes against Cameron, his referendum already fails any reasonable legitimacy test, and we haven't even had the vote yet. Expect more of the same in the coming weeks and months. Because of this nothing will be considered settled. No matter what happens, the fight for Britain to be a democratic nation will continue after 23rd June.