In a referendum, the government asks members of the public to help decide on an important issue. Everyone of voting age has the right to take part.



Voting in a referendum is a bit like voting in a general election: people visit their nearest polling station and respond to a question with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer by marking a box on a ballot paper.

Referendum on the alternative vote

On 5 May 2011, voters in the UK were asked to take part in a referendum to decide whether they wanted to change the way we vote in general elections. They had a choice between the first past the post system, which was already in use, and the alternative vote. You can find out how both of these systems work by visiting the Compare the vote whiteboard resource.
The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives agreed to hold this referendum as part of the coalition agreement – their decision to form a government together.

68% of the voters who took part in the referendum chose to keep using the first past the post system and 32% wanted to change to the alternative vote. As a result, first past the post will continue to be used in UK general elections.

Other referendums in the UK

Before the alternative vote referendum, only one nationwide referendum had taken place in the UK. This was in 1975 when the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson asked voters ‘Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?’ (The Common Market has since grown into the European Union.)

67% of voters answered ‘yes’ and the UK is still part of the European Union today.

Several referendums have also been held in particular regions of the UK such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For example, in 1997, voters in Scotland were asked whether they wanted a Scottish Parliament while voters in Wales were asked whether they wanted a Welsh Assembly. The answer was ‘yes’ to both questions.
A referendum was held in Northern Ireland in 1998 to approve the Belfast Agreement, often called the Good Friday Agreement, which created the Northern Ireland Assembly and helped establish peace.

Representing your views

Referendums are an opportunity for members of the public to make their opinions known to the government. This can help Parliament decide whether to pass new laws. The views of the public are always taken into account when Parliament passes a law, even though this doesn’t normally involve a referendum. People from all parts of the UK elect MPs to the House of Commons, whose job is to represent their views. The support of local people helps MPs decide whether to vote for or against bills in the House of Commons, and you can contact your MP at any time to let them know what you think.
This is why the UK is an example of a representative democracy – because you are represented in Parliament by your local MP. A referendum is an alternative way of helping the government to represent people’s views.

Calling a referendum

The government only holds a referendum on major issues. So far, referendums in the UK have always focused on the way our democracy works, for example, the relationship between the UK Parliament and the European Union, and the decision to set up the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly.
However, the government can decide to call a referendum on any issue. In some countries this is much more common than others. For example, Switzerland sometimes holds several referendums a year.
Once a referendum has taken place, Parliament still has the right to make the final decision. In practice, if the government calls a referendum then it is likely to follow the wishes of the voters. So, when voters in 1975 elected to stay in the Common Market, the government agreed. If voters in the 2011 referendum had said ‘yes’ to the alternative vote system then the government had already agreed to follow their wishes – the same applied if there was a ‘no’ vote. This agreement is part of the act passed by Parliament to allow the alternative vote referendum to take place.

Local referendums

Referendums don’t have to be called by the UK government – they also happen in local councils. Members of the public can petition their local government to hold a referendum on any issue. The results help to inform councillors about what local people want.

For example, several towns and cities in the UK, including London, Middlesbrough and Stoke, held referendums to decide whether to elect the local mayor. Most voters were in favour of this and elections now take place every four years to choose the next mayor.

More in this section

General elections

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