They aren’t representative polls in a strict sense, but I though the results of the private referendums organised by were worth a comment.

Private referendums are rare creatures, not least because they are very expensive to carry out (the only really notable one prior to this was Brian Souter’s 2000 private referendum on Section 2a in Scotland). In practice they are a campaigning technique for groups, being able to say that hundreds of thousands of people have voted to support you gives a group a certain moral argument. For those of us interested in what they say about public opinion however, their problem is that they are neither fish nor foul – they are not a representative opinion poll, but neither are they the equivalent of an actual referendum.

Private referendums certainly shouldn’t have a problem with inviting a biased or skewed group of people – they invite everyone in the country or constituency where they are holding the referendum (though in the case of iwantareferendum ballots could only go to people who chose to make their details available on the edited electoral register).

The problem is that the people who chose to return their ballot papers may not reflect the opinions of those who didn’t. The turnout for the iwantarefendumcampaign was surprisingly good – on average 36.2%, higher than many actual local elections – but we still don’t know what the other 63.8% of people think (actually, because not everyone was on the edited register, the proportion of people who actually took part is lower than that). What if the people who voted were mostly young, or mostly Tory, or richer, or skewed in some other way?

The risk with private referendums is that they are invariably organised by, and for the benefit of, people on one side of the argument. Brian Souter was in favour of keeping Section 2a, so it’s easy to imagine that people who didn’t support the legislation not wanting any part of his referendum. Equally, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that are in favour of a referendum, so there was the chance that only those who agreed with them would take part. This potential skew is made worse when one side of the argument deliberately tries to get their supporters not to participate – in several constituencies including East Renfrewshire and Eastleigh the incumbent party advised supporters to boycott the referendum.

In practice Souter’s referendum did suffer in this way – he found 86.2% in favour of keeping Section 2a, when opinion polls at the time showed only 60% in favour. Iwantareferendum seem to have suffered this sort of skew to a far lesser extent, they found 87.9% in favour of a referendum. This is higher than in representative opinion polls, but not by very much. Looking at recent polls that asked if people wanted a referendum and repercentaging to exclude don’t knows we get figures like 75%, 83%, 76% and 86% in a Populus poll for the BBC back in October.

This does underline the problem with private referendums as a way of judging public opinion. I can say it looks like it did get a good reflection of public opinion on the question of the referendum because it’s in the same sort of region as the polls… but if it hadn’t, I’d have been saying that those participating where obviously horribly skewed. It’s only because we have the polls to back it up we know what to make of it.

Of course, in a real referendum or a real election the fact that people who don’t vote might disagree is irrelevant: decisions are made by those that turn up. Unfortunately private referendums aren’t a proxy for real ones for several reasons. Firstly they have no consequences – one may vote diffrently when one’s decision actually matters. Probably more important is the fact that real referendums or elections have campaigns – iwantareferendum sent out pro-and-anti arguments in leaflets with ballot papers, but the campaign beyond that was one sided. Conservative PPCs and MPs were campaigning to get people to vote, while in many seats Labour and Lib Dem incumbents were encouraging people not to participate in the ballot. In a real referendum, both sides would have been encouraging their supporters to vote, with whatever eventual impact on the result.

Not a representative poll and not a real referendum. What do private referendums tell us then? Well, in this case not much more than that 133,251 people in 10 marginal seats would like a referendum, have voted to express that opinion and have likely been told their current MP is ignoring them (though 2 of the MPs have since said they will vote in favour of a referendum). For those local areas and the eventual election results there that is no small thing.

20 Responses to “Iwantareferendum Results”

  1. Interesting analysis. Disagree on one point – turnout in all postal ballots is always higher so comparing with local elections (unless all postal) is not truely menaingful. If you compare with all postal local election ballots then this is actually rather low (where you would have expected approx 50% turnout – mayoral ballots excepting)

  2. Anthony,

    Do you have the individual results, I’d be interested in the Scottish one, although as it is in one of the genuine Tory target seats ( as opposed to Mikes fantasy list) it probably is higher than a Scottish wide poll would suggest.


  3. There is a PDF of all the results here:

    East Renfrewshire,
    Distributed ballot 40796
    Returned Ballot 12671
    Turnout 31.1%

    Should there be a referendum?
    Yes 10688 84.4% No 15.0%

    Should we approve the Lisbon treaty?
    No 10828 85.5% Yes 10.0%

    “However, in several other constituencies MPs resorted to dirty tricks to try and stop people from voting.

    Europe Minister Jim Murphy sent a leaflet to all constituents telling them not to vote. It falsely claimed that the Conservatives had organised it, that if people voted the Conservative Party would know how they individually voted, and implied that a referendum would cost his constituents £110 million. Bizarrely, when challenged about the misleading leaflet on BBC Scotland he pleaded ignorance about the activity of his own constituency party. He said: “You’d have to ask the Labour party about that.” (20 Feb)

    The leaflet is available at:

  4. Without a proper referendum campaign and some inkling of what those in power at the time would do about the result, asking about a referendum on Europe is like asking whether voters want to be listened to or not (outside of election time)

    also, I was wondering, would such an opinion poll be weighted? I wouldn’t have thought that would be easy.

  5. Latest figures in the papers today show 92% for a referendum – even taking a margin of error into account – it is quite obvious that the majority want a referendum whichever POLL you look at. The government ignore this at their peril !

    PETER – my points & predictions may seem like fantasy or imaginary to you – but as i have said before – all parties in Scotland will treat the Tories there as irrelevant to their own demise ! You may live in Scotland – but it does’nt give you the same crystal ball i have !

  6. Interesting to see 3 new proposals out today by Labour and the Tories !
    1./ (LABOUR) Two strikes and your out for off licences selling to youngsters – mmmm , I think i predicted a while back that the next target of the government after smokers would be drinkers !! Is this part of the new vision !!!

    2./ (TORY) 5,000 more prison places including full sentences for convicted prisoners and expulsion from Britain of non UK passport holders – a current and important subject.

    3./ (TORY) revitalising town centres away from the big national chains that dominate all high streets with help for smallere business – something that has been ignored for the last 11 years and has allowed small businesses to disappear off our high streets.

  7. Was the turnout 36%?

    “actually, because not everyone was on the edited register, the proportion of people who actually took part is lower than that”

    The Telegrapgh says it was 36% of the half of the electoral register, so turnout was closer to 18% of voters. (I think).

    In any case I am suprised 150,000 people actually got off their as*es and voted for a fake election in Britain.

    Peter the result in East Renfrewshire were very close to the avreage results.

  8. If asked whether they would want a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty or a referendum on in-out of Europe, what do you think the publci would say?

    Has there been any polling on this?

    My suspiscion is that they would back the Lib Dems stance not the Tory stance.

  9. Ipsos Mori have on their website the results of a recent poll conducted by themselves on behalf of the LibDems with questions as to whether their should be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and/or EU membership .

  10. expriest – by a truly miraculous co-incidence there has been. I’m sure you’re bowled over by shock :)

  11. well blow me down.

    Looks like the Lib Dems have it 2 to 1.

    Now there’s a turn up for the books

  12. I am (fairly) sure it would be possible to get opinion poll majorities in favour of many issues that parliament would never pass, whatever party was in power. And many of them would probably produce contradictory results, depending on how the question was put. (e.g. “Do you support the reintroduction of the death penalty for all those convicted of murder” / “Do you think the death penalty should be reintroduced, even though there would always be some errors where innocent people wrongly convicted of murder would be executed.”)

    That’s why we have parliament to make laws, however imperfect it mat be, rather than mob rule by newspaper campaign and referendum!

  13. JohmH,

    What do you mean like this,


  14. Peter
    Thanks – a great example of the art of getting the “right” answer :)

  15. JohnH,

    I think Anthony should add it to the site as the masthead, it should certainly be compulsory viewing for everyone posting here…..


  16. Without following the link, would I be right in thinking it involves a certain Sir Humphrey?

  17. Anthony,

    Though it may be that you are not entirely wrong in the assertion, or indeed speculation, which you are making, I feel it is perhaps not appropriate for me to comment at this time due to the somewhat speculative and sensitive nature of the issue under discussion, furthermore it may be that in due course other information comes to my attention that might if it comes to pass fundamentally alter the very premise of your suggestion.


  18. Peter

    Congratulations on your crystal clear answer, with all necessary safeguards and qualifications, to the somewhat challenging question – or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as as a supposition – from Anthony.
    But I certainly agree that the video clip should be required viewing for all who post here :)

  19. The Peace Ballot of 1935 was the largest private referendum, incidentally. This was the one and only attempt to reach every registered voter in a private referendum.