What is a plebiscite election?

by | 26 Jul 2022

Since an intention to hold a 'plebiscite election' was announced, there has been a lot of confusion about what that means. What is it and how is it different from a normal election?

What is a plebiscite election and in what way is it different from a normal General Election? How would a citizen be able to tell the difference from the outside and what would the possible outcomes mean in practice?

The function of General Elections are well understood. The purpose of an election in a parliamentary democracy is to give politicians a mandate to go and form either a government or a parliamentary opposition. That mandate is generally taken to be based on the content of a manifesto, though sometimes things said during a campaign are taken to provide the basis for a mandate.

This is what produces the definition of a mandate; “the authority given to an elected group of people, such as a government, to perform an action or govern a country” (taken from the Cambridge Dictionary).

When the SNP says it has achieved a mandate for an independence referendum this is what it means; it was elected in numbers which gave it a parliamentary majority after notifying voters of its intention to hold a referendum on independence in its manifesto.

(Actually, the SNP hasn’t achieved a majority mandate for a referendum in Holyrood elections but can claim to have one in combination with votes cast for the Scottish Greens, and in Westminster the mandate is only based on a majority of Scottish MPs which isn’t actually considered a parliamentary majority in a multi-national parliament.)

You know you are in a General Election when you are providing a mandate to a group of politicians to take a seat in parliament based on a broad-spectrum policy prospectus set out in a manifesto. You are not electing parties, you are electing people and giving them your permission to act on your behalf (at least in theory).

The definition of plebiscite is quite different. As this may be contested it is worth taking definitions from a number of sources:


  • “A plebiscite is a direct vote by the people of a country or region in which they say whether they agree or disagree with a particular policy, for example whether a region should become an independent state” (Collins Dictionary)

  • “A referendum” (Cambridge Dictionary)

  • “A vote by the people of an entire country or district to decide on some issue, such as choice of a ruler or government, option for independence or annexation by another power, or a question of national policy” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

  • “A vote by which the people of an entire country or district express an opinion for or against a proposal especially on a choice of government or ruler” (Miriam Webster)

  • “A plebiscite or referendum is a type of voting, or of proposing laws. Some definitions of ‘plebiscite’ suggest that it is a type of vote to change the constitution or government of a country. Others define it as the opposite. Australia defines ‘referendum’ as a vote to change the constitution and ‘plebiscite’ as a vote that does not affect the constitution.” (Wikipedia)

Stated simply, if you are voting for an individual who has put a certain commitment in a manifesto and wants your permission to enact it, that is an absolutely run-of-the-mill General Election

In many cases the words ‘plebiscite’ and ‘referendum’ are taken to be synonymous. In almost all cases the concept is based on the vote being based on a ‘proposition’. A few take that to include the proposition ‘I want to be your leader’, but that would usually be called an election and no-one takes ‘election’ and ‘plebiscite’ to be synonymous.

So elections are processes of forming governing administrations through electors mandating individual candidates based on a broad manifesto or other form of commitment and plebiscites or referendums are direct votes for or against a single specific proposition.

(To confuse things a little, plebiscites and referendums can either be Mandatory where the result is binding or Advisory where it is not.)

So a ‘plebiscite’ is different from an ‘election’ because in the former you affirm or reject a specific proposition and in the latter you mandate individuals to act on your behalf over a broad range of different issues.

Another way to tell the difference between a plebiscite/referendum and an election in the UK context (it is different in presidential systems) is that in an election people are all voting for different candidates based on their residence (via constituencies) while in a plebiscite or referendum people are all asked to consider the same binary question or proposition.

Stated simply, if you are voting for an individual who has put a certain commitment in a manifesto and wants your permission to enact it, that is an absolutely run-of-the-mill General Election. If you’re being asked to affirm or reject a single question or proposition and nothing else, that’s a plebiscite or referendum.

To turn a UK General Election into a ‘plebiscite election’ or de facto referendum you need to make it such that there is no ambiguity between these different things (electing an individual or affirming or rejecting a proposition).

Putting a proposal in a manifesto among other proposals and asking people to vote for an individual who will then pursue all of them is nothing more than an election that provides a mandate. Achieving more than 50 per cent of the vote in that election is simply a good win with no further constitutional implications.

If you manage to turn an election into an unambiguously single-issue vote and get over 50 per cent of the votes, that too has no further formal constitutional implications. But the latter is seen as having a different political implication – an unambiguous decision by a majority of the population to affirm a single proposition.

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