Leading Article: The Italians can teach us something about referendums

THE FAILURE of Sunday's referendum in Italy to abolish proportional representation (PR) is first and foremost a blow to referendums - though, through the distorting lens of British politics, some may mistake it for a blow to PR.

Although 90 per cent of the voters favoured abolition, only 49.6 per cent of the eligible electors bothered to cast their vote. The Interior Ministry therefore declared the referendum invalid, as the quorum of 50 per cent plus one vote was not achieved. Referendums are not simple tests of public opinion.

Opponents of PR have often cited Italy as an example to show the dangers of a proportional system. But Italians have built an economy as successful as our own. Italy's postwar political mess was not the fault of PR; it was the product of the determination of the Western Allies to block the Italian Communist party from ever being in power. Romano Prodi recently showed what the Italian political system was capable of despite the supposed problem of PR. Mr Prodi, as Italy's Prime Minister, guided the Italian lira into membership of the single European currency against all the predictions of the readers of political coffee-grounds.

What the Italian vote does do is to throw a light on the increasingly important part that referendums are playing in shaping the future of this country. The British political system has only recently taken to this constitutional novelty. Memories of Hitler's abuse of the Weimar constitution led politicians to regard them as a demagogue's tool until the Seventies.

Although unnecessary under our parliamentary system, referendums have now become Labour's favourite means of giving its decisions a bit of extra legitimacy. However, there needs to be something more than the ad hoc system that currently controls their use, if they are not to cause more confusion than clarity.

The problems that can arise are illustrated by the Scottish referendum of 1979. The Cunningham amendment to the Scotland Act required 40 per cent of the electorate to vote in favour of the devolution proposal, in order for it to be carried. Despite the fact that most voters were in favour of devolution, low turn-out ensured its defeat. The requirement of 40 per cent of the electorate in favour of a proposal is a useful brake on the whims of politicians, especially where, as in the UK, there is no written constitution.

The Scottish, Welsh and London referendums of the past two years must lead to the conclusion that the process of referendums needs to be strictly regulated. In the Welsh referendum last spring the pro-assembly vote won only 50.3 per cent of about 60 per cent of the electorate. The government of the day can skew the results of a referendum with ease, both through choosing the way in which the question is put - notice how a government always promotes the "yes" answer - and through the information (for which read propaganda) that the government puts out.

The long parliament of the Conservatives led to the erosion of the political impartiality of the Civil Service. Labour, with its spinning and doctoring of the truth, has done little to restore the Civil Service to its pristine condition. It is necessary to have an independent electoral commission that would regulate both how the questions were put and how the information was presented. Politicians must also decide whether referendums should have more than an advisory role. There seems little point in holding them unless their results are binding.

In the next few years the country can expect referendums on Scottish independence, and on sterling's entry into the euro. These votes will be difficult enough without the country being permanently riven by suspicions about the fairness of the vote. The Government should work quickly to set up an electoral commission.

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