McDougall Trust

Promoting public understanding
of electoral democracy

McDougall Trust's Research support

McDougall Trust encourages and supports research into aspects of electoral democracy, with a longstanding focus on representative institutions, voting systems and elections.


Improving Discourse during Election and Referendum Campaigns

McDougall Trust has been grant funding this important and timely research project at the Constitution Unit UCL, led by Dr Alan Renwick. Michela Palese has been the Research Assistant and McDougall Fellow.

Quality political discourse is an essential part of democracy.  But recent events - notably during the UK's 2016 EU referendum campaign and the 2016 US presidential election campaign - have led many people of all political persuasions to worry that the quality of discourse is currently too low.  Particular concerns focus on the need for balanced and reliable information and on the dangers posed by the easy availability of seductive misinformation.

This project seeks to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved.  By examining existing practice in the UK and around the world, as well as proposals for innovative reforms, the project aims to offer proposals as to whether and how the conduct of election and referendum campaigns might be reformed with a view to improving the quality of campaign discourse.  In particular, the project will examine the application of three types of mechanism for improving discourse during election and referendum campaigns: first, directly banning false or misleading statements; second, fact-checking and countering misleading or false statements; third, promoting the availability of impartial and high-quality information.

The research has three components:
* a general survey of practice across a wide range of democracies, in order to identify ideas that deserve more detailed investigation
* a set of detailed case studies of states with innovative practices around elections and referendums
* a detailed consideration of the UK context, which will inform recommendations as to the options that might best suit this context.

The main output of this reseach project will be a report setting out options and recommendations.  Publication is expected in the early months of 2019.


Work of this project has been drawn upon, inter alia, by the Independent Commission on Referendums, supported by the Constitution Unit, which has been reviewing regulation and practice of referendums with a view to developing recommendations for their use and conduct in the UK. 

This Commission included former cabinet ministers, other current and former parliamentarians, the former Chair of the Electoral Commission, a former head of political programming at the BBC, and other leaders in the fields of political theory, media standards and public opinion. Chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling KCB, former Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office, the other members of the Commission were:  The Rt Rev. the Lord Eames OM;  Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP;  Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP;  Sue Inglish;  Seema Malhotra MP;  Deborah Mattinson;  Dr Martin Moore;  Professor David Runciman;  Rt Hon Gisela Stuart;  Jenny Watson CBE;  Andrew Wilson.

This Commission's terms of reference were to consider:
* the place that referendums should play in the UK's system of representative democracy
* the legal effect of referendums and whether any additional constitutional safeguards are needed
* the role of government during the campaign
* the regulation of the designated campaign groups
* the provision of public information and education, and promotion of informed debate.

The Commission consulted widely and met regularly between autumn 2017 and summer 2018.   Their detailed report was published on 10 July 2018, ISBN 978-1-903903-83-4.



Research supported by McDougall Trust earlier

In recent years, topics for research and information dissemination activities supported by McDougall Trust grant making have included:

McDougall has funded a prize offered annually for the best postgraduate thesis at a UK university in the sphere of elections, electoral systems and representation.  The prize is awarded by the Political Studies Association [PSA] in association with its Elections, Public Opinion and Parties [EPOP] group.  For recent prize-winning research, see further Research and Information Dissemination supported by McDougall Grant making.

McDougall itself occasionally commissions research for publication on contemporary issues which are the subject of public policy debates. An example is the report commissioned when the government introduced a Bill providing for the introduction of individual electoral registration in Great Britain.  Comments on the Proposed System of Individual Electoral Registration in Great Britain (2012) by Patrick Bradley, formerly Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, can be downloaded from Papers, Videos and other materials.

For further information
see Research and Information Dissemination supported by McDougall Grant making.



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McDougall Trust



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