The “people’s vote” campaign could succeed—but what question to ask voters?by Peter Kellner / December 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
A “people’s vote” is becoming more popular and more likely. If MPs roundly defeat the government in the coming “meaningful” vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, a referendum will move from the possible to the probable.
Holding a referendum will not be easy. For a start, it can’t be held before 29thMarch—the day Brexit is scheduled to take effect. The UK will have to ask the rest of the EU to delay our departure. This could have knock-on consequences—for example, for the UK’s participation or non-participation in next May’s election to the European Parliament.
Assuming these hurdles can be overcome, a tougher question arises that has received too little attention: what kind of referendum should we hold? There is no simple answer. The wrangling over this issue is likely to be as fraught as any aspect of the Brexit drama so far. Here are seven options. None is perfect. Different people will proclaim pros and cons with each. Which is best? Decide for yourself.
Straight choice: Remain vs May’s deal
The case for: In the 2016 referendum, voters had no idea what Brexit would be like. Now there is a specific deal, voters will be able to give, or withhold, “informed consent” (as hospital patients are asked to give before a major operation). And the risk of an economically catastrophic, no-deal Brexit would be gone—as would any danger of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The case against: The kind of hard, bring-back-control Brexit sought by a number of Conservatives and supported by around one in three voters would not be on the ballot paper. If significant numbers of MPs and voters want this, it should be.
Straight choice: Remain vs no deal
For: This offers voters the clearest of choices. We either keep the benefits and responsibilities of EU membership, or we sever all our sovereignty-sapping links with the continent and regain complete control over our laws, borders and finances.
Against: The prime minister’s withdrawal agreement and political declaration has been agreed with the EU. If we are to have a referendum at all, it seems perverse not to give voters the option of selecting it as the best available compromise. And do we want to risk a result that could wreck both the economy and the Irish peace process?
Straight choice: May’s deal vs no deal
For: Britain voted two years ago to leave the EU. This is the only referendum option that fully respects that decision. It offers voters a clear choice between the two main options for leaving the EU.
Against: All the polling evidence suggests that Remain is by some margin the most popular of the three main options. To deny us the chance to vote for it would be a democratic travesty. And then there are, again, the economy and Ireland to worry about.
Two-stage referendum; first stage: for or against May’s deal
For: In effect, the public would be asked the same question as MPs. If a majority votes for May’s deal, then it is implemented. If a majority goes against the deal, then we would move to stage two, say a fortnight later, when voters would choose between Remain and no deal. This would be like option 2, above, except that voters have would have the chance to express a view on May’s deal.
Against: It causes problems for those voters who regard May’s deal as second-best: not their first choice, but far preferable to no deal (if you back Remain) or to Remain (if you back no deal). Do you risk the worst outcome in order to have the chance of achieving what you really want—or plump for second best in order to avoid the worst? Should a big democratic decision depend on precarious tactical judgements of this kind?
Two-stage referendum; first stage: Remain or Leave
For: It would test whether we really want to leave the EU after all; and, if we do, stage two would give us the choice of May’s deal or no deal. It offers voters the chance to decide, in the light of all the information we have available, whether or not to stick with the 2016 referendum. (As with all the referendum options, two million young voters would have their first chance to vote on the issue.)
Against: tactical judgements come into play here, too. How should someone vote who likes May’s deal but hates the prospect of no deal? Remain for safety, or Leave and take a risk?
Two-stage referendum; first stage: No deal vs close relationship with the EU?
For: If a majority of voters really want us to “take back control” and leave the EU without a deal, they will get their way. But if most value close trading links, either as EU members or via May’s deal, they will see off the no-dealers in round one; round two would decide whether the UK stays in the EU or implements May’s deal. Of the referendum options that include No Deal on the ballot paper, this is the one least likely to deliver a hard Brexit outcome, as the combined forces of Remain and pro-deal supporters are likely to win round one…
Against: …but the risk would still be there that the UK will crash out without a deal and damage the economy and the Irish peace process. And, once again, a tactical dilemma arises, this time for people who seriously want us to leave the EU but are mildly uncomfortable with a hard Brexit. This is roughly the prime minister’s stated position. (Remember “no deal is better than a bad deal”; and “Brexit means Brexit”?) How would she vote in round one if this option is chosen?
Three-way choice, with voters stating their first and second preferences
For: This keeps all three main options on the table. If one of them wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, that decides the matter. If none reaches 50 per cent, then the least popular is eliminated, and the second preferences of its supporters come into play. The UK enacts the policy that wins, following this second count. It’s a way of giving voters the fullest choice, while ensuring that the winning policy enjoys majority public support. And unlike the two-stage options, this gets the voting over in one go.
Against: This kind of voting can produce perverse outcomes. The most popular first-choice option might end up losing. Alternatively, the least popular first-choice option might harvest large numbers of second preferences, and be acceptable to a clear majority of voters—but if it is eliminated after the first count, these preferences won’t count. Many voters are likely to question the democratic legitimacy of a close three-way contest.
My personal preference is option 1. This would provide a contest between Remain—far more popular than either the Deal or No Deal choices, according to all recent polls—and the Leave option that does least damage to the economy. But if it is easier to create a consensus at Westminster around a Remain versus No Deal referendum (option 2), then so be it: if a majority wish to drive the country over an economic cliff-edge, that would be a democratic verdict that we must accept. The last four options look superficially attractive; but they raise potential problems for the democratic legitimacy of the outcome, especially if voting is close.