19 July 2018

The possibility of a second Brexit referendum is being discussed more widely at Westminster. But, Akash Paun argues, before anyone can decide whether it would be a good idea, a number of thorny issues must be addressed about how it would work.

The most commonly made case for a second referendum is that in 2016 the people voted for Brexit with different ideas of what that would look like. The argument now being advocated by senior figures from both main parties, and several minor ones, is that voters should be given a ‘people’s vote’ to ratify or reject the specific terms of Brexit that Theresa May hopes to negotiate this autumn.

The line from Downing Street remains unambiguous: “There is not going to be a second referendum under any circumstances.” Yet unambiguous lines from Downing Street have had a habit of bending or breaking under pressure over the past two years. A ‘people’s vote’ cannot be ruled out as a possible outcome of the current parliamentary chaos. But the risk is that the country hurtles into another divisive referendum campaign without properly thinking through what it is doing and why.

What are the options?

If we have learnt anything from June 2016, it is that referendums should be held only when there is clarity about the options on offer. So if a second referendum were to be held, it would be vital that the detail of each of the options was clear. It would also be essential for any options included to be achievable – including those which would require cooperation from the EU.

One immediate question that arises is what the options on the ballot paper should be. Referendums are usually binary yes/no questions. So a referendum could in principle be held between the negotiated deal and abandoning Brexit (assuming the EU-27 are willing to accommodate an eleventh-hour change of heart). Or between the negotiated deal and leaving without any deal.

However, the latest proposal, from Justine Greening, is for a three-way choice between the negotiated deal, a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and remaining in the EU after all..

What voting system should be used?

If it were a three-option referendum, what voting system would be used? Justine Greening suggests preferential voting, in which the least popular option is eliminated and second preferences are reallocated to determine the ultimate winner (as used in the referendum on the Australian national anthem). In a close contest, that could lead to the most popular option on first preferences being defeated in the end. Would voters accept that as a legitimate result?

An alternative would be a two-part referendum, a precedent for which is the Scottish devolution referendum of 1997, when voters separately decided on the principle of devolution and on whether the new Scottish Parliament would have tax-varying powers. 

But in a two-part Brexit referendum, what would the questions be, and in what sequence would they be put to voters? The outcome could well depend on these decisions. Would the first question be about whether or not to Brexit and then the second about how? Or the first question on the type of Brexit and then, given the type of Brexit, whether that was better or not than staying in? Or would question one be whether or not to approve the negotiated deal, and question two be a choice between Remain and No Deal, in the event the deal is rejected?

Is there time?

There is also a practical question about whether there will be time for another referendum, given the likelihood of negotiations going down to the wire. A referendum could only be held once there is a deal to put to the people, and it would do no good to the legitimacy of the result if the referendum campaign were compressed to a few weeks. There could be an extension to the Article 50 process beyond the end of March 2019, but that would require the unanimous agreement of the EU 27.

How should the views of the devolved nations be reflected?

Reopening the Brexit question could open up other questions too.  The first relates to devolution. In 2016, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain, undermining the legitimacy of Brexit in those nations ever since. The Scottish Government view is that Brexit should not happen without consent in all four nations. The UK Government would be unlikely to concede that in a second referendum. The Scottish Government might also argue that in a multi-option vote, Scotland should have the additional option to remain in the EU as an independent state. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein might argue for Irish reunification to be on the ballot paper.

What should the franchise be?

A further debate would arise about the franchise: should 16–17 year-olds and EU citizens in the UK be involved this time? Including either of those groups could have swung the result last time. In a knife-edge vote the franchise matters.

Referendums have become a more common part of the British political process. However, there is still a lack of agreed conventions and rules about how and when they should be used. Before a second Brexit referendum is contemplated, all these issues must first be considered and resolved.

Comments

The government has ruled out a second referendum, the majority of people do not want one, so why are you wasting your time writing these articles.

Which data are you using to conclude the majority don’t want another referendum? An ITV poll last month found 48% did want a second referendum. Only 25% didn’t.

Hello. The Government has ruled it out, but the Government barely has control of Parliament or the legislative process, as we've seen in recent weeks. I am not predicting it will happen, but when you have senior figures in both main parties calling for this (Greening, Grieve, Mandelson, Umunna) you have to take it at least a bit seriously as a possibility. Whether the people want one is a different question. I'd need to look at the polling data, but in any case I'm not arguing that it *should* happen, just that it *might*, and if it does, we'd better think it through.

According to all the polls there has been a steady increase in those wanting a peoples vote on the final deal to the extent that there is now such a clear lead that to ignore this change of mind would be most undemocratic. The Brexit side maintain the decision was made in 2016 and that is that. Well, I voted for Brexit but I feel so misled by all the false truths that I have changed my mind. In democracies we are allow to change our minds, especially once we know the true facts. The more voices that support a democratic resolution to the deadlock in parliament the more scared the Brexit side become and their arguments against a final vote are weak and nothing short of panic. Brexit can push as hard as they like on the throttle but their ship will not get over the tidal wave in the end. Our Democracy and common sense will prevail but oh dear, what a price we will have paid.

We should have a weighted vote with young people, who have longest to live with the result, given more votes than people like me who will be dead within ten years - say 5 for the youngest, 3 for those aged 40 - 60, and 1 for those over 60. Everyone should be allowed to spread their votes as they wish between the options.

This idea is a non-starter I'm afraid. It would (rightly) be seen as rigging the result and as an affront to basic principles of democracy. Anyone over the age of majority must continue to have an equal say in elections/referendums - right up until the point they die.

Sadly, it is stick-in-the-mud thinking like this that bogs us down in the sort of bicameral mess we are in today. We're in the 21st century for goodness sake! It's one thing to have one man/woman one vote when you can change your mind every five years (as in a Parliamentary election) - quite another when governments can change the rules at a whim ("advisory" anyone?) and use a very small majority (52/48) to justify a course of action which is apparently actually in no-one's interest. Don't forget that a fair number of those who voted "out" last time, including my own dear mother, are now dead.

But most of all, I'm surprised the IoG is so closed to debate/new thinking. Shame.

I am sorry to hear of your mother's passing. In response to your comment, I think this is conflating the general case for a second referendum (which I did not dismiss) with the specific proposition to introduce weighted voting based on age (which I did). That, to me, would fly in the face of core tenets of liberal democracy. We are indeed in the 21st century, as you say, and we have a decent (if imperfect) political system in which every citizen's vote is worth the same. Along the way, we have rightfully dropped anti-democratic practices such as giving extra votes to university graduates, or barring people from voting based on their gender or level of wealth. Giving the young extra votes would make it more likely that Brexit would be defeated, but that is no reason to gerrymander the electoral franchise, I'm afraid.

Referendum 1
Three options:
A) we remain in the EU
B) we leave the EU including the Single Market and Customs Union
C) we accept the agreement for leaving we have arrive at with the EU (whatever that may be )
The lowest scoring option is eliminated.

Referendum 2 - two weeks later
A run off between the remaining 2 options

The French manage it well in their Presidential elections and there is no reason we can’t. I’ve just put in the two week gap to allow voting papers to be printed and distributed

We do not need a long run up to this process. God knows we have been deluged with conflicting fact in the last two years and a long run up just allows more time for lies and disinformation to be produced

Yes that is an alternative in theory, but I see it as unlikely. Making the case to the people to have another referendum at all will be hard enough, let alone having to explain that there will be a third one too. If we do it, I think it's got to be resolved on a single ballot paper, one way or another.

A People's Vote is needed because the government is unable to agree within its own ranks a position on Brexit. The government statement that there will be no such vote is simply another 'red line' that can be moved, blurred, or erased. This issue will undoubtedly become of increasing importance as the negotiations stumble on and so this article is very much needed.

I enjoyed the article but the future seems bleak. The EU are likely to insist on substantial changes to Mrs May’s plan. It’s really very likely that whatever she comes back with will be defeated in Parliament - and maybe her with it. It will need a very substantial revolt in both the Labour and Conservative ranks to get legislation through for another referendum. So far only the ERS have produced big numbers in revolt. The anti-Brexit vote all too often fades away. A “crash out” is becoming horribly likely as time drifts away.

Fascinating article on the options for a further referendum. I see the logic of a multi-option single ballot with a transferrable or preference vote. But I think it is going to be difficult to use such a system given that, outside of Northern Ireland and London, the public has little or no experience of such systems. As for the absurd suggestion that a further vote is somehow undemocratic, these arguments remind me of the position adopted by the Algerian Islamists who won an election in the early 90s and took the view that democracy meant one person, one vote - once ever. That is surely a parody of democracy.

Thanks. Yes I agree that public comprehension of the electoral system is an important factor to consider. The worst outcome would be very close result, in which the outcome were contested (e.g. because it was determined by second preferences or something). That way lies a major crisis of democratic legitimacy in my view.

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