The ‘People’s Vote’ campaign has steadily built some momentum – at least within the rank of Remainers – for a second referendum to include an option to Remain. Their clarion call is that details and impact of Brexit were unknown in June 2016 and the electorate has the right to decide anew, now that the implications and impact of Brexit has become clearer, at least in broad terms.
A second referendum has been consistently rejected by the government, however, pointing out the people in the first referendum voted by a clear, if modest, majority to Leave, and that its job is to effectively execute that decision.
It would certainly be problematic in design and indeterminate in outcome. Referendums involving a politically contentious nation-changing decision really need to offer a binary choice between two options.
They are employed ideally to legitimize a once-and-for-all complete change or revolution in governance or social practice arrangements, such as the transformative move to democratic majority rule in South Africa, or the introduction of divorce in countries, where previously it was prevented.
The 2016 referendum, however, was convened mainly to manage internal Conservative party dissension, and was to all intents and purposes, unnecessary.
The actual vote in that referendum was found to be correlated with age and education. It undoubtedly was also influenced, not only by such social-economic factors, such as inequality and perceived social and political exclusion, but also cultural factors linked to community and class, not necessarily related to EU membership, including immigration and refugee dispersal.
Any second vote would also be influenced and probably decided by such proxy factors, sometimes only loosely related, if at all, to the pros and cons of each ballot paper choice.
Non-binary choice referenda become complicated, producing results that can reflect tactical voting, the order or permutation of the questions, or the intention of the framers of the questions, rather than indisputably the actual preference of the majority.
Leaving aside for a moment that hard-Brexiteers oppose the idea of a second referendum on the ground that the issue has already been decided, but, if it was conceded by parliament, they, for example, can be expected to agitate for a choice between No Deal and the May Deal, because that is the permutation most likely (but uncertain) to deliver victory to them.
By the same token, Remainers relish a binary choice between Remain and either no deal or the May deal, as current polls suggest a Remain majority over both.
If an alternative vote (AV) system was used, where voters are asked to make a first-and second- preference, with their second preference votes counting if no option obtains more than 50% of first preferences and their first preference option is eliminated, the May Deal could win, even when both Remain and Leave options were able to secure more first choices but more than 50% of the total vote. Polls can change, of course.
Most MP’s reject No deal. They could decide to exclude that option as simply too damaging and thus not in the national interest option to offer the people in a referendum, and decree that choice should be between the May deal and Remain.
Logically, however, that is little different to parliament taking the entire decision on behalf of an electorate, not trusted to make the ‘right decision’ because it could decide in favour of No deal, notwithstanding its expected dire economic impacts. That decision could be the result of the electorate placing a higher weighting on sovereignty (perceived or actual) or be the product of the proxy factors discussed above, or a mixture of both.
A second referendum undoubtedly would be divisive. Committed Remainers and some Brexiteers, as noted above, now increasingly see it as a ‘going for broke’ option, where their best outcome, cancellation of Brexit for the former, and ‘No deal’ in the case of the latter, can be achieved.
As Daniel Moylan, a former adviser to Boris Johnson, noted at an Institute of Government seminar last week, its proponents tend to promote it to solely to secure a desired outcome rather than because of their commitment to the process itself.
It is not surprising therefore that there has been little evidence of either camps engaging with the arguments of other. A simple re-run of June 2016 would be a bit like a referendum in Belgium being convened to decide if the national language should be Flemish or French, after a narrow victory of one or the other could not be translated into actual arrangements that were politically acceptable and sustainable.
Nor would a simple binary choice between Remain and Leave, if Leave was subsequently confirmed, settle the terms for the UK’s departure: back to square one minus x, then.
On the other hand, a flip-over in favour of Remain would induce claims of betrayal by up to 49% of the electorate who voted to Leave across both referendums, risking the further estrangement of a huge number of people from the political process and associated political and social instability.
Many Cabinet ministers and MP’s across the party divide share that concern and for that reason have hitherto been most reluctant to go down the route.
Moreover, no guarantee exists that any alternative option to the May Deal that required re-negotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) would be accepted by the EU in the form envisaged, giving rise to the prospect of a third vote becoming necessary when the detail of any final negotiated revised deal became available.
The details and impact of other possible Leave options, such as a stand-alone trade deal would also not be known.
Framing and finalizing the actual details of the referendum questions would be as, if not more, contentious, and as likely to be deadlocked, as the current parliamentary impasse has proved to be.
Logistically, its organization and delivery could take up to six months. Parliamentary business would continue to be gridlocked by Brexit, and the economy further undermined by uncertainty.
The majority of MP’s could conclude that the fundamental interests of the four nations of the UK required the cancellation of Brexit, and then act on the courage of their own convictions as elected representatives of the people and resolve to revoke Article 50 and the withdrawal legislation already on the statute books.
In that case, they would, however, be accused of ignoring the expressed will of the people as expressed in the first referendum. Undoubtedly some who voted Leave would feel betrayed and robbed of their Brexit by the distant Westminster establishment, leading to an even greater risk of political and social instability.
That danger could, however, possibly be mitigated by a concentrated communications exercise explaining their decision was taken, accompanied by a strategy to tackle the causes of Brexit, such as the upskilling of indigenous workers: things that need to happen anyway.
It is not really conceivable a simple revocation of Article 50 to cancel Brexit would be taken up by either the Conservative or replacement Labour government, without prior recourse to a referendum, although they could ask the electorate to ratify the revocation after the event: an uncertain outcome.
Facing continuing deadlock, May could ask the electorate to approve or the WA agreement. Hilary Benn at the same IOG seminar indicated that it might be convenient for both front benches for May to take her agreement direct to the country.
If the point was reached where her deal was rejected by the Commons and the lack of majority parliamentary support for any alternative option threatened No deal by default, and a no confidence motion had been defeated, most bets are on the Labour front-bench swinging in favour of a second referendum.
That would not necessarily translate into a parliamentary majority for a second referendum, but given the looming reality of a no deal exit and with other options exhausted it might become difficult to identify an alternative outcome, save for MP’s to vote in a temporary Government of National Unity to go back to Brussels to re-negotiate a revised May Deal more in line with majority preferences of both parties, but the prospects of that appear dim.