‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce’: Karl Marx.
The world needs another opinion piece on Brexit like a hole in the head. In my defence I have rarely written about it in the past and I’m also in the odd position that something I advocated eight months ago, and which at the time struck most people as completely unrealistic, has now become a widely discussed and serious option.
This is the idea of a second referendum with three options, reflecting that there are now clearly three different positions on Brexit (no deal, EU negotiated deal, remain), none of which have majority support in Parliament or among the wider population. For months after I suggested this last December the idea remained obscure but then on Monday Justine Greening made the same suggestion (although with very little detail), and today The Times has a poll suggesting that about a third of the population are in favour (pretty high considering how few respondents will have even heard of the idea before they were asked their view).
While I have to admit it is gratifying when one’s apparently eccentric idea becomes mainstream (not that I’m getting much credit for it), my concern now is that this idea needs much more preparation. Specifically, it is vital that a Citizens Assembly is undertaken before such a referendum. The Assembly would make recommendations to Parliament regarding the terms on which the referendum is held. This reflects the successful experience in Ireland of the deliberative process before the referendum on a constitutional amendment to legalise abortion. But it also applies the insights of the report published last week by the Constitution Unit's Independent Commission on Referendums, a Commission which included such luminaries as David Runciman, Gisela Stuart, Jennie Watson and Deborah Mattinson as a well as three sitting MPs.
The report summary includes the following:
Detailed consideration should be given before a referendum is called to what the problems are that policy needs to address, what policy options can be developed for addressing these problems, what the strengths and weaknesses of these options are, and whether a referendum is the best way of making the decision.
To engage citizens as far as possible in these pre-referendum processes, consideration should be given to using innovative forms of deliberative democratic engagement such as citizens’ assemblies, alongside strengthened processes of parliamentary scrutiny.
Wherever possible, a referendum should come at the end, not the beginning, of the decision-making process. It should be post-legislative, deciding whether legislation that has already passed through the relevant parliament or assembly should be implemented.
Before a second referendum there are some tricky issues to be resolved. Three in particular stand out:
1) The voting system.
If there are three options it is assumed that voters will have second preferences and, given no option has a majority, these second choices will probably be crucial. However, if the vote is done on a conventional preference process, whereby the option with the fewest first votes drops out, then it is surely quite likely the middle option (the EU deal) will fall first. Yet this middle option is also likely to be the one with the most second preferences. It may, therefore, be fairer to have system in which voters can give two votes to the favoured option and – if they choose – one vote to their second favourite option. The drawback of this – in comparison to a preference system - is that the winning option probably won’t then command a majority.
2) The choices.
It is surely important that each of the three options is laid out authoritatively and in greater detail than could be put on ballot paper. These longer statements would represent the full option being offered and campaigners for that option could then be reasonably expected not to diverge from that option during the campaign. But who would write these longer statements (this is particularly an issue for no dealers as the remain option is fairly straightforward and the May/EU deal would be public), and would there be any process whereby assertions made in these longer statements were scrutinised for accuracy?
3) The rules.
Given the chicanery around Vote Leave and the ever growing capacity for manipulation through social media, how would rules on issues like spending and unofficial advertising need to be tightened? Fortunately the Constitution Unit Commission has some well-thought through proposals on this.
Two critical responses to this post might be that the Chief Executive of the RSA should avoid such shark infested political waters, and that the three option referendum is still a very long shot. To which my reply is, first, if we don’t find a way forward on Brexit, and one which empowers citizens, it is not just our relationship with the EU that is in question but our wider democratic system: we all have stake in trying to get out of this terrible and worsening mess. Second, for all its challenges and drawbacks the best reason for the second referendum with three choices is that there is no other alternative which does not anger and dismay more than half the population, furthermore this is at least an option which could – as I argued back in December – potentially have attractions for remainers, soft leavers and hard ones too.
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I am sure Michael Neill's comment is correct, that a referendum offering 3 options but only one question could never be accepted by Leavers as legitimate because it is so transparently designed to split the Leave vote. For a referendum to work it would need to have 2 questions:
1. Do you wish to leave the EU or remain in it?
2. If there is a majority for leave in question 1, do you prefer no deal or the negotiated deal?
A possible flaw in this suggestion would be that presumably Remainers would all vote for "negotiated deal" in question 2 - so no deal would be unlikely to win, even though it may have majority support amongst those who actually want to leave. Perhaps that simply gets us back to the fundamental problem that with 3 options it is highly possible that the majority will be dissatisfied with the winning option.
A further possible argument is that we have already had the vote on question 1, and it was in favour of Leave. So the only legitimate second referendum would only be on question 2. That of course is not what most of the people calling for a second referendum want, but it has a clear logic and would be a way to break a impasse in Parliament by giving a further set of directions to our representatives.
OK, three options, A, B and C; and 100 voters. 35 vote A-B; 32 vote B-C; 33 vote C-B. In a plurality vote (which is like FPTP), the winner is A with 35. In a two-round system or with AV (the alternative vote), the winner is C with 65. And in an MBC, (Modified Borda Count), the winner is B with 132, to C’s 98 and A’s 70.
The MBC, by the way, is over 800 years old.
There are deep and insurmountable problems with this. Constitutional commentators have already concluded that such a 3-question referendum as proposed by Justine Greening is designed solely to split the Leave vote and produce a Remain majority to reverse Brexit - and an instrument so clearly partisan stands absolutely no chance of happening in a nation that still values fairness and democratic probity. There is no public appetite for it at all. As Yougov commented on their most recent survey;
"However, just because people think Brexit is the wrong decision, it doesn’t necessarily mean they think it should be reversed. They do not. When we ask what people think the government should do about leaving the EU, just over half (53%) think that it should go ahead with Brexit, mostly on its current course (42%) though 11% would prefer a softer Brexit. A fifth (21%) think that the government should call a fresh referendum instead, while 13% would prefer them just to halt Brexit altogether."
"Neither is there much support for other means by which the decision to leave the EU could be reversed. By 50% to 29% people think it would be illegitimate for MPs in the House of Commons to vote against Brexit going ahead, and by 45% to 37% people oppose the idea of another referendum once the terms of the withdrawal negotiations are known."
Such moves serve only to increase the already dangerous polarisation of the nation that the Referendum result has produced. Most frightening is the spectre of an increase of support for both the far left and far right - the extremists at both ends of the spectrum are the only winners from a fractured nation. I'd wager that not a single member or officer of the RSA would remotely wecome either a deeply anti-semitic far left or a deeply anti-Islamic far right gaining political traction in Britain.
Give us instead an opportunity as a body to help heal our fractured nation, promote constructive dialogue across the barrier, unite against the extremism of left and right and lead the way in innovative, equitable and balanced solutions to the challenges ahead posed by Brexit.