I was quite disappointed this morning. I was watching BBC Breakfast News, Labour’s Shadow Education Spokesman, Angela Rayner, was on. I’m not sure of her exact words or even the exact subject (though I can guess), but they are reported here. The thing which disappointed me was when she said, “I think we’ve had enough of referendums, don’t you?” An off-the-cuff remark, not part of her main point.
It did make me think. I mean a referendum delivers both a result (one way or the other), and an indication of how unanimous we are. If a referendum is 99% one way, then it is probably something we’d agree/disagree with little doubt. A result which is 50.1% vs. 49.9% is more contentious.
I’m happy to apply this to the Brexit referendum, which was 52:48 and which has proved pretty contentious, to say the least. That 48% of voters wished to remain part of the EU said to me that we should execute Brexit, of course, because >50% of voters wanted that, but that we should remain very close to them afterwards. At least until we deliberately decide to diverge in certain areas. Over time, divergence is inevitable. But for now, a very soft Brexit. “But I didn’t vote for a soft Brexit!” No, but just as you wanted a Hard Brexit, so 48% of your countrymen felt sufficiently strongly the other way that they didn’t want Brexit at all, so if you want to keep these people engaged in the process… And, of course, that is exactly how it has played out.
With the Brexit vote, I wouldn’t have complained if Cameron had stated up-front that a marginal vote, between 45% and 55% either way, say, would put the government at “action stations”, and another vote would be held a year later, say, to resolve the matter for good. But that should have been said from the moment the referendum was announced (or even before), and Cameron was complacent. he didn’t think he could lose, so it didn’t matter to him. Furthermore, if “Remain” had won the vote 52:48, you could guarantee that the issue would never have seen the light of day again, so it’s not surprising that Leavers think as they do. And, it must be difficult for a Prime Minister whose whole ethos was first-past-the-post. Somebody who thinks that with 50% + 1 support, the rest don’t matter.
To call for a second referendum after the 2016 vote, by the way, is just sour grapes – I didn’t like the result so we should run the race again.People who voted to remain, and have not accepted the result, have tried a number of tactics since the 2016 referendum with the simple aim of halting Brexit, and calling for a second referendum is just the latest tactic along the way. No matter, for them, that a majority wanted it. That should tell us something about how devoted these people are to democracy.
But I don’t want this post to be about Brexit. The goal here is not to get a result, one way or the other, but to have as many people participate as possible. A referendum does, at least, give 45M voters a chance to express their wishes. A direct yea or nea, not through some representative who may or may not agree with them on the specific issue. And if you do things smartly, you can read more into the numbers than just the headline result. And if you ask the right questions, you can learn even more. I don’t think they need to be yes/no, for a start, although certainly some kind of closed list. You can’t use a referendum to ask an open-ended question. I’m sorry to harp on about it, but the 2016 Brexit referendum could have been used to ask us supplementary questions like whether we wanted to be a part of a customs union. Difficult questions at the time, but they would have removed all the supposition we’ve had since.
By contrast, Angela Rayner is an MP.
At the last election, in my constituency, the winner, John Glen, received 58% of the vote. A high number – I’m in an ultra-safe Tory seat. But that still leaves 42% of people who voted against him. More if you include people who didn’t vote at all (turnout in Salisbury was only 74%, perhaps people felt that the result was such a foregone conclusion that there was no point in voting? Although I’d go more for spoiling my ballot, at least that can’t be mistaken for apathy).
The point is that a guy who gets 60% of the vote gets to make 100% of the decisions as he thinks fit. The other 40%….tough.
Take that a level higher. Glen is a Conservative. Nationally, 13,636,684 votes (42.4%). The Conservatives were the largest party, both in terms of votes and seats in parliament (in our system, the two numbers are different, don’t get me started!) so they got to choose the Prime Minister. There’s a little bit more to it than that, but, in a nutshell…
Just a few weeks ago, 2019, Boris Johnson was elected Conservative Party leader (and therefore Prime Minister). The Conservatives have their own rules for this. Basically, their MPs whittle the field to a final two, and their membership then elects the leader. The rules could be better, they could be worse, but they’re really for Conservatives to decide upon. In this final vote of the membership, Johnson received 92,153 votes (66.4%) against his opponent’s 46,656 (33.6%) votes.
So in somewhat fuzzy math, I admit, 66.4% of 42.4% chose the UK’s current Prime Minister. 42.4% of 66.4% is 28.2%. It’s fuzzy because one number refers to the proportion of total voters who voted Conservative, and the other number refer’s to Conservative Party members who voted for Johnson. But it’s not too much of a leap of faith.
My point is this – which would you rather have? A system where more than half of us make a decision, or one where a quarter of us decide? No brainer for me.
I appreciate that there is a difference between the broad-brush type of question you can ask in a referendum, and the detail that MPs sometimes have to apply. The former gives us a “direction of travel” only. But that’s good, as far as I can see. The public decides broad policy and Parliament fills in the details. I appreciate that we’re asking a politician’s role to change – the’re no longer wielding power overall, in terms of defining direction, but are more literal servants of the public. I don’t mind that one bit either. And frankly, Brexit is a very good example of the type of questions that we resolve – after that referendum, the role of politicians should have been to implement the decision as best as possible, not to squabble about whether the public made the right decision or not. But whenever I hear a Parliamentarian telling me how bad referendums are, I’m acutely aware that the process is actually taking power from their hands, and putting it in the hands of the voters. I’m happy that it isn’t referendums that they dislike, it’s loss of control.