Friday, 24 June 2016

No more referendums

I wrote this piece last night in the expectation of a narrow win for "Remain."  I post it as written then to show that the case against referendums is not one of sour grapes, but applies even if what I think of as the" right side" had won. Post result comments are in italics.

Whew, saved by a whisker. Sadly the reverse

The major lesson to be learned from this squalid campaign is that never again should an important issue be subject to a referendum.

As Geoffrey Wheatcroft reminds us, when Churchill wanted to prolong the life of the wartime parliament by referendum, his deputy, Clement Attlee, squashed the idea.  "I could not, he said, " consent to the introduction  into our national life of a device so alien to our traditions as a referendum."

Quite right too.

The case against referendums has been clearly borne out by this campaign.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
  1. It is difficult to compose a neutral question.  A "Yes/No" question tends to get answers biassed towards "Yes." In this campaign the "Outers" got the best option, with "Leave," which sounds               rather more dynamic and decisive than the more staid "Remain."  However, we Remainers had the benefit of being first on the ballot paper, an advantageous position.
  2. Most  issues are not susceptible to just too options. In this case there were a range of options. Do we wish to stay in with full access to the market, reduced access, or no access at all?  There are many more permutations.
  3. It is difficult to decide which bodies should officially lead each side, or the various options.  "Leave" had a serious problem with this, and attempted to exclude the main progenitor of the exercise - a ridiculous position.
  4. It is difficult to guarantee equal funding for the arguments.  The £9m of public money used to  argue the government's case was hotly disputed.
  5. And it is certainly difficult to guarantee fair coverage from the media.  Much of the press was  biassed by reason of the whims of their proprietors rather than the evidence, and the BBC fell into the trap of given "equal coverage" to both sides of the case, however slender was the evidence to support  one or other of the views (see earlier post, point B)
  6. There is no effective legal method of challenging downright lies, which can be persisted in ad nauseam.
  7. The reason for resorting to a referendum  is usually cowardice by a government afraid to take the responsibility for a decision, or, as in this case (and the 1975 referendum on the same topic) to resolve divisions within a party (though in 1975 it was the Labour Party.)
  8. Voters tend to vote on something other than the question on the ballot paper - normally to give a kick in the teeth to the government (French and Irish rejections of the Lisbon Treaty). In this case a significant proportion of the "Leave" vote was undoubtedly a gesture against immigration.  Some of the "Remain" vote could be a sympathy vote in reaction to the death of Jo Cox
  9. Referendums do not settle things "once and for all."  It would be nice to think that Farage, Johnson et al would fade into obscurity, but the cancer will go on, nurtured by them or their successors, unless and until we scrap the use of referendums in Britain. I suppose Farage might now fade away, but Johnson could be raised to even greater glory.
  10. (Added 11th July, to make it a round number).  Whatever the "Leave" campaign, and the much misled "Leave voters," might like to think  about it, the much cited "sovereignty" which we have regained resides legally not with "the people" but with "the Crown in Parliament."  Hence it would be perfectly legal, and fully constitutional, for parliament to ignore the referendum verdict and fail to activate Article 50 which would trigger the leaving process.  In other words, any referendum in Britain is purely advisory.  Since this was not stated at all before or during this referendum campaign, -indeed the reverse: Cameron repeatedly stressed that there would be no going back in the event of a majority for "Leave," -  those who voted for leaving would with justification regard it as a betrayal if parliament were to take, or rather fail to take, this action now.
What, then, do we do?

We are a representative democracy.  The answer is to improve the quality and range of representation by making the system more democratic.  Our present electoral system has  given an over-all majority  to a party supported by barely a quarter of those entitled to vote.  The representatives are selected by the parties rather than the people, and only in a minority of marginal constituencies do the people have any real choice.

Proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-menber constituencies is the best method of guaranteeing representatives of the quality and with the range of views  to make decisions on our behalf, which is what we elect them, and pay them, to do.

And if they don't make the decisions we like, we can get rid of them - an option of which "Leave" are very keen, but which is almost impossible in the 80% of single member constituencies which are presently "safe seats."


  1. And if they don't make the decisions we like, we can get rid of them - an option of which "Leave" are very keen, but which is almost impossible in the 80% of single member constituencies which are presently "safe seats."

    Surely MM-STV makes even safer seats than FPTP?

    I mean, imagine a constituency with three members, elected under STV. Very few areas are three-way marginals, so the first two positions are going to pretty much always go to the same two parties: they might swap positions, so one election party A gets the first member and party B the second, and the next vice-versa, but it would take a truly seismic swing — far bigger than would be required to change the party which wins under FPTP — to actually knock one of them down to fourth place.

    So in practice, under MM-STV in a 3-seat constituency, the first two seats will be rock-solid safe. The only one that will be actually competitive will be the third, whether it goes to one of the top two parties as a second seat, or to a smaller party that nonetheless managed to get enough first preferences that they can meet the quota after the first two have got their seats and their votes have been discounted.

    MM-STV has some advantages over FPTP*, but having less safe seats than FPTP is not one of them — in fact it allows for more, even safer seats.

    * but it has one big disadvantage, that it makes it far less likely that a single-party majority government will be elected, which is why the British electorate, which considers elections are for choosing a government not populating a debating chamber, will never go for it.

    1. The usual recommended number of seats in the MMCs is 5 so there's more competition than you suggest. True the top two seats sill be pretty safe for the major parties but not necessarily for the incumbents, who will have to work hard to maintain their positions. Remember it's the electors who chose who's at the top, not the parties (as in the disgraceful closed list system foisted on us by Labour for the EU elections.

      The point is that all the parties will have to campaign hard for the bottom two or perhaps even three seats. No constituency can be neglected, as a present. That aids the two-way communication, parties to voters and vice versa, which will achieve a more mature democracy.

      Parliament is meant to be a debating chamber as well as an electoral college. So more reasoned debates and fewer slanging matches will again produce a better informed democracy