A number of things were wrong with the 2016 referendum, including the disenfranchisement of key stakeholders and the extent of misinformation by both sides. Given that referendums should be informed exercises in democratic decision-making, Bruce Ackerman (Yale) and Sir Julian Le Grand (LSE) explain how a referendum on the deal should look like.
We are moving to a world where the decisions of elected representatives are increasingly supplemented, or actually displaced, by referenda. Many deplore this trend and try to fight it. It would be better to welcome referenda, but to make sure they are done properly.
What was wrong with the 2016 EU referendum
There were three things wrong with the Brexit vote. The first was an absence of genuine information, creating a gap for actual misinformation by both sides. The notorious message promising a bonanza for the NHS on the Leave bus; the Remainers predicting economic catastrophe the day after a Leave vote; the benefits of immigration exaggerated by Remainers, the costs by Leavers.
The second was the over-simple choice: in or out. We now know that there are a number of alternatives to a hard Brexit at one end and Remain at the other. Not only is there the Norway (European Economic Area) option, but some form of softer deal may yet emerge from the negotiations between Teresa May and Michel Barnier.
The third was the exclusion from voting of key groups, such as Britons living for more than fifteen years in other EU countries, and the 1.5 million citizens who will be most affected by the long-run consequences of the decision: 16 and 17 year-olds.
What a referendum on second referendum should look like
So what would a serious Brexit referendum look like? First, the electorate would include 16- and 17 year-olds, and all Britons living in the EU. Second, it would offer people a manageable set of real choices. Practically speaking, three options will emerge: remain; the government’s negotiated deal; or no-deal. The referendum should ask people to select the one that makes the most sense. If none attain a majority, then the third-place choice would be eliminated and a second round would be held between the top two.
Third, the government should take affirmative steps to fill the information gap. The best way forward is suggested by social science experiments, including an early one held in Britain. In 1994, Channel Four organised an intensive discussion amongst ordinary citizens on whether the UK should become more or less engaged with Europe. The scientifically selected sample of 238 participants went to Manchester for a weekend to engage in a series of small group exchanges with competing experts for Yes and No, as well as representatives from the three major parties. At the end of the weekend, support for Britain’s increased integration into the EU rose from 45% to 60%. In contrast, support for the Euro did not rise above 35%. Before-and-after questionnaires established that participants became more knowledgeable.
Twenty years onward, majority opinion might well move in a very different direction. But there can be no doubt that the British people are thoroughly capable of a sophisticated discussion of the crucial issues. The only serious question is whether the government would be willing to take the steps required to organise a nation-wide conversation on the key issues defining the nation’s future.
Credit: Public Domain
On this approach, it would declare a new national holiday, Deliberation Day, that will take place two weeks before a referendum is put to the vote. D-day would begin with a televised debate between leading politicians representing the three Brexit options. After the national television show, local citizens could engage the main issues in small discussion groups at neighbourhood schools or community centres to hear their questions answered by local spokespeople for the three choices. By the end of the day, they will achieve a bottom-up understanding of the choices. D-day discussion will continue during the run-up to referendum day, drawing millions of non-attenders into the escalating national dialogue.
A Brexit referendum conducted along these lines would not be a rerun of the original. It would be quite different: a deliberative, informed exercise in democratic decision-making, one involving all those who will benefit from or suffer the consequences of the outcome. This is what twenty-first century democracy should be all about.
This article originally appeared at our sister site, British Politics and Policy. It gives the views of the authors, and not the postion of LSE Brexit, nor the LSE.
Bruce Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale.
Sir Julian Le Grand is Professor of Social Policy at the Marshall Institute, LSE.
I thoroughly agree with the diagnosis and the analysis. Of-course there was a vacuum of real information and the only real forum for debate was in highly politicised newspaper articles and broadcasting in a largely and systematically biased media. Different social groups and age groups were subject to different social pressures. I am told, I think reliably, that among young people, particularly those at university, openly supporting leave (or questioning remain) would often leave you subject to abuse and possible social ostracism. In other older age groups and different social groups this was reversed. Often those on the left responded to the widespread questioning of immigration by attributing it to racism. There is a very complex inter-relationship between racism and the immigration debate which means that they can never be either entirely separated or entirely identified. Genuine concerns are often amplified by socially conditioned perceptions to the point where it is almost impossible to separate perception from reality. Often those on the right attacked the patriotism and party loyalty of any in their ranks who doubted Brexit, leading to extreme forms of intimidation and bullying often including a biased media.
My concern is that in that febrile atmosphere which I cannot but suspect is connected to the reported rise of right wing extremism (and the social and economic conditions that generate right wing extremism) would it be possible to organise a sound public debate. Under the right conditions, I agree that this is both possible under normal social conditions and the ideal democratic solution. Yet the Social Democratic society in which such a debate might have been possible decades ago has long been undermined, “deregulated”, subjected to free market principles so the substrate of public trust in society necessary for such a process has long been destroyed. Why should a student laden with colossal debt, a worker whose wages have been brutally suppressed, a claimant who has been unfairly sanctioned or a patient who has been denied vital treatment trust society or government? I suspect that this option, like almost every other, is closed to us.
Rise in right wing extremism? UKIP have been total crushed, there are some very minor extreme parties trying to be relevant, but as far as I can see they are getting no votes at the ballot box.
The rise in extremism we are seeing is left wing extremism and antisemitism and they have the full complement of threats, violence and intimidation to those people they dislike.
Thank you Andrew D for a very good comment. While in theory, the UK’s relationship with the EU has been decided by two referendums and could continue to be so done, the atmosphere surrounding the question prevents any really informed debate or deliberation. The Irish referendum on aboriton shows how it could be done, but there is no chance of such a thing here in the poisoned debate of the last 2 years.
As the UK is a Parliamentary, representational democracy, we will either be rescued by Parliament or we will all go down with the ship together. For many, brexit is still regarded as a simple choice to get back to the way we were before we joined. It is anything but, and a simple brexit will be a catastrophic event for the UK. We cannot depend upon another referendum to save us, Parliament can and must. We do not need to be in the EU, but we do need to be in the single market and all the agencies. We can do this by rejoining the European Free Trade Association and staying in the EEA. This would be leaving the political dimension of the EU and we would get rid of approximately 3/4 of EU laws, but we might be able to save the industries that depend on access to the EU countries another supply chains.
Why not use the model used in Ireland for the abortion referendum. A citizens assembly of 99 ordinary folk were chosen to represent all voters. It spent seven three-day working meetings listening to experts from all sides. It then proposed a radical change which was not expected. A Dail all party committee then reviewed the assembly proposal.
The unexpected proposal was put to s referendum and passed by 68%.
Well informed citizens can deal with complicated issues if they are proposed by a well informed bipartisan assembly.
I like this idea. I voted to leave – but in reality was voting against Cameron’s so called renegotiated deal for the U.K. within the EU. I never wanted us or anyone else to be a special case but for the EU to be reformed to make it more democratic, more relevant to our day to day lives, and for the electorate to feel much closer to the decision making processes of the EU. I think this last point is still not covered by your proposal – and needs fundamental restructuring included in the new referendum!
“If none attain a majority, then the third-place choice would be eliminated and a second round would be held between the top two.”
A possible Referendum 2B after Referendum 2? No way! What is wrong with a single transferable vote system?
Whilst it might be a good idea to have a national holiday for Deliberation Day, the priority should be to ensure that people actually vote on the day, so that we can minimise the ‘only x percent voted for most popular option’ argument. This could entail a holiday for referendum day, holding the referendum on a Sunday or, as in some countries, making voting mandatory.
“Third, the government should take affirmative steps to fill the information gap. ”
The Government allegedly did this by putting a leaflet through everybody’s door and producing Treasury estimates predicting immediate armageddon. The Leave campaign had to overcome this hurdle in order to overturn the existing status quo. A similar hurdle should now be placed in the path of the Remain campaigners if they wish to overturn the current status quo.
Most of what is stated is sensible and shows what difference a well designed referendum would /might have made. I specifically agree with including the age 16 and 17 young people and proper neutral information and a quiet thinking period before the vote. That would include the press and other public information channels not being allowed to publish articles pro or contra for at least a week before the vote. Won’t stop social media attacking the non-thinkers, though. One crucial point was missed – point 0?
This is that a referendum by definition should be triggered by people (electorate) and not political parties. If that had been applied, the referendum would never have happened. Instead it was caused by division in a political party and a very risky decision made by one PM. Imagine, if all referendums (not referanda or referendi) where triggered by divisions in political parties who happen to be in government?
May I also point out that this country has a tendency to reinvent the wheel. There are perfectly good rules about referendums in other countries (start with Switzerland) – the UK is not so special that it has to have it’s own assortment of rules.
You have to be careful who you ask and how. But, when I ask people to tell me why they want “out”, most say that they don’t want to be ruled by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. They’re surprised that our European constituency has five elected MEPs (out of over 70 British ones). Hardly anybody has any idea who they are. Some of these MEPs are UKIP. I never dare to mention that over 800 unelected people sit in our Parliament. That would cause a harrumph.