Should there be a second referendum on EU membership? For obvious reasons, it is Remainers who are leading to call for a second ‘people’s vote’. But there are good arguments for Leavers to favour a second referendum, argues Albert Weale (University College London). It may sound odd, but it is true.
Leave supporters have repeatedly said that the referendum in June 2016 delivered ‘the will of the people’. Theresa May repeats this time after time. Even some of those opposed to Brexit do not think that the UK can go back on the will of the people as expressed in the referendum vote.
As I explain in The Will of the People: A Modern Myth, the idea of the will of the people is a sloppy and misleading way of talking about majority voting in a democracy. It relies on a mythical view of democracy as direct popular decision making and opens the political process to control and manipulation by the executive.
Democracies do need to be based on majority opinion, but it is only misleading to talk about a vote as revealing the will of the people.
But let me put aside these concerns for the sake of argument, and accept that majority voting does yield something we can call the ‘will of the people’. What follows about the need for a second referendum?
The principle of majority rule is simple when there are only two options. Between two alternatives, the one that secures 50% plus one vote wins. Generally this is a good rule for public decisions in a democracy because it is fair to those with different views.
Everyone’s vote counts for one and for only one. In this case, majority voting gives equal voice. Applied to the question put in the referendum, the result was clear.
However, Leave was never one alternative. If this was not clear before Chequers, it certainly is now. Is the Chequers plan better or worse than leaving the EU on WTO terms? Leavers themselves disagree on this question. So leaving the EU turns out to be not a two-way decision, but a three-way decision. The question then is: what does majority rule mean in this three-way choice?
Figure 1: The three-way alternative
Looking at Figure 1, you might think that Remain was really the majority choice. Since the referendum result was close, it is unlikely that either the Chequers plan or the WTO alternative would gain as much as 48% of the vote.
But that thought is too quick. In June 2016 there may have been lots of people who voted Remain, not because they were enthusiastic to remain, but because they thought the WTO alternative was the worst of all worlds, and cast a cautions vote to avoid that outcome.
Similarly, there may have been some people who voted Remain, although they really wanted the UK out of the EU, thinking the most likely outcome was a half-way house like the Chequers plan. We simply do not know about what went on in people’s minds about these possibilities.
Anyone who thinks that there is a will of the people revealed by majority rule needs to explain what the will of the people means in these three-way choices. In other words, they need to explain how to determine what the majority prefers in contests like the one in Figure 1.
There are two common explanations given. The first says that the way to define the will of the people is to take the option favoured by the single largest group, even if that falls short of an absolute majority. The second answer says that the right way of defining majority preference is to see which alternative wins when placed against all the others in a pair-wise choice.
For example, if a majority prefers Chequers to both Remain and WTO, then we can truly say that we have a genuine majority. Similarly, if WTO beats both Remain and Chequers, then it would be the majority preference and would have a claim to be the will of the people.
But until you do this round-robin voting, you cannot meaningfully speak about the will of the people deciding the outcome by either of these tests. By their own claim to democratic principle, Leavers should insist that the will of the people be decisive over all three options.
A three-way choice also shows the importance of how the political agenda is defined. When there is a choice to be made over three alternatives, the order in which those alternatives are voted on matters greatly.
Suppose Remain was the majority preference over either Chequers or the WTO option. Since it has been discarded as a result of the first referendum, it is no longer on the policy agenda. So, without a second referendum, the UK risks ending up with an alternative that a majority of the electorate actually opposes.
Even if Remain did not beat both Chequers and WTO, it is still true that the final choice could have a substantial majority opposed to it. For example, Remainers may well prefer Chequers to WTO as their second choice, and so would be part of a majority favouring Chequers.
But we could end up with the WTO outcome. Because we do not know what the majority is without a second vote, we risk a silent majority that ends up with policies with which it strongly disagrees and cannot change.
I fully accept that organising the mechanics of three-way voting might look difficult in practice. The most straightforward way would be to list three options on a referendum paper and ask voters to rank them 1, 2, 3. This was the idea put forward by Justine Greening in July, which some thought too complicated.
But it is no more complicated than the underlying issues, and a referendum organized on these lines would mean that we would know what the majority of the people preferred. If Leavers really want to act in accordance with the will of the people, that is what they should favour. It is certainly what should be favoured by anyone who believes in the principle of majority rule.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It first appeared at the UK in a Changing Europe blog.
Albert Weale is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy at UCL and the author of The Will of the People: A Modern Myth (Polity Press), due out in September.
Another desperate attempt to swing another referendum supported by a case of creative accounting.
Three choices ehh!!!!
Let’s not forget negotiations are far from over.
There could be more options on the table, one that the EU prefer.
Then there’s the Farage option,
You don’t understand
If the majority vote is not carried out by our paid servants, 17.5 million people may never vote again.
That means that there is a real possibility that 20% of the voting public could elect a government.
That means extremeism.
Can we risk that?
Dennis “17.5 million people may never vote again” I think that’s what Remainers want, breakdown of the government that could mean no governance then they can accept all EU laws and EU taking control making UK a colonised vassal state
definately ruffled feathers at the remain side. in fact they are still spitting feathers at being overruled by ‘plebs’ nearly 2 years later.
remainers are thumbing their way through books, ancient history, and any record, example in anyway to try to force a second referendum.
9 million gbp of remain propaganda was posted to every household.
9,000,000 divided by 16,141,241 remainers
divvy it up, remainers pay for reruns, and reruns until a say 40/60 majority ( no rewhining on close majoritys then)
-remainers tax file number adjusted accordingly and /or property held as collateral to pay for it.
I am pretty ok with the result- why should i pay for it?
I think there was already a second “people’s Vote”, namely GE 2017. Those who wanted to stop Brexit at all costs should have voted for the Liberal Democrats or SNP or other candidates who were opposed to reversing Brexit. Those who voted Labour or Conservative cannot blame those parties for following through on their manifesto commitments.
The three way vote described above is fraudulent as it splits the leave vote over two options whilst funneling the remain vote into only one option. You could have a case where 30% vote for Chequers, 30% vote for WTO and 40% vote for Remain. So despite that fact that 60% want to leave the minority 40% wins the day. I cannot believe that someone who is presumably an academic as this article is on a respected university’s website cannot see that this three way choice is a fix. I therefore must conclude that this is Remain propaganda. Indeed if we click on the link to see who Ros Taylor is, we find that they have contributed 574 entries to the website but we read “About Ros Taylor – This author has not yet filled in any details”. How convenient. Very remiss of LSE not to insist that their authors disclose their identities.
You seem a bit confused here.
Ros Taylor is one of the 2 managing editors for the LSE Brexit blog. She helps choose and edit the articles published on the LSE Brexit blog.
The actual writer of this article is Albert Weale, a professor at University College London. I know nothing about him, but a cursory reading of his web-page at University College London does not indicate any strong views either for or against the EU.
It seems I am confused Friedrich, thanks for putting me right. 🙂
It’s the same difference
Managing editor or writer it’s the same fearmongering, seeing exiters like the great unwashed.
One day LSE might publish the up side of Brexit
Because there is lots and lots.
I doubt it!!!!
I do not think the point being made by Professor Weale should be that difficult to understand, even if some determined supporters of Leave will find it difficult to accept.
Voters were clear what remain winning the referendum meant in practical terms. Our relationship with the EU would not change. Voting for “leave” on the other hand was left vague and ill defined as just anything other than remaining in the EU, but with no obligation to specify what other option people wanted.
If we conducted general elections in this way it would change the nature of our politics. For example, if in a general election the voters were asked to choose between: 1) conservative or 2) not conservative or 1) labour or 2) not labour. Then it was left up to the government (of whatever party was leaving office) to define what “not conservative” or “not labour” meant then our whole political system would be open to wholesale manipulation and / or disruption. In the first example the conservatives would go from being the most elected political party in our recent history to a party that would be unlikely to ever be elected again. In the second example the labour party would be in the same situation. Such an election set up would be universally condemned as perverse and unfair. Yet in the referendum it was seen as entirely legitimate to offer the voters a choice between “stay in the EU” (a defined option) or “not stay in the EU” (an option that covered all other preferences whether they were mutually inconsistent or not).
It is entirely reasonable to point out what remain voters suspected at the outset, and what has been confirmed by subsequent evidence. That is, that different groups of leave voters supported different and mutually inconsistent leave options and that it would be impossible to satisfy one of these groups without frustrating the aspirations of the others. It is therefore perfectly reasonable and fair to ask leave voters to do what remain voters have already done, and opt to specify and choose between the practical options they prefer both for how we relate to the EU and how we arrange our future.
Some leave voters will obviously say that the choice that leave voters have made is to leave the EU and that should happen either on the UK’s terms or, if that is not accepted by the EU, we should leave without a deal. Yet that option takes no account of the views of more moderate or pragmatic leave voters or those who voted to remain. Since the referendum decision was so close it is very unlikely that those who prefer this extreme option really amount to a majority of those who voted in the referendum. They may be very vociferous, angry and powerful within parliament but it is very unlikely that they genuinely represent all of the 52% as they claim that they do.
Some leave supporters continue to make the accusation that a three way choice would “split” the leave vote. Yet the reality is that the only thing splitting the leave vote are the rival opinions of different groups of leave supporters. All those affected by the chaos that is Brexit would be better off if leave supporters could agree on a single coherent and implementable set of aspirations, then possibly (at least) credible negotiations could start with the EU. If that is an impossibility then the leave vote is split and cannot reasonably be treated as a single coherent political position, that is no one else’s fault and no one else is to blame for that.
Regarding the three way choice splitting the leave vote:
Internal divisions in political groups such as the ones we see in the Conservative party over Europe are nothing unusual. We see such divisions in Labour between Corbynites and Blairites. Remain would be equally split if the ‘Peoples Vote’ contained alternative Remain options. The ‘Peoples Vote’ assumes that we can do a simple U turn and continue on the same terms as before article 50 was triggered. But that may not be the case. The EU may use the opportunity to leverage further integration and insist that we prove our commitment by being more tightly bound to the fold. What if the EU insisted that if we remain we either join the Euro or give up our fiscal independence allowing Brussels to set our budgets and absorb the Bank Of England into the European Central Bank. These two propositions are both things that must happen as the EU moves towards the United States of Europe (two leading EU politicians recently proposed that this should be achieved by 2025). So if the ‘Peoples Vote’ had four options – Remain and join the Euro, Remain and lose fiscal control, Leave using Chequers agreement, Leave using WTO rules, we would see Remain also fighting amongst themselves on which is the best Remain option. This four-way split underlines the absurdity of voting on more than two options as the winning option may only receive 26% of the vote which is hardly ‘the will of the people’ But the real absurdity is the thought that the UK electorate would get a vote, as in our entire history of EU membership the UK electorate has never had a vote on any of the agreements that have integrated us ever tighter.
It is always true that there is a range of opinions both within and between political parties on most issues but it is a mistake to confuse this situation with the “leave” camps divisions over Brexit.
Divisions within a political party are routinely settled by compromise in the name of party unity. Where this is not possible political parties will split or disintegrate. Where these ideological or pragmatic differences lead to completely incompatible strategies and neither side will compromise or yield for the sake of preserving the integrity of their party then this goes deeper than the sort of internal debates that are routine.
This issue is not one of resolving a range of opinions into a single party strategy but one of the inability to choose between completely incompatible Brexit options. This is combined in both major parties with powerful factions of insurgents trying to force their preferred option on other party members who are vehemently opposed. The proportion of members in each camp may vary in each party but the issue is the same.
This is not the normal issue of satisfying party members or persuade them to compromise or concede a point in favour of party unity and the promise of possible future political success. It is a fragmentation where our political systems fundamental need to maintain party unity has been weaponised to leverage in favour of a particular radical minority viewpoint in both major political parties. They dare not oppose the internal radicals because the radicals refuse to compromise or concede in the interests of party unity and represent an existential threat to both of our largest political parties.
But at the core it is also different in another respect. The two dominant leave scenarios are so deeply incompatible and so deeply unacceptable each to the other side within each party that this is not an ordinary issue about whether other options should be offered. It is not a matter of preferences, it is a matter of necessity to disambiguate the leave option into 1) something that genuinely represents leave voters, or groups of leave voters (in the name of genuinely respecting Democracy) and 2) something that is, at least in principle, implementable.
In reality it is about avoiding the disintegration and fragmentation of our politics and economic system with all the dangers that, that entails. This combines with the observation that it is envisaged to happen at a time when we will need to re-make most of our legislation and where our politicians will have no-one else to blame and fewer external constraints on their actions. Yet we expect this to be done by a parliamentary and party system in meltdown and with a growing threats from and opportunities for extremism on all sides.
That is the messy process of politics. We have seen these cusps before in moments such as the 3 day week and the miners strikes. But if we are frightened of change and run back into the safety of Remain then all the issues that led us to Brexit remain unresolved and swept under the carpet. Thus the Peoples Vote, far from resolving any problems just kicks them down the road for another day. Some of the key causes of the Brexit vote were migration, control by an aloof and distant ‘autocracy’ and unwanted integration. If we Remain these issues will only get worse over time and further fuel our Euroscepticism. Brexit2 is going to be a lot more painful then the current Leave options.
In respect to migration I think this article gives some useful insights;
And as for the “aloof and distant autocracy” perception is in the eye of the beholder.
Examples of Brussels distant and aloof understanding of it’s member states are not hard to find. If Brussels had not been so aloof when Cameron went to them for concessions before the referendum then the No vote may never have happened. Only a distant government with little understanding of local politics would think that putting the EU / UK border in the Irish Sea was a practical solution.The article on perceptions of immigration is interesting but by taking the results of the surveys purely at face value it is taking us back to the bigoted arguments that believe only the educated, liberal press reading voters have sufficient critical analysis to be able to make the right decisions in the voting booth. Such arguments are the crumbling bastion of those who want to believe that the biggest movement of people in Europe during peace-time cannot possibly have any negative effects.
You speak of concessions as if the failure to make concessions on demand was some form of deliberately offensive and unreasonable behaviour. However much the right of free movement to work has been politicised in the UK it is seen as a basic right attached to EU membership by many in other countries in the EU, and by many in the UK who want to work, travel, study and live in the EU. One problem with the Brexit issue is that, given the current distribution of opinions and options, it is very hard to find any compromise solution that any group would consider any better than either of the extreme options of leave without a deal or attempt to cancel leaving all-together. If a compromise were possible it would be preferable but it is hard to believe that the risks and pitfalls were thought through before calling the referendum or are being seriously considered even now.
Then you refer to the border issue in Northern Ireland as if there were only one untenable option in the intractible dilemma of northen Ireland border issue. With apologies to anyone who knows better for any errors in my understanding of the northern ireland situation. But my understanding is that in northen ireland we had conflict between two communities one that identified more strongly with the rest of ireland and one that identified more strongly with the UK. The good Friday agreement, negotiated in part with the assistance of the EU attempted to provide assurance to both communities that neither would be involuntarily drawn any further into the sphere of influence of either Ireland or the UK and that they could live in a politically stable situation that respected the preferences of both communities and allow them to keep their allegiancies. The fact that both Ireland and the UK are members of the EU and are subject to EU law helped to underwrite the peace agreement despite distrust of the governments involved. In my opinion placing a border anywhere, whether it is physical or virtual effectively undermines the psychology and the principle of the peace agreement and the assurance that both communities feel that their interests will not be undermined or betrayed. The idea that there can be withdrawal from the single market without a border is a misunderstanding and the choice of where the border goes would unavoidably alienate either one community or the other. It is saddening that these issues are dismissed by some in the Brexit debate simply because the facts do not fit an unrelated agenda. Peace in northern ireland was a great achievement and gives hope in what can be achieved. But it can also be lost.
The article on perception of immigration says nothing about the attitudes of those who hold those perceptions. No one is responsible for how they see things around them but people who study perception ask questions about how and why people perceive things in certain ways. Yes, they are educated. You would not need educated people if education did not tell you things that you could not easily understand without education. What the research shows is that there are factors that affect perception of immigration (like age or living in an area with few immigrants) that are not directly linked to whether people are impacted in some way by immigration. Views about immigration are a matter of perception and it is potentially very harmful if perception and politics get mixed up on a sensitive issue like this that can affect peace in our communities and blight people’s lives. What this article should do, for anyone, is lead them to question their assumptions not to feel resentful, demeaned or ignored. How else can it be said in a way that does not offend people? On the other side of the coin, in no way should the problems that ordinary people face continue to be ignored as they have been for decades.
Dear Mr Junker
I write to you to ask if we the great unwashed could possibly change our minds about leaving the club that you own, oops, rule,oooops dictate.
Were really sorry for begging you to much to take our money and all the time it has taken to get passed your wire fencing.
We do understand that you only want our money as long as we do as you say, as long as we comply with the ever closer reich.
You would never have believed how much division there has been especially the losers, oops second vote.
We really would like to be part of your dynamic club, and we.appologise to you for asking questions about the corruption and self serving interest.
We are only to happy to contribute hundreds of millions every year to bail out other countries who retire at 50, whilst we extend our retirement to 66.
We are only too happy to be the biggest importer in the EU thereby generating billions of euros for your lifestyle.
When we return we will be good boys, don’t take away our influence or punish us as you did when we made our foolish bid for freedom.
All we wanted was to respect democracy, clearly we are wrong to do so and we won’t do it again.”.
We promise to tow the line, not afl questions, join the ever so stable euro, accept that the top jobs is n Europe should go to Germany.
Accept that we will not attempt to trade with other parts of the world unles you get your cut first.
We will also be happy for you to get rid of our useless government system and replace it with your clearly democratic system.
We will bow to your European laws, accept as many people who you don’t want in Europe.
We’re soooo soooo sorry
Please take us back
Foolish leave plebs