#023 Meaningful Votes & People’s Votes
Representatives, Referenda & E.U. Exit Deals
In September 2019 the Labour Party, the UK’s largest and main opposition party, democratically adopted an essentially new policy at their annual conference. Part of this policy read as follows,
“Our party leader has made our way forward abundantly clear; a public vote on a deal agreed with the EU giving people a final say between a credible leave option and remain”
In doing so the Labour Party committed to advocating a new referendum, following, or possibly before, a future general election. This meant the Labour party had moved to a position which held any deal (preferably Labour’s negotiated deal) made between Britain and the European Union, must later be directly ratified or rejected, through a referendum, by the electorate at large.
Bearing in mind the seemingly unending turmoil and division brought about through former prime minister David Cameron‘s referendum gamble of 2015/2016, it is now worth exploring whether referenda have genuine value in our democracy and whether another referendum around Britain’s membership of, or relationship with, the European Union can be democratically justified.
In Britain today we currently employ a representative, parliamentary democracy which means the electorate as a whole, elect would be professional representatives to consider and vote on all political decisions introduced by the government in the House of Commons. If people in a particular area, or constituency, don’t like the decisions being made by their representative they can collectively vote them out and elect someone else in their place when the next general election rolls around. The decision of how to vote on every political decision then, is made solely by the individual representative (Member of Parliament) exercising their own judgement on behalf of their constituency, and the country, as a whole.
Now whereas this system works fairly well in practice and is in the main considered acceptable to most, in Britain and around the world, for national political decision making, it is also possible for parliament (elected representatives in the house of commons and appointed representatives in the house of lords) to decide that certain political decisions are particularly important, such as parliamentary votes on deals agreed with the EU, sometimes labelled as meaningful votes, to emphasise their importance.
Others are considered more important or significant still, and can, as a result, be effectively contracted out to the electorate as a whole, to make the decision or at least be consulted on the decision, directly, instead of, or in addition to, the decision being made by representatives in the normal way.
These are often labelled people’s votes, public votes, plebiscites or referenda, whether it is the electorate making the decision directly, as is the case for a legally binding referendum, or whether being consulted directly, as in an advisory or consultative referendum. It is important to remember however that members of parliament, not the people who elect them, are ultimately sovereign, and will decide all issues through voting in parliament, including when to delegate and allow the people at large to decide or express a collective view.
In 2015 and 2016 the conservative government proposed a referendum on Britain’s EU membership and won a huge majority in parliament in favour of putting the question to the public. This was set out in the form of an advisory referendum, meaning the result would have no legal effect or guarantees but allowed the electorate to be consulted and voice an opinion on whether the United Kingdom should remain in or leave the European Union. The representatives in parliament could then essentially take and interpret the advice offered by the result of the referendum as they pleased.
The winning 2015 general election conservative manifesto, that originally offered the referendum, is presented below, along with the European Union Referendum Bill 2015–16 that passed overwhelmingly through the houses of parliament, as evidence.
With this in mind, an official government booklet was later sent to every British household at the start of the referendum campaign period in 2016. This document subsequently confused the issue severely because despite the referendum being advisory and effectively a consultation exercise, shown above, the booklet inferred the 2016 referendum would somehow be direct sovereign decision making in action, particularly with the inclusion of phrases,
“The referendum on Thursday 23rd June is your chance to decide”
“This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.”
As a result of this confusion, along with the unwillingness of members of parliament to agree or compromise, the British parliament headed into a prolonged impasse where no agreement could be found on a way forward. This was only finally resolved with a change of prime minister and a general election in late 2019.
As a result of this turmoil there has been considerable debate about the value of referendums generally.
The question therefore is, was this turmoil caused by the fact a referendum was called at all or was there something flawed in the way this EU referendum specifically was undertaken, which theoretically could be resolved if another referendum was mandated and held in the future? And what implication does this have on political parties, like Labour or the SNP for instance, who may want to call for future referendums?
To explore this we must consider and evaluate if a referendum, in principle, can be democratically worthwhile…
So first of all a problem with referenda is they often reduce complex matters to simplistic binaries, for instance, in the case of the 2016 EU referendum, there was no option for expressing something like ‘I’d like to remain but with X reforms or caveats’ or for saying, ‘I’d like to leave but only with a deal that satisfies X criteria’.
Over simplification can render the result wide open to interpretation by political representatives, who will inevitably see what they want to see. This is particularly pertinent when the referendum is a consultative, advisory referendum, as oppose to a clearly defined, unambiguous, legally binding referendum, where the result isn’t really a direct decision making exercise in itself, but rather a pre-cursor and political tool for representatives to make decisions in the future.
Political representatives therefore have an obligation to clearly delineate the function any future referendum would serve in our democratic system, alongside carefully considering and explaining the options offered to the wider electorate.
A second problem with referenda is that they can be used by voters as a proxy for the electorate to kick or bolster a particularly prominent politician or political party, rather than to voice a view on the particular issue in question only.
This can be addressed to an extent however through politicians and media sticking to the pros and cons of the issue at hand, the arguments & facts, and avoiding personalising & stereotyping. Equally politicians not resigning if the vote doesn’t go their way, as David Cameron did in 2016 despite saying he would not leading up to the vote, can help too.
Finally, and most importantly, the value of a referendum result is determined by whether the wider electorate can be as informed and objective as the body of professional representatives would be, in making the decision. This is in practice difficult if mass media and social media misinformation is not carefully regulated and relentlessly fact checked before, or just after, being widely propagated.
On the other hand a referendum has the advantage of directly questioning a much larger section of the population than elected politicians can possibly represent and in theory these people are more objective than professional politicians tied to party loyalties, lobbyist demands and individualist career prospects.
So can a future referendum on an EU deal, or on any other political question, genuinely be a worthwhile and legitimate democratic exercise, if offered in good faith?
All things considered yes, but only if the flaws and mistakes of the 2016 referendum are properly learn’t from by politicians, and the details highlighted and explored here are taken into account responsibly, when legislating for and bringing forward a new referendum.
It could also be argued a new referendum needs a mandate of its own beyond the normal procedure of a parliamentary vote by representatives, which in practice means a general election, where a referendum is promised in the winning manifesto. Even this isn’t perfect, because voters could vote for the party with the referendum in its manifesto, for other reasons, but it’s the best we have in our system as it stands.
Even if a referendum is worthwhile and offered in good faith by a political party, it may still get rejected by many voters. In this case, mistakes have already been made and it is difficult for a new referendum to avoid looking like a vehicle simply to reverse a previous referendum result, even if this is genuinely not the intention of those at the top of the Labour Party. Politicians generally only have themselves, and past executive governments, to blame for this, but overall referenda are not flawed in and of themselves.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear most of the problems Britain has faced with regards to the EU question, are attributed to the way the June 2016 European Union referendum specifically, was conducted and carried out.
Going forward, regardless of how individuals perceive the subjective value of referenda generally, or how they perceive the 2016 EU referendum specifically, we can collectively learn from the experiences that have happened to the nation and we can recognise referendums and indeed even “second referendums” are fundamentally legitimate IF democratically demanded and achieved through the ballot box.