Ballot box
Ballot box

The calls for a second referendum on Brexit are growing louder. Many Labour members and MPs support People’s Vote, The Independent is running its own petition, Gina Miller has added her weight to the campaign and even Tories like Justine Greening and John Major are in favour. Several newspaper leaders, noting that no single position commands a parliamentary majority, are saying, “The electorate got us into this position, let them sort it out.”

The problem is that referenda, far from sorting things out, can create a bigger mess. Clearly the outcome depends on what question is asked. One idea gaining traction is, rather than a yes/no question, to give a choice between remain, soft Brexit and no deal (hard Brexit).

In June, YouGov carried out a poll for The Economist on this basis and the results were:

  • Remain 40%
  • Hard Brexit 37%
  • Soft Brexit 14%
  • Don’t Know 9%

So, who wins? Amazingly each camp can claim victory. If we use first past the post, Remain win. We would stay in the EU with 51% voting to leave. If preferential voting is used, the 2nd preferences of Soft are distributed. This gave Hard 47% and Remain 44%. Hard win but with less than 50% of the vote. In this case it is because of Don’t Knows but a similar result could happen if significant numbers do not use their 2nd preference.

A third way of interpreting the results is to distribute all 2nd preferences and look at the results of 3 two-way contests; Hard v Remain, Soft v Remain and Soft v Hard.

We have already seen that Hard beat Remain but Soft win the other two contests as the majority of 2nd preferences of both Hard and Remain will be for Soft. So in this system Soft win 2 – 1 even though it was the least popular on 1st preferences.

This example shows how a referendum with 3 options can really muddy the waters. The months of squabbling which would follow would create a vacuum that the far right are ready to fill. The only way a clear winner can be decided is if one camp gains 50%+ on the first vote. It would be very brave, indeed foolhardy, to call for a referendum in these circumstances.

If the Tories cobble together a deal, they could offer a referendum with a choice between back the deal or no deal. We would be caught between a rock and a hard place, campaigning for something we don’t believe in. In such circumstances, and if negotiations break down and we are left with no deal, we should be pushing for a vote of no confidence followed by a General Election. For two years the Tories have been promising to deliver Brexit with a good deal for Britain. When this promise is broken we will be in a strong position. With inequality rising, crises in health, education, housing, local government and on the railways, Universal Credit a fiasco and austerity still biting, we desperately need a Labour Government. We have a clear programme to sort out this mess; let’s not be distracted by calls for a referendum.

Dennis Farrell – Shipley Branch member, August 2018

Please note that member blog posts do not necessarily represent national or local Labour Party policy.

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