MPs fail to learn referendum lessons

by Luke Lythgoe | 12.04.2017

A Brexiter-dominated committee of MPs has produced a report called “Lessons learned from the EU Referendum”. Unsurprisingly, given its composition, it misses two of the biggest failings of last year’s vote: post-truth politics and the low threshold needed for success. What’s more, it failed to draw full conclusions from some of the failings that it identified.

Don’t call referenda lightly

The committee is right that David Cameron shouldn’t have used a referendum as a ploy to close down unwelcome debate within the Tory party. It also makes a good case that, if a government does agree to hold a referendum, it should be neutral in the process, plan for either outcome and then be willing to implement the result. Cameron did none of these things, one of the reasons for the subsequent chaos.

However, the corollary of all this is that governments should only call referenda and abandon our tradition of representative democracy if there’s a really strong case for doing so. This might be the case if the people are clearly demanding a plebiscite or there’s an important constitutional question that has to be decided. Neither was so last year.

What did Vote Leave mean?

Another problem the committee highlights is the asymmetry of the question. It was pretty clear what voting Remain meant, but not at all clear what voting Leave meant. This is why we’ve seen months of wrangling over the single market, customs union, European Court of Justice and so forth. The MPs rightly say: “Voters should be presented with a choice, where the consequences of either outcome are clear.”

What the committee doesn’t say is how this could have been achieved on Brexit. One option would have been for Cameron’s government to have spelt out in advance of the referendum the type of Brexit it would have sought to negotiate. There would still have been wrangling inside the Tory party before that line had been agreed. But it would surely have been better to have had all that before rather than after June 23.

Policing the facts

One issue the committee doesn’t tackle at all is whether anything can be done to improve the accuracy of information made available to voters – despite this being one of the main topics that exercised organisations that gave evidence. One only has to look at Vote Leave’s Turkish scare stories and lie that we send £350m a week to Brussels to see there is a problem.

Expert witnesses suggested plenty of solutions: official statistics bodies closely advising campaigners; a regulatory role for the Electoral Commission; an impartial voter guide providing basic information; a new body based on the Dutch precedent to judge the feasibility of financial plans. Such proposals undoubtedly raise tricky questions such as who would judge what information is impartial and how would one ensure that any new body wasn’t itself biased. But it is still extraordinary that the MPs didn’t examine these ideas in their report.

A higher threshold for disruptive change

Another omission was their failure to look at whether some sort of super-majority should be required for big constitutional changes. The introduction of a threshold above 50% for future referenda could be helpful for properly settling matters and avoiding societal division.

Again, this was an issue raised by expert witnesses. Again, the committee failed to address it in their report. But if a further EU referendum is ever held, a higher threshold should be considered. Without it, we risk an endless cycle of animosity and near 50/50 votes.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    5 Responses to “MPs fail to learn referendum lessons”

    • Luke – sorry to be picky, but can we at least have (or preferably not have!) ‘referendums’ not ‘referenda’ (you can’t have a plural gerund)?
      See The Economist Style Guide.

    • So-called Brexit is still being used as a ploy to stifle debate within the Tory Party and the country as a whole. I feel extremely angry that politicians are allowed to get away with gambling away the nation’s future to further their own ambitions. This applies not only Cameron, but also to Johnson and to May, both of whom put their ambitions before the future of the nation.

    • Or rather, to be picky about my own grammar – you can have a plural in English by adding an s, but not in the original Latin!

    • How far do you think the fact that it was an advisory referendum persuaded Cameron – and all MPs who approved having a referendum – that they weren’t taking the risk they really were?

      • Unfortunately, Cameron was inconsistent about the advisory nature on the referendum. Not surprisingly, Brexiters see it as binding (and remember it as always being binding) while Remainers see it as advisory (because, you know, it was).

        Cameron, and then May’s insistence after the fact that ‘the will of the people’ must be enacted (suggesting that now they too consider it binding) is actually the greater abrogation because many people on the Remain side also took the referendum as note being all that important as it wasn’t binding.