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So, is it a referendum we want?
19 Jun, 2018

We must address concerns head on

It’s called the People’s Vote because research shows that that phrase plays better than “referendum”. But we must not shy away from addressing concerns about a further referendum, otherwise voters will feel deceived. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg writes.

Deliberate ambiguity?

For some, the appeal of “the people’s vote” is that it might mean a general election. I have set out already on this site why a general election cannot resolve Brexit.

We should assume that those politicians who call for a general election are primarily concerned with getting into government, not with stopping Brexit. In 2017 both Conservatives and Labour campaigned for Brexit with the differentiation being on how they would implement it. Nothing that has happened since suggests that they would take a different approach in another pre-Brexit election. In 2017 the Remain parties attracted just 3m votes.

People react differently to different phrases

We have long known that how a question is presented and worded matters a lot in opinion polls and votes – the Annex to this blog contains some interesting links if you wish to pursue this further. So I understand why campaigners have chosen “People’s Vote”.

We must address concerns about “a referendum”

We must not hide behind language that conceals what we wish to do. It is like campaigning to stay in the single market on trade grounds without addressing concerns about immigration. We have to confront concerns head on. People will learn soon enough what we are really about. We risk them feeling deceived if we have not been open with them.

Striking about a referendum is that there are – different – concerns expressed by both Remainers and Leavers.

The People’s vote campaign is addressing already the whole issue around the legitimacy of another vote. So the points I make below address questions that would come up from use of the R-word.

"A referendum on the terms would be a re-run of 2016"

Absolutely not. 2016 was a vote on an idea. A referendum on the terms would be quite different because for the first time people would choose between two defined options: the EU as it is; and Brexit as planned in the Withdrawal and Transition Agreements and the Framework of Future Relations. So there would be a single, defined, concrete Brexit plan on the table.

Further, we have learned so much about the EU, about Brexit, about the UK’s relationship with the EU, about the world, about our prospects. Our knowledge base would be so much higher than in 2016. London4Europe Vice-Chair Nick Hopkinson has written and compiled a wide-ranging brief making the anti-Brexit case which will be a real boon to campaigners.

"It would be the start of a Neverendum"

Maybe, but so what? Democracy did not end in 1975 when Remain won that referendum, nor on 23 June 2016 when Leave won, nor would it end with the referendum on the terms whoever wins, nor would it end if we left the EU without a referendum.

If the result for Remain is close, it would be “unfinished business”, as Nigel Farage said. Leave could try for another vote, but would have to come up with a markedly different and realistic Brexit option and show that it had enough support to justify a referendum.

But above all holding a referendum would mean that the pro-EU lobby in order to win convincingly would have to make an effective case to Leave voters to vote Remain in their own best interests. That is something we have not yet focussed on doing. If we did, we might make some real impact on public opinion.

"A referendum would be divisive"

The country is divided. A referendum would express those divisions.

But it also provides an opportunity to heal the country if we can persuade the other side to our way of thinking and have that reflected in the result. Nigel Farage also said “If the remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it”. In 1975 the result was 67R:33L.

Brexit without a further vote, or a decision ostensibly made in a general election wrapped up with everything else, would do nothing to heal the country.

"We have a Parliamentary democracy, referenda are the tool of dictators, not suitable for complex binary questions, …"

Whatever. We began this process with a referendum; now only a referendum has the political authority to confirm or change course.

More arguments you can deploy are set out in these blogs: Parliamentary Sovereignty, too difficult a question/ tool of demagogues, what would the ballot paper look like (binary questions), three choices on the ballot paper?, whether the terms will be fixed, whether the terms will be clear, interaction of a referendum with negotiations, “the EU always re-runs referenda until it gets the right answer”.

The core justification for a referendum on the terms

It’s very simple. In 2016 Leave had no agreed plan. It was a vote on an idea. No-one takes a project from idea to implementation without a review of the plan. At that review not doing the project is always an option. Giving the project review decision to the same people as approved the idea is an honourable open and transparent way of proceeding.

Conclusion

I don’t mind calling the campaign People’s Vote if that helps to rouse interest. But then we should be explicit that we are seeking a referendum. People’s concerns with the thought of a further referendum should be addressed head on.

Sign up to the campaign for a referendum on the terms, demand the Final Say, march on Saturday 23 June 2018, and register for – the People’s Vote.

 


 

ANNEX: DIFFERENT WAYS OF PHRASING THE QUESTION

Lord Ashcroft in January 2018 asked four different questions essentially about support for a further referendum, all using the “referendum” word (scroll down to “Brexit and a second referendum”; then ignore the first paragraph). Support came from Remainers and was the same on all variants. Opposition came from Leave voters; it was highest to “a second referendum”. Opposition was lowest to a choice between accepting the deal and leaving with no deal – and that was the only option to offer clear support for a further vote. In the middle for the degree of opposition were two variants offering a choice of Brexit or Remain.

Professor John Curtice discussed the issue of choice of wording more fully in his 8 February 2018 article. The reasons why people might react differently were discussed by Professor Jennifer Hornsby in her 26 February 2018 LSE blog.

Professor Curtice returned to the subject in an article on 16 April 2018 discussing two polls on the question conducted for Best of Britain. The question asking “do you think there should or should not be a public vote” was unpopular; the question asking “do you think the public should or should not have a final say” received net support.

“Final say” is the phrase used by that indefatigable campaigner for a referendum on the terms, Labour MP Geraint Davies, whose bill calling for one has no prospect of being enacted but might provide an opportunity for debate; you can follow its progress here.

 

 

Blogs on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily those of London4Europe.