General elections answer a different question from a referendum
London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg explores why Remainers did not all back the Liberal Democrats. The key reason is that elections and referenda ask different questions. They are also fought under different rules. So the only way forward to stop Brexit is a People’s Vote.
A look at the numbers
In the 2016 referendum 16 million – the 48% - voted Remain.
The June 2017 general election had only slightly lower turnout. The Remain parties attracted 4 million Votes (13%), of which the Liberal Democrats had 2 million (7%).
True, in spite of its clearly pro-Brexit manifesto, many Labour voters thought they were backing a Remain party. Separate polls in December 2017 show that over half of students who voted Labour thought that the party and Jeremy Corbyn stood for Remain and 40% of potential Labour voters thought the party was opposed to Brexit.
In addition, some Conservative and Labour MPs stood for Remain and a referendum on the terms and so could genuinely be backed by Remainers. Some Remain organisations backed Labour on tactical grounds, given the limitations of first past the post.
Recent opinion polls show the Liberal Democrats hovering around 10%.
Neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Remain parties in aggregate have become the party of the 48%.
What is the question?
A referendum asks about a single policy. Even if voters answer a different question they know that subsequent actions will relate to the referendum question.
A general election in practice asks who should form the Government? That is not determined by a single policy, no matter how important. Voters are offered package deals. No-one likes all their party’s policies. Brexit is no different: it’s just one issue amongst several.
Few electors read the manifestos. Voting is based on personalities – who should be Prime Minister and supporting cast? It takes into account the brand that the parties have built up over the years: nice/ nasty; efficient/ wasteful; caring/ hard-hearted; coherent/ opportunistic.
There is of course a string of systemic problems for the Liberal Democrats and other minor parties to overcome: First Past the Post, lack of media attention, funding shortfalls, lack of credibility as a potential winner/ fear of a wasted vote.
Would another pre-Brexit general election be different?
It might, if voters really perceived it to be a referendum on Brexit. After all, the 2017 election came relatively early on. Getting on for half of the 48% at that time believed that the referendum result meant that we had to leave; that figure has fallen substantially since. On the other hand, the hard Remainers were particularly unforgiving of the Liberal Democrats’ coalition years.
For the next election to be a Brexit election would require the parties and voters to either ignore non-Brexit policies or set them entirely in a Brexit/ Remain context.
It is hard to believe that voters would see a general election like that. Remember that 2017 was meant to be a Brexit election - Theresa May called it to enhance her negotiating mandate. But in the end it just a general election like any other. Vauxhall which had voted 78% Remain re-elected Labour ultra-Leaver Kate Hoey.
I would expect another pre-Brexit general election to be just another general election, not a second referendum.
The answer? A referendum on the terms
A general election asks who should form a government. So only a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain – a People’s Vote giving us the final say - focuses on the question. What began with a referendum can only be confirmed or changed by a referendum.
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