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A general election cannot resolve Brexit
01 Mar, 2018

Only a referendum has the authority to change course

Labour’s shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has called for a general election to resolve Brexit. That is also a popular option amongst Remainers who were shocked by the referendum result. It won’t stop Brexit, argues London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg.

Calls for a General Election

On Peston’s TV show on 11 February, John McDonnell did not rule out a second referendum though he said it would be divisive. He preferred a general election “on the issue, and all the other issues, because you then have a wider debate as well.”.

Amongst Remainers a general election has also been a popular way of reversing the June result. That is presented as a return to the traditions of Parliamentary sovereignty. It is also the reaction of people who lost a referendum, and so do not trust the people to return the right answer.

Elections are about everything

We do not have single issue elections. Instead, people vote for a government. Voters ask themselves whether they prefer Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. They would think about Brexit and immigration, but also about whether they think grammar schools are due for a come-back, whether Trident should be renewed, what about tuition fees and who can be trusted with the economy.

John McDonnell is therefore quite right. The election would be about everything. And in a sense Brexit is about everything. After all, people voted for all sorts of reasons, many of which had only the most tenuous connexion with EU membership. But that does not alter the fact that the question people answered was: Brexit?

A general election victory for say Corbyn on an anti-austerity platform might remove one of the grievances that led to the Brexit vote, but would not alter the vote. Electors might believe that they would have even less austerity after Brexit – remember the £350m.

If you want a single-issue vote, have a referendum – that is what they are for. Referenda are also especially useful for issues that cut across traditional party lines. What if your Conservative or Labour candidate is a Remainer when party policy is for Brexit? What would a vote for them actually mean?

We know from the 2017 election that people prioritised issues other than Brexit. 16m voted Remain in the referendum. Fewer than 3m voted for Remain parties (Liberal Democrat, Green). Tuition fees was more important than EU membership.

Counting the votes

Moreover, first past the post makes for a very unrepresentative Parliament.

The Conservative/ DUP grouping has 43% of the popular vote. The joint total share of the vote of the 2010 coalition parties exceeded 50%, though of course neither party had campaigned on the basis of a coalition. The last time before that a UK government had won more than half the popular vote was 1931.

Voters may also have to vote tactically if they wish to bring about an approximation of their desired result.

In many seats it does not matter how you vote, they are so safe. In 2017 only 70 seats changed hands, in 2010 111 seats. Almost a third of seats have not changed hands since 1945.

So while the winning party will claim a mandate for its policies, including on Brexit, it is pretty unlikely to have one that trumps the referendum.

One of the reasons why the June referendum had such a high turnout (and so has such high political force) is that it was fair: no gerrymandering, no wasted votes, every vote counted and counted the same.

What would Leave voters think?

And what if there was a Remain government? If it just set Brexit aside, would June’s Leave voters accept that? Especially if the vote for the government was much less than the vote for Leave? It is hard to see that such an action would heal the country.

Look at the numbers:


Leave – 17.4m

Remain – 16.1m

Turnout – 72%


2017 General Election:

Winning party (Conservatives) – 13.7m

Turnout – 69%


An election would not be divisive? Seriously?

Nor is there much in the argument that a referendum would be divisive and an election somehow not. Has the whole country rallied behind Theresa May and Arlene Foster in a demonstration of unity?

The country is divided. If it had not been divided the referendum result would have been 100:0. What happened that was so bad was not that the referendum divided the country or even that it showed that the country was divided. (Apart from the result itself,) the bad thing about the result was that it legitimised racism and nationalism. If Brexit takes place that will entrench racism and nationalism.

What would Labour’s policy be in a General Election?

Are you sure that Labour would campaign to Remain? Or even for a referendum on the terms?

Surely, based on its approach so far it would campaign on the basis that Brexit is what the people voted for – but Theresa May has made a hash of it; if Labour was in charge there would be a better Brexit.

We would do better to campaign for Labour to back a referendum on the terms without a prior election.


A general election would not resolve Brexit because people do not vote on a single issue.

A Remain government is unlikely to have a mandate strong enough in terms of votes to allow the Government to claim the authority to set the referendum result aside.

Only a referendum on the terms has the political legitimacy to change – or confirm – the country’s course.



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