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Two choices - two dates
02 Aug, 2018

A way to reduce the betrayal narrative?

A three-way referendum is probably unworkable. But it might reduce the post-referendum betrayal narrative if done like this: Round 1 chooses the best Brexit option to go forward; Round 2 chooses between Brexit and Remain. London for Europe Committee Member and former Home Office Senior Civil Servant Michael Romberg writes.

** Updated 21 January 2019 with link to second UKTPO blog **

I have previously argued that a three way ballot is in practice unworkable. That is still my preferred view. In part that is because it is hard to design a system that is truly neutral. In this article I have tried to be objective, but you will still need to aim off for my – I hope obvious - bias. I am still sure it is unworkable if we are talking about multiple options in a single ballot. But since it is proving a popular discussion point, let’s consider whether it would work better with a two-stage ballot – though I can already hear the reaction from Brenda from Bristol.

Problems with multiple choice

A reason why it is all so difficult is that options are not cumulative. That means that someone who prefers Brexit 1 will not certainly prefer Brexit 2 to Remain. Similarly, some people might prefer Remain to Brexit 1 but would prefer Brexit 2 to Remain.

There is also a risk of ending up with an unwanted compromise. Brexiters might vote for the hardest Brexit and give their second preference to the less hard Brexit (better than nothing); Remainers might give their second preference to the less hard Brexit (damage limitation). And so the middle option ends up as the winner even if no-one really wants it. That can be avoided by plumping, by only giving a first choice. But not everyone will go along with that.

The need to game the vote, to consider how others will vote, is still there and undermines the validity of the vote.

It might work reasonably well if it was clear that there were only two realistic options. For example the London mayoral elections have in practice always been a choice between Labour and Conservative. So a rational voter would give their first choice to the candidate they honestly favoured; and their second choice to no-one (if their first choice was Labour or Conservative) or to whichever of Labour or Conservative they disliked least. But it will be hard to know in advance whether that is the case.

A two stage vote

The London mayoral election is a bit like a French-style two stage vote but with both stages held at the same time. What if we did it French style with a two (or more) week gap between stages to allow for more campaigning?

Much would depend on what the order of the two questions was:

  • First we decide whether to leave the EU and then decide the best Brexit; or
  • First we decide what the best Brexit would be and then decide whether to leave the EU.

Leavers would argue for the first approach: indeed, they say that 2016 has settled the question of leaving, and so all that is left is to decide the form of Brexit. That has not in practice worked.

Nor does it work in theory. Without deciding what the alternative is one cannot properly make a final decision. Consider: my flat is too small so I decide to move home. I look at other properties that I can afford. It turns out there is nothing that is better (location, size, price) than what I have. If the Leavers’ approach was right I would have to move anyway. In real life I abandon the idea. Always a decision on an idea is provisional until there is an actual plan to compare with the do-nothing option. Then there is a binary choice.

The 2016 vote should then properly be seen as a decision to explore the options.

So the right order for the next round of voting would be: choose the best Brexit; then set that against Remain.

That means that unlike a French Presidential election not all options would be available in the first round. The first round would ask which Brexit would you prefer if there is to be a Brexit? The second round would ask Brexit or Remain?

(You could have Remain as an option in Round 1 and give everyone just one vote, the two winners going forward to the next round. But that would detract from the clarity of choosing the best Brexit champion.)

Choosing the best available Brexit

The Government will have spent two and a half years choosing and negotiating the best Brexit. So why should the citizens bother working out what the best Brexit is? Why not just have a single two-way choice: the Government’s deal or Remain?

The only real answer that I can see is that a two stage process would reduce the impact of the betrayal narrative – that if only some other Brexit had been put forward the electorate would have chosen that over Remain.

Unless the EU makes a spectacular U-turn on the linkage of the four freedoms and does allow a have-your-cake-and-eat-it Brexit, there are only three Brexits on offer:

  • Norway/EEA + Customs Union
  • Canada FTA (+ Northern Ireland backstop)
  • Crash out/ no deal/ WTO

The Chequers plan is still in cake territory. But if it forms the basis of an agreement with the EU it will end up in one of those families. So we could have round 1 to choose which of those three Brexits is the champion (the Government’s deal and two theoretical models representing the two other families of deal). Probably we would use some form of Alternative Vote (first and second preference). Round 2 would then be a straight choice between the best available Brexit as chosen in Round 1 and Remain.

Enough economic analysis has been done of these options to allow a reasonable picture to emerge – though it will be disputed; fair enough, let’s debate. Key differences like freedom of movement will be clear. Cake will be off the menu.

It would not totally prevent the betrayal narrative. Leavers would be able to say that since Remainers had a vote in Round 1 the Brexit that was chosen was not necessarily the one most likely to succeed (although some Remainers would respond to a choice of bad options by spoiling their ballot or staying away). Leavers could claim that if they had been in charge of the negotiations it would have been possible to have our cake and eat it – so that option should be on the table. That the system for choosing the winning Brexit option was biased. There will be plenty of other bases for the betrayal narrative.

Backward Induction

Economists call the process I have suggested  "Backward induction". The argument for using it in the Brexit case is set out elegantly in this blog by Professor Alan Winters of the University of Sussex UK Trade Policy Observatory. A further blog provides a worked example that illustrates the problems of multiple choice. 


As a means of making a good decision I still think that multiple choice is too complex, too open to bias and gaming, too hard to identify advocates for the different options, too difficult to define options clearly. It would be best to have a straight choice between the Government’s plan and Remain.

However, to win the peace after the vote there is an argument for taking steps to reduce the scope for a betrayal narrative. A multiple choice process might be a part of that. One way to do that would be to have a two-stage referendum. Stage 1 chooses between the three Brexit models available in the real world; Stage 2 a little later between the Brexit champion and Remain.




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