A People’s Vote: What is the Question?

I have just attended my first anti-Brexit protest, a rally where MPs from all the main parties except the SNP called for a People’s Vote.

The call fell on sympathetic ears, but the speakers were pretty vague about the question “the people” were to answer.

Lib Dems were the first to demand that, given the impossible promises made in the Brexit campaign, once a deal had been negotiated voters should be given a chance to say whether that was a version of Brexit that they wanted, and whether, in the light of the outcome of negotiations, they wanted to change their mind on whether to leave the EU or not. Others have been slower to catch up, but it looks as if an ‘endorsing’ referendum might now be the only way forward.

In that case, what should the question(s) be?  I had assumed that “People’s Vote” with all its resources might have a preferred answer, but (presumably to hold their alliance together) their website is not yet specific.

Lib Dems are not so constrained, and we are in a position now to decide where we stand, so that we can continue to take the lead.

The apparent difficulty is that there are three possible ways forward: no deal, May’s deal, and no Brexit.

A simple referendum with one question and three possible answers are out of the question:  the chances of a clear outcome (over 50% in favour of anything) are minimal.  Moreover, however different the deal is from the original 2016 Brexit ‘prospectus’, the original 52% vote cannot be overridden with any number less than 50%

Nor will taking any one of the three options off the table is seen as legitimate.  If our “sovereign parliament”, having ignored its duty for two years, were to take responsibility for removing one option altogether, then a simple referendum would be the way forward.  However, if parliament doesn’t, can British voters cope with a referendum which is not a simple choice between 2 options?

I think so.

One answer that immediately comes to mind is an AV vote.  However, as we know to our cost, British voters are opposed to AV, having been told that they are not smart enough to rank three choices in order of preference.

An elegant alternative would be to ask two questions serially instead of in parallel, on one ballot paper.

The first question could mirror the one Parliament is currently debating:

Question 1

Should the UK exit the EU on the terms that our government has now negotiated with the EU?

Yes or No?

Followed by:

Question 2

IF  the majority vote NO to the government’s deal in Question 1, should the UK then.

2a Remain in the EU


2b Leave without a deal

Having undertaken informal “research”  (presenting friends, non-political colleagues, fellow LibDems and finally members of the public at a People’s Vote market stall with my dummy “ballot paper”), I am convinced that the approach I’m recommending the fairest, viable and easy to understand. It is an approach to the question that will result in a realistic outcome reflecting the majority sentiment.

As time passes the question of what the question is becomes ever more urgent.  Delay plays into the hands of Brexiteers, whose strength is that their (simplistic) position is simple to express.  Lib Dem members need to have a discussion, and then an agreed party position that we can all start arguing for as soon as the second referendum is approved.



* Meher is a Lib Dem member and a member of the Race Equality Working Group

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • I disagree. No deal would be so utterly catastrophic that it would be incredibly irresponsible to have it as an option at all.

    Straight choice between whatever brexit the government decides on and remain is the sensible way to go.

  • Peter Martin 12th Dec '18 - 1:55pm

    The apparent difficulty is that there are three possible ways forward: no deal, May’s deal, and no Brexit.

    We know what “no-deal” and “no Brexit” mean but about May’s so-called “deal”?

    What is it exactly? There are so many vagaries about the deal that it’s impossible to know. If it turns out as Theresa May claims, it will mean the UK will have an independent trade policy and we regain full control of our laws. There will be a trade agreement and no backstop etc. If it turns out to be half as bad as her critics claim then we’ll be a vassal state with little or no control. The UK will be split into two. The UK waters will be under the control of EU fisheries policy.

    If there is to be a new referendum, it can’t include the May deal until the details have been finalised. All that can be done is ask the same question as before: Remain or leave.

    The Remainers will hope for a different answer. The Leavers will be indignant that we are all being asked again when we gave an answer in 2016.

  • Richard Underhill 12th Dec '18 - 2:16pm

    Stephen: Yes. No deal is widely agreed to be unacceptable. Committee chairman Hilary Benn has an amendment to the meaningful vote which has been withdrawn at the moment. Tom Brake also thinks that there should only be two options, so ‘no deal’ should not reach the ballot paper, as he told us in a public meeting recently.

  • David Becket 12th Dec '18 - 3:53pm

    I have changed my mind a number of times on this and come round to the two options.

    When Brexit was voted for by a small majority most would have assumed that the government would have negotiated a way out of the EU. Nobody in their right mind would have assumed that we just walk away and close our borders with Europe..

    May has, at last, negotiated a deal.It took a long time and she made far too many mistakes on the way, but she got a deal of sorts. The EU argue that is it. No deal was going to be perfect and Johnson’s “Cake and Eat it” and Davies’s “easy negotiation” were hogwash, as are their current utterings.

    So we now have a deal, and the option should be that deal or revoke Article 50. Even if the MPs vote against her deal the public started this and the public should have the final say.

    We should not give the public the option of walking away and doing untold damage to both the UK and the EU.

  • The question will be decided by the sitting government and main opposition parties. Not by pressure from a hard-core of Remainers trying to overturn both the referendum and a 498 to 118 majority in parliament.

  • Meher Oliaji 12th Dec '18 - 6:42pm

    Thank you Joseph Bourke for reminding us that the question will be determined by the Electoral Commission, and that it will need to be free of bias. I am assuming that if we DO get offered another referendum to break us out of our impasse, parliament will either decide to have only two options, or will try to avoid that responsibility. We may prefer the first route, but if Parliament does NOT rule out NO DEAL then the electoral commission will include three options. I have assumed they will consult interested parties and give us a chance to make our views known. I may be wrong.

  • The issue for us is how to build up enthusiasm amongst the people of the country for membership of the European Union. This means trying to get the truth known. I keep hearing about getting a better deal. I have not been able to find out what that means. It is clear to me at least that we have to have a border in Ireland if the Republic is in the EU and the North is not. Talking about technological solutions does not change this fact. I can find no evidence of any real ability to campaign on the reality of the EU.
    Where is the party’s plan to win support for our membership of the EU?

  • John Hinsley 12th Dec '18 - 10:26pm
  • David Evershed 13th Dec '18 - 10:26am

    As per the John Hinsley link

    Consider the three available options on a scale running from anti to pro-EU. The two options of remaining in the EU or exiting without a deal lie at the two extremes of the scale. Leaving the EU with the negotiated deal lies somewhere between. This would make a two-option referendum controversial so a three-option vote might be preferable. However, that raises the question of how you get a meaningful mandate.

    We argue that a “Borda count” (named after the 18th-century mathematician Jean-Charles de Borda) should be used in this three-way referendum. On polling day, voters rank the three options, marking their favourite with a “1”, their second favourite with a “2”, and their worst option with a “3”. For each ballot, the rule assigns 2 points to each voter’s first option, 1 to their second, and 0 to their third. The option with most points wins.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Dec '18 - 11:24am

    The Borda count sounds great, but it has its own problems: firstly, that it’s a bit arbitrary in ascribing points values – why 2,1,0? Why not 4,1,0? Or 3,2,0? It’s not obviously true that I like my first-choice option exactly twice as much as my second choice.
    It’s also open to gaming: die-hard Brexit or Remain supporters, fearing that the May deal would indeed win as the compromise option, are likely to advise their supporters not to give a second choice at all – a gamble that increases the likelihood of getting your first choice at the expense of a greater risk of getting your least favourite.
    (And this, of course, assumes that the premise of the Conversation article is correct that the May deal is every Remainer and No-dealer’s second choice: a questionable assumption.)

  • Peter Hirst 13th Dec '18 - 1:31pm

    It seems the logical vote though it would mean two distinct votes and to expect people to vote on the second, not knowing the vote on the first might be a step too far. You could send two separate ballot papers with two enveloppes and the second is completed and posted when the result of the first is known. It might work and be accepted.

  • Steven Deller 13th Dec '18 - 2:58pm

    We the people of the United Kingdom have confidence in parliament’s ability to govern our country. Agree or Disagree.

    Should disagree wins all current MP’s, their parties and party members are excluded from the subsequent general election.

  • Peter midgley 31st Jan '19 - 3:18am

    What everyone is missing is this: given that parliament voted down May’s agreement AND have indicated that there is no majority for ‘no-deal’, AND have not had the brains or the courage to stand up and reject brexit unless mandated by a typically significant majority – say 75% or at least 66.6% as is required for big changes to company or charity rules – what could make the HoC ratify any one of the three possible results?

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