In defence of the “second referendum”

When Farron announced that we were pushing for another referendum on Europe, I agreed with those who accused the Lib Dems of ignoring democracy because we didn’t like the result. While I still sympathise with these criticisms, I have eventually come around to the party’s position. Or at least – I think that there is a strong principled case for it (I still have some practical questions).

This case is based on accountability. Election results are not the be all and end all of democracy, they are part of a wider process. In a General Election, this process involves political parties making their case to the British people, and the public choosing which party they like best. Crucially, the people then judge how well that party has followed through with their promises, and hold them to account at the next election (as we know only too well in the Lib Dems).

Of course, I understand that you can’t have referendums every five years, but there still has to be some mechanism of accountability to make a vote democratically viable.  Otherwise, campaigners can just say whatever they think will get people to vote for them, whether it’s achievable or not. The alleged “£350 million for the NHS” was the most infamous case of this, but Leave campaigners also hedged their bets wildly on the single market – much more significantly in my view. The Remain camp lied too (Osborne said that he would introduce an emergency budget after Brexit, Cameron said that he would stay on as Prime Minister) but as we lost anyway, these lies aren’t as pressing from a democratic perspective, as we know they didn’t change the result. 

The bottom line is that democracy without accountability is not real democracy. Brexiteers like Gove, Johnson and Farage were not in power during the referendum campaign, and did not expect to be in power on the 24th of June regardless of the result. So they were able to say whatever they thought would win votes for Brexit, without worrying about the follow through. Maybe these lies and hedged bets tipped the referendum result – maybe they didn’t. The only way to establish this is to have another referendum, once we know what kind of Brexit we are going to get. If the Remainers won that referendum, that wouldn’t be an establishment stitch-up subverting the will of the people. It would be an indication that the form of Brexit which we’ve ended up with isn’t what people wanted. It’s called accountability – and it’s completely legitimate.

As I said, I remain unsure about the practicalities of this. Would there be enough time for another referendum? Would the public buy into it? Would the EU give us a terrible deal to encourage us to vote it down? But, in principle, I have come around to the argument that a referendum on the terms of Brexit would not be a subversion of democracy.

I happen to think that the Brexiteers would win again – but perhaps recent political events have turned me into a pessimist.

* Ben is a Councillor in Sutton, and the Vice Chair of the Environment & Transport Committee at Sutton Council. He has been a member of the party since the 2015 election, and used to work for the Sutton Liberal Democrats as a volunteer organiser. Ben now works for a charity promoting the greater use of Restorative Justice in the criminal justice system.

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  • John Barrett 24th Mar '17 - 11:17am

    Unlike Ben, I am not convinced of the case for a second referendum and think that if Tim and the party hope to win over many more people to that view, it will have to come up with a much stronger case than we have here.

    Both sides made false claims during the EU referendum and sadly making promises that cannot be delivered has become the standard in many elections. Whether or not and by how much this influences the result is not yet absolutely clear. Many campaigning on both sides said that leaving the EU would mean leaving the single market and despite being shown recorded clips of this on political programmes many still deny this was said during the campaign. Others on the leave side made claims which may or may not have altered the result. I suspect that the absolute truth about the effect of bogus campaigning on election results may never be known.

    One practical point about pushing for a second EU referendum (where the party did not agree with the result) and apposing a second Independence referendum (where the party was happy with the result) is that it looks hypocritical.

    A second issue is that as we believe in STV and multiple choices being put in front of the electorate, it could be argued that the decision to leave was taken last year and that any future referendum should accept that decision and be about the negotiated terms, while still accepting the first result. That would mean that another referendum would be a choice of leaving with the negotiated deal or leaving with no deal.

    What the party wants is neither of the above and to reverse the original decision, but without actually saying that. If the line from our party is that we accept the result of the first referendum, but that we want a second referendum to change that result, is it any wonder that people will question our honesty.

  • I think the best argument for a second referendum, on the terms of the deal, is that Ireland will almost certainly have a referendum on it. If the people of Ireland get to have a say, why not the people of Britain?

  • John Barrett makes a powerful point.

    At best asking for a second EU referendum but denying a second Scottish referendum will be seen as muddled and confused. At worst it will be seen as dishonest and hypocritical.

  • Little Jackie Paper 24th Mar '17 - 2:08pm

    It’s a valiant effort. And to be clear I’m not without sympathy. There however remain three problems here and I don’t see from the article how you get around them. Firstly, all a second referendum does is lead straight into referendum 3, 4 and so on. I’m not keen on referendums per se precisely because it’s a recipe for a neverendum. The second referendum delivers exactly that.

    Secondly. I find it very, very hard to believe that had the result gone the other way I’d be hearing anything from you other than that the people had decided. Yes, in a democracy there’s nothing to prevent people calling for referendums. But to say, ‘the bottom line is that democracy without accountability is not real democracy,’ seems to me to be cant. We really have no idea what direction the EU will take or would have taken with an IN UK any more than we know what OUT will bring. If I had said in the year 2000 that we’d have EZ austerity, the migrant debacle and TTIP who would have been relaxed from an accountability standpoint?

    Third I’m not clear what it is you think has changed since the first vote. You seem to hang your argument on the LEAVE argument being distasteful rather than the EU being fantastic. Fair enough. But that referendum revealed that grave reservations about the EU project are not just internal tory melodrama. I might (just) be able to see the second referendums in Ireland and Denmark as legit on the basis that they were on qualitatively different proposals than the first referendums held in those countries. I see no suggestion that the second referendum in the UK would be on a qualitatively different proposal.

    For these reason’s I’d be relaxed about a referendum on EEA IN EU OUT. But not a rerun.

  • Sue Sutherland 24th Mar '17 - 2:18pm

    Ben I like your sentence democracy without accountability is not real democracy. After the result I felt that it would have to be respected particularly because people had voted in the referendum who hadn’t voted before in any election. They felt their vote would count this time and I couldn’t bring myself to undermine their faith. However, I quickly came round to the idea of a second referendum on the terms because I realised that a lot of people had been conned. Not just by the Brexit campaign and UKIP but also by the relentless anti EU propaganda of the right wing press over many years. It is the ultra wealthy who are going to benefit and the rest of us will be left to wallow in the mess. Those first time voters are likely to be the ones who suffer most.
    So what should the reaction of a responsible politician be? Leave them to suffer more than they already do from inadequate services and a safety net which is rapidly becoming more holes than string? Or should we offer a referendum, when the terms are clear and the consequences clearer, which also offers the option of rejecting those terms in favour of remaining? Would we as Lib Dems, seeing someone climbing a high bridge with the intention of throwing themselves over it, leave them to it or would we make a last ditch attempt to get them to change their minds?
    It’s impossible for anyone to completely understand the ramifications of leaving the EU but the Tories under David Cameron made a complete muddle of our democratic systems in the way they set the Referendum up and now Teresa May has turned her back on previously held pro EU sentiments in her rather ungainly grab for power and Labour have just opted out. We have to offer people the choice of changing their minds while making much better provision for their health and prosperity than is on offer at present. We should also make suggestions for how the working of the EU can be improved, as good friends rather than harsh critics. In that way we can show people that we have taken their message on board and are offering real solutions rather than the spurious one based on hating the EU and everything that’s foreign.

  • Little Jackie Paper 24th Mar '17 - 2:25pm

    ‘based on hating the EU and everything that’s foreign.’

    Some people do not and never will get it….

  • It’s impossible for anyone to completely understand the ramifications of leaving the EU

    But it’s also It’s impossible for anyone to completely understand the ramifications of staying.

    We should also make suggestions for how the working of the EU can be improved

    The EU had its chance to return powers, and abandon ever-closer-union (in more than a symbolic, ‘oh we’ll amend the treaties when we get around to it’ way), when Cameron did his renegotiation. It refused to budge, even when there was a real threat of one of its biggest contributors leaving.

    If that contributor then backs down and stays, what motive will the EU ever have to abandon its dreams of ever closer union? Far from spurring reform, they will take an aborted Brexit as vindication: ‘See the European Project is so powerful an ideal that when the British tried to leave they found they couldn’t! That shows we are going in the right direction and we must proceed in that direction, even further, and faster if possible!’

  • To clarify a few of these perfectly reasonable objections to my argument:

    @John: I agree both side made false claims, and that this is normal in any election. What is not standard in elections is to vote a party (or in this case a policy) into office, and then not be able to hold that policy to account. This is just as true of STV elections. If we don’t give people a say on the way Brexit is being implemented then Theresa May can just decide that Brexit means we leave the single market, leave the Customs Union and completely reshape our economy to be the “Bargain Basement” of Europe and get away with it – despite none of that being on the ballot paper. That can’t be right. If people really wanted this, then they would vote for it when they get a referendum on the deal. No one is forceably overturning anything – it’s up to the people.

    @Mark – A referendum between going with this deal and no deal is meaningless – there is no indication at all that a significant group of people want to leave Europe with no deal. I see no call for it at all. The choice we were asked was about Remaining in the EU or exiting, and if more people decide that they want to stay in the EU than go along with the deal in front of them, then that’s democracy in action, no? It’s not us overturning the result, it’s the people overturning the result, because they don’t think it’s what they voted for.

    Which leads me onto @LittleJackiePaper and her question about multiple referendums. I sympathize with these concerns, but I do genuinely believe that voting to “remain” doesn’t suffer from this accountability problem in the same way, because we all know what remaining in the EU looks like (having done it for 40 years). The problem with the Brexit vote is that it was a very open ended proposal, and we need to check that the Brexit being delivered is the one that people voted for. The same logic would apply if we had voted to remain by 52%-48%, and then Cameron had tried to plunge us into the Euro or something like that.

    As for Scotland and all of the other practical objections – I agree – and I’m yet to be persuaded about whether it’s a practically workable policy or not. I’ve just come round to the idea in principle.

  • Little Jackie Paper 24th Mar '17 - 2:43pm

    Ben Andrew – OK. Again, I’m not entirely without sympathy.

    ‘because we all know what remaining in the EU looks like (having done it for 40 years).’

    Do we? One of the stronger arguments for LEAVE was that what we signed up for in the 1970s is not at all what we have now. This is very open ended and from a constitutional standpoint that is a big problem.

    Again, who in 2000 would have reasonably foreseen what we have now? If the result had gone the other way and UKIP, at the next euro-debacle, had called for another referendum in the interests of accountability what would you have said?

    I have to admit that in the early 1990s I thought that not having a referendum on Maastricht was the right course of action. With hindsight we very clearly should have had the referendum at that time.

    ‘The problem with the Brexit vote is that it was a very open ended proposal, and we need to check that the Brexit being delivered is the one that people voted for.’

    Sure, but ultimately that is what general elections are about.

  • Little Jackie Paper 24th Mar '17 - 2:47pm

    Ben Andrew – Just to add to my previous comment about the EU being open-ended. My wife is from Eastern Europe and I go out there a lot. The coverage in western Europe of the refugee/migration issue has been interesting in that there seems to have been a suggestion that Eastern countries have a different form of nationalism that makes them unwilling to accept migrants/refugees.

    In my (limited, admittedly) experience the objection to refugee quotas in East Europe stems far more from the, not unreasonable, view that no one signed up for such quotas.

    What one makes of that is another matter. But concern about the open-ended nature of the EU is not just a UK thing.

  • Hi Jackie,

    My main argument is that we need some form of accountability. So I would be reasonably satisfied with a General Election with different types of Brexit on the table – or a referendum on the single market if it was at all practical. But our policy for a referendum on the terms of the deal does introduce accountability to the Brexit process, so I think it’s fair enough.

    I’m not denying that there is some uncertainty attached to a Remain vote, but it really isn’t anywhere near as vague. Brexit can mean a million different things to different people – I know someone who voted Brexit and was IN FAVOUR of open borders. To me that’s nuts, but there are people out there who voted that way. The Leave campaign were deliberately vague so that they could gather a coalition of voters with mutually exclusive visions of Europe – precisely because they knew that they would not be held to account. There’s no guarantee that the version of Brexit being forced over the country now is preferred by most people to remaining in the EU, and I think it’s too big an issue for us not to test democratically at this stage.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Mar '17 - 10:05pm

    The voters were not told about a big lump sum divorce payment in billions of pounds or euros. If they had been told they would have voted differently.

  • Andrew Tampion 25th Mar '17 - 8:07am

    Sue Sutherland “However, I quickly came round to the idea of a second referendum on the terms because I realised that a lot of people had been conned.”
    I’m sorry to be blunt to the point of rudeness but do you really not understand how patronising you are being.
    But even if you are right that Leave voters have been conned unless and until they themselves come to realise that then calling for a second referendum to save them from themselves is counterproductive and only likely to result in an even bigger Leave vote. If you want to remain in the EU the correct strategy is to persuade sufficient Leave voters that they have made a mistake and then call for a second referendum. Anything else is mere posturing.

  • Andrew Tampion 25th Mar '17 - 9:35am

    Ben Andrew “Of course, I understand that you can’t have referendums every five years, but there still has to be some mechanism of accountability to make a vote democratically viable.”

    If this is right then every referendum needs a confirmatory vote: are you going to tell Nicola Sturgeon or shall I?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 25th Mar '17 - 10:09am

    Ben Andrew, Tim Farron frequently says that a “referendum on the deal” would give people a say on the “destination” as well as the “departure”. This argument does not work, as Tim Farron is suggesting a choice of only two options – the deal, or remaining in the EU. There is no choice there for people who still want to leave the EU, but just not with that particular deal. Many people might want to try to continue to negotiate a different deal ( though that might not, in practice, be possible). It is also quite possible that many would rather leave with no deal, than stay in the EU. This is why the “referendum on the deal” is not a real attempt to give people a say on the “destination”, but a thinly disguised attempt to repeat the original referendum.

  • Catherine:
    Of course it’s an excuse to run the referendum again. Let’s leave aside the more fluffy issues of identity and global politics. On the simple basis of self interest the British people need to see what is going happen in reality as a result of Brexit. The Leave campaign was littered with lies, half truths, ambiguities, speculation and false promises. Of course they argue that there is equivalence between this and Remain’s forecasts of economic collapse. Well maybe, maybe not. As this negotiation starts to crystalize into a solid position we will know more and more about the consequences. If the outcome is a clean/hard/WTO Brexit then business and people will be able to take a more informed position on what is going to happen to them. The City may well say ‘this will mean 5000 jobs redundancies and loss of tax of £2bil’. Nissan and others may say ‘well you do know that new models will not be built in the UK’. Not to mention The Union. Maybe, maybe not. But at that point, why not give people an opportunity to say ‘this is not what we voted for’. Call this a vote on the destination if you want to. It’s just semantics. What will happen then is anybody’s guess. The Tories have opened a Pandora’s Box and I hope they get burned for it. Maybe a Black Swan.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Mar '17 - 11:33am

    Little Jackie Paper

    I find it very, very hard to believe that had the result gone the other way I’d be hearing anything from you other than that the people had decided.

    The problem for me is what do you do when the people vote for X because they believe X will lead to Y, and they want Y, but you believe that X will lead to the opposite of Y.

    Do you then support X, because you accept the people voted for it? Or do you oppose X because that is what you feel is really what will give the people what they want?

    I have listened carefully to so many ordinary people saying why they voted Leave. And so often I agree with them on so much of what they are saying. Yes, I do believe our country is run by an elite who think of themselves as “liberals” (with the term “neoliberal” sometimes use for it), but who actually have no idea about how ordinary people live and how what they think of as “liberal” is not giving ordinary people freedom.

    The problem is that I do not think that leaving the EU will resolve this issues, indeed I believe it will make things move more along the line of this country being run by and for a wealthy elite, not less.

    Going back to the abstract, it seems to me that those in control of the campaign cynically pushing X because they want more Y, but pretending the opposite then develop this technique of attacking anyone who argues against them by making out that they are supporters of X rather than supporters of Y. It has worked wonder for them.

    And that, Little Jackie Paper, is just what you have always done to me when I have tried to query you on this issue.

    I have been desperate to hear an argument that convinces me that leaving the EU really will give people back control of their lives. I have heard none, despite asking again and again for it.

  • Your logic is flawed Ben.

  • John Mitchell 26th Mar '17 - 12:17am

    John Barrett “That would mean that another referendum would be a choice of leaving with the negotiated deal or leaving with no deal.”

    I’d agree with John Barrett and Mark Wright and this would be the only circumstance I would agree with another referendum but grudgingly. That’s because this is the UK Government’s position already and MPs will decide whether Britain leaves the EU with a deal or not. Therefore, another referendum is not really necessary.

  • Philip Craxford 26th Mar '17 - 7:54am

    @Dav – Section 2.1 of the Article 50 White paper states: Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU. So I’m not sure there were ever any powers to be returned.

    As a wider point – what would happen if a pro-EU party was returned at the 2020 general election?

  • John Barrett 26th Mar '17 - 10:13am

    P.J. “The Tories have opened a Pandora’s Box and I hope they get burned for it.”

    It is worth remembering that our party, led by Nick Clegg, also supported an in/out referendum on the EU.

    I am amazed at how often on Lib -Dem Voice the decision to have a referendum on EU membership is described as exclusively a Tory idea and something we always opposed.

    Where were those voices when it was our party policy?

  • John, of course it gets even more convoluted than that. In Spring 2008 Nick Clegg, the then new Leader of our Party, told us we should vote against our Manifesto commitment of 2005 and so against an EU Referendum. Not he argued because we were against such an In/Out Referendum but because the conditions for it had not been met at that particular point in time.

    Roughly a third of our MP’s voted with Nick, a third abstained and a third of us voted in accord with the Manifesto we had been elected on in 2005. One of those who ‘rebelled/voted in line with our Manifesto’ was very busy out on College Green telling journalists why he was doing so. He went on to be President and then Leader of our Party!

    Of course circumstances change and people do change their minds. Nothing wrong with that. But I have always believed History should not be rewritten or airbrushed just because it is inconvenient. Must be all those years I spent studying and teaching History.

  • Mark Goodrich 27th Mar '17 - 2:40am

    Hi Ben

    I welcome your change of mind. Unfortunately, posting on this topic tends to bring out the minority who are opposed to a referendum on the deal and so the comments are not representative of the wider membership (the policy was, of course, overwhelmingly backed at conference).

    It should be noted that others are on the same journey as you. The latest opinion poll to look at the question found that a referendum on a deal was backed by 38% of total voters (and 66% of Remain voters), the highest that it has ever been.

    I also admire your polite, sensible yet robust response to comments and wholeheartedly endorse what you say – particularly in relation to the odd suggestion that there should be referendum on whether we have a hard Brexit or no deal Brexit.

  • Mark Goodrich 27th Mar '17 - 2:53am

    Incidentally, the reason that I think that pressure will continue to mount for a second referendum is in the rest of the polling. 49% are confident that Theresa May can get a “good deal”. I’m with 41% who are “not confident”. Actually, more accurately, I’m with whatever percentage of people who are confident that the deal will be pretty terrible.

    It seems to me that all the signs are that it won’t be a “good deal” and there is a lot of wishful thinking going on. On the other hand, the Labour Party (through Keir Starmer) has seemingly set an unbelievably high standard for a “good deal” and says it will vote against it if not delivered. With the election expenses scandal possibly triggering by-elections, there is a possibility that the “deal” will be voted down in Parliament in which case, the only real options are a referendum or a general election.

  • Thank you Mark! I do live in hope that there is a severe swing back against brexit soon, but I’m not too hopeful :s

  • John Barrett 27th Mar '17 - 7:22pm

    Ben Andrew – “If we don’t give people a say on the way Brexit is being implemented then Theresa May can just decide that Brexit means we leave the single market, leave the Customs Union and completely reshape our economy to be the “Bargain Basement” of Europe and get away with it – despite none of that being on the ballot paper. That can’t be right.”

    Many people have said that things were “not on the ballot paper”. but it is equally true that none of the alternative scenarios were on the ballot paper either, so it does not add much weight to the argument to say that if it was not on the ballot paper, people did not vote for it.

    I would say that both Remain and Leave made many false promises, or simply lied, during the campaign, but I find it hard to believe that those who voted for either side only did so because they were lied to more by one side than the other. Most of the electorate take what politicians say with a very large pinch of salt and many others do not believe a word any of them say.

    Political parties do like to claim things that are not really justified. Such as when they say that because any particular item was in the manifesto of the winning party that they have a mandate from the people to carry it out, when all political parties know that very few people ever read their manifestos. Apart from those who write them, candidates and the press it is hard to find anyone else who has ever read a manifesto.

    And although you add ” I do genuinely believe that voting to “remain” doesn’t suffer from this accountability problem in the same way, because we all know what remaining in the EU looks like.” Is this really true? When in advance of David Cameron’s negotiations on EU reform, almost everyone supporting remain said that Remain should, or must be within a reformed EU and yet no significant reforms were delivered.

    I suspect that the future inside the EU is not as certain as many would like to believe. I do however accept that the future outside the EU is even more uncertain.

  • paul holmes 27th Mar '17 - 7:56pm

    Mark -I campaigned and voted for Remain. I also think that a Referendum on the outcome of negotiations would be a good idea. However the democratically elected Government is extremely unlikely to hold such a Referendum.

    As someone who voted Remain I find the opinion poll findings you quote above rather alarming however. 48% of those who voted, voted for Remain but only two thirds of those are in favour of a second/further Referendum. So, far from ‘Bregret’ setting in and Leavers changing their mind the opposite is the case according to the figures you quote?

  • John: I am very cautious of speculating about why people voted for Brexit – because there are 17 million of them, and no reasoning will speak for all of them. I agree that alternative scenarios were also not on the ballot paper. What was on the ballot paper was a very very broad policy of leaving the European Union – tied to a set of promises which were often contradictory, made by people with no power to enact them. Leaving the EU can be done in such a broad range of ways, that many people could easily have had one option or approach in mind, but be horrified by an alternative approach. A referendum on the terms of the deal would establish if this form of Brexit is what they wanted properly, and not just by commentators speculating. As for Remain being less uncertain – I think this is clearly true, as Remaining is the status quo. If things changed in a major way (i.e. we wanted to join the Euro) then I think there would be a case for another referendum on that change.

    Catherine: The only options which we can choose between is Remaining, and the Brexit which has been arranged for us. I agree it would be nice if we could all pick our favourite possible deal, but that is not how negotiations like this work. As for the option of leaving with no deal – there really is absolutely no evidence that there is any appetite for this. I suppose you could include it in theory, under an AV voting system, but I don’t think it would be helpful or constructive in any way. No party has ever pushed for leaving the EU without any deal – not even UKIP – and that’s because it’s a truly ridiculous idea!

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