People’s vote: the vital importance of preferential voting

The possibility/probability of a people’s vote seems to be increasing.

Minds are starting to be focussed on what would be on the ballot paper in such a referendum. A good guess seems to be:

1. May deal
2. “WTO rules”/“no deal”/bungee jump with bungee unconnected (good luck with drafting that one, oh civil servants)
3. Remain

It seems conceivable that the result could be 33.3/33.3/33.3 like some maddingly stuck long playing record. Or it could be an unconvincing 32/34/34 or something like that.

It seems vital to use a preference voting system, rather than a simple “x”. A 1,2,3 approach would (a) allow more information to be collected on people’s views, (b) guide the next steps in a way that is better grounded in the people’s views and (c) have a better chance of finally leading to some
much-needed national reconciliation on this crazy subject.

If there is a “mark x” referendum and 34% of those who vote choose the outcome, then we could end up with a national action which 66% of those who voted hate and resent.

For example, what if the highest vote for the three options is 34.1% for WTO rules/no deal? If the UK then breaks with the EU with no deal we’ll have 65.9% of those who voted being very unhappy. There’ll be nothing near resolution of the national divide and the total disaster of no deal.

However, a situation where preference voting is used could lead to a situation where, say, 70% of those who voted chose the resultant outcome as their first or second preference, with the result of a much better chance of the referendum closing the matter and leading to national reconciliation.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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32 Comments

  • I would have two questions –

    “Should the UK leave the EU?”

    And –

    If the answer to the first question to one is yes –
    “Should the UK leave:
    1. Staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union
    2. Staying in the Customs union only
    3. On the basis of the Government’s negotiated deal
    4. On the basis of the basis of WTO rules”

    – or a range of “out” options.

    The second question determined by preference voting. This has some precedence as people in the Scottish Parliament devolution referendum – firstly whether there should be a Scottish Parliament and secondly whether it should have tax raising powers.

    This seems to me to determine the central question – in or out and then people can determine what sort of “out” they want.

  • Really like that approach. I think it would be helpful across the spectrum and legitimise the outcome

  • David Becket 26th Nov '18 - 4:36pm

    Paul
    You are right, there must be three options. May’s deal, the best you could hope for, must be put to the public to avoid a cry of foul from the public against MPs. It has to be a one two three choice, you cannot have the result supported by a small majority.

    However more importantly has this party got its act together.. Some of our leading members do not appear to have grasped the situation, they are still influence by dog fights in the house.

    Alistair Carmichael in his e mail to members yesterday including comments like “It is clear – no one trusts Theresa May to secure a deal that is right for the UK” is the way to lose support, it also shows negative thinking and a possible lack of joined up thinking at the heart of the party.

    Let us face it, her deal is the only one possible (Quote EU leaders). WE SHOULD SAY SO> To rubbish her is counter productive, and smacks of the aggressive attacks that plague politics.
    We must not alienate those Brexit supporting members of the public who are prepared to support the deal.

    The line we should be taking

    1 May’s deal is the best deal available, there is no option to renegotiate.
    2 We point out the flaws in her deal, without attacking her personally (This will be difficult some, but essential)
    3 We point out the risks of no deal
    4 We demand a peoples vote
    5 We highlight the benefits of staying in the EU
    6 We indicate reforms we would like to see in the EU
    7 We attack Labour for sitting on the fence and not providing effective opposition

  • John Marriott 26th Nov '18 - 5:09pm

    Am I stupid or something? All these threads on what to do with a so called ‘Peoples’ Vote’. Let’s assume that the ‘May Deal’ gets thrown out by Parliament. Whatever happens next, and it will need the cooperation of the EU whatever is decided, needs more time than we have available. For the life of me I just cannot see how any alternative is possible within the present time frame.

  • paul barker 26th Nov '18 - 5:58pm

    I agree that any Vote has to have all 3 possibilities, either ranked in order or via a 2-stage question but I doubt that we can get to that.
    Its clear now that Mays strategy involves 3 stages –
    1 lose vote
    2 panic in the stock markets, falling pound etc
    3 once MPs have been frightened enough, put the Deal to another Vote.
    Arguing for a Peoples Vote that would take Weeks or Months to organise & might be subject to Legal challenges is going to look irrelevant & irresponsible.
    We have to start preparing the ground for a Parliamentary Vote to abandon Brexit & a temporary Government to implement that decision.

  • I thought it was the case that there isn’t time to conduct a referendum – but then it’s not something I’ve studied so I bow to others’ expertise.

    But in any case, ours is a representative democracy where we employ MPs to study the issues and then use their reason and judgement to plot the best course. In other words, they should do what is right for the country and not what opinion polls or even a referendum suggests – for that is based largely on emotion and (mistaken) imaginings about how things work and what is therefore possible and those, in turn, are largely the product of disinformation.

    So, MPs should take heed of Edmund Burke’s fine speech to the electors of Bristol, in particular this section:

    “If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide”

    http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html

  • The design of the people’s vote needs to be considered carefully as it’s a complex technical question as to what will give the fairest result. It is not just a question of common sense or gut feeling, so politicians like Justin Greening should avoid expressing an opinion, unless they have a PhD in polling science.

    It has been written about before e.g. here
    https://infacts.org/theres-more-than-one-way-to-count-a-three-way-peoples-vote/

    the de Concordet method has been suggested as worth considering

  • Good to see that Norman Lamb has now declared that he will vote against the deal and wants a Peoples Vote. So we have a full house except for Stephen Lloyd. I think one maverick out of 12 is regrettable but OK. Two would have been problematic.

  • Sorry – meant to post the link https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/politics/norman-lamb-backs-people-s-vote-on-brexit-1-5795739 (Mods please add it to my previous comment).

  • To me some of the logic here seems more like an exercise face saving than anything else. If May’s deal is the best on offer and the People’s Vote is set up to almost guarantee it why not just save time and effort by suggesting MPs vote for it! But then again it could stop the extremes in both camps crying like big babies about being betrayed. So actually it might be a good idea after all!

  • Yeovil Yokel 26th Nov '18 - 11:22pm

    John Marriott 26 Nov 5:09pm – no, you’re not stupid, just overly preoccupied I think by the looming 29 March Brexit deadline. Part of May’s tactic is to panic people into accepting her deal because she’s framing the only other alternative as being No Deal, which doesn’t bear thinking about. But I’m sure it’s not beyond the wit of Parliament to find a way to breach the March deadline, and I doubt the EU would hinder us if there was a prospect of us returning to the fold. Otherwise act in haste, and repent at leisure?

    I’m no fan of Tony Blair, but I did like his characterisation of May’s Brexit alternatives on the Andrew Marr Show (the clip is on the BBC News website): No Deal vs. May’s Deal could otherwise be known as the Painful Deal vs. the Pointless Deal.

  • I have argued in another thread that it is most likely possible for the UK to withdraw from/extend Article 50 up until 10.59pm on March 29th. Article 50 makes this possible with the unanimous backing of the EU27 and it is likely that the UK can do it unilaterally (but this will be confirmed in the European Court of Justice case). Enabling a referendum to be held after March 29th.

    On a vote, I don’t think it is bad politics for a Lib Dem politician or a pro People’s Vote politician to volunteer that they would like to see a two votes – this might also have some appeal for soft Brexiteers while saying that it should be approved by the Electoral Commission to ensure they are happy with the fairness.

  • There is still time for a vote, but of course those who are against one like to insist that it’s too late, or will try to stall for long enough to reduce the time available.

    IMO, it’s inevitable there has to be three options, and that it must be a single-stage preferential vote. A two stage vote will be loaded, whichever way it’s pitched and especially unhelpful if it’s leave/remain followed by soft/hard. I have friends who did vote for Brexit, thinking we’d be like Norway or Switzerland, but would never, ever want a hard Brexit, so asking them to vote Remain or Leave without knowing for sure if it will be a sort they’d like, or a sort they’d hate far more than Remain, just isn’t fair.

    Of course, there is a danger, especially if we aren’t prepared and we get a ‘snap’ referendum that people never get the chance to fully evaluate the options available, and have to make a decision based on all of the hyperbole. A bit like last time.

  • As the Brexit disaster unfolds we have some of the more faint hearted Brexiteers pleading for us to come together and help them get it over the line, so we can all forget about it. Well I hate to break it to them but this is part one and as the costs of part two, part three at al roll in, I rather doubt anyone will forget what they voted for. Blair and Co are tarred with Iraq, the same fate awaits the Brexiteers. A phric victory it is indeed.

  • John Marriott 27th Nov '18 - 10:02am

    @Fiona
    I am not against a third EU referendum, although I think, on the current time frame we would be pushing it! In any case, all other options have yet to be exhausted. Assuming the ‘May Deal’ fails to get a majority, there’s the Nick Boles ‘Norway/EFTA plan’ that might be considered by Parliament. I could live with that as well. In fact the ONLY option I would reject out of hand is the ultra ‘No deal’ Brexit. Clearly the 29 March deadline needs to be extended and, don’t forget, we have the views of the other 27 members of the EU to consider, who must be getting pretty fed up with us Brits continually throwing our toys out of the pram.

    I see that Trump has waded in now. You can see whose side he’s on. It makes his predecessor’s remark about our going to the ‘back of the queue’ pretty tame, doesn’t it? According to the Donald, we would not even be allowed in the queue if we accepted the present deal, let alone anything except a no deal. Ah, well, I ‘m sure that Dr Fox will forgive him as he boards yet another transatlantic flight.

  • I very much doubt that there will be a second referendum. Theresa May [whose primary aim seems to be to remain as PM] or her replacement will not want to let the voters make the final decision – so the most likely outcome is what Michael Fallon [and many of his colleagues] is pressing for – a renegotiation

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-46357613/fallon-doomed-brexit-deal-should-be-renegotiated

    Since the EU is as concerned about a ‘No Deal’ as politicians in the UK – this is likely to be agreed and one of the existing packages Canada + + or the Norway option replacing the ‘TM Deal’ – with the latter being the favourite.

  • No deal cannot be a referendum option for various reasons: The EU might agree to an Art. 50 extension, if Parliament wants to consult the people on the agreed deal or remaining. If breaking all rules of civilisation is in the cards, they will say: you can have that on March 29, but no later; they also might withdraw the deal. Therefore, offering the no-deal option would have to be based on a unilateral Art. 50 revocation. Where is the PM to do that? And if she/he did, what would be the consequences? Even if the deal (provided it is still on offer) or remain would win, the trust between the UK and the EU would be destroyed in the process beyond repair. If the deal wins, the PM would have to invoke Art. 50 anew, with a proviso to cancel the 2-year negotiation period (not in the treaty). All very strange. If no deal wins, again, Art. 50 would have to be re-invoked vis-a-vis a by now openly hostile recipient. The EU might as well insist on letting the 2 years expire. The UK Parliament would be compelled to sit on its hands during that time to implement the new will of the people: no deal also means no negotiation, including rejecting all reconciliation offers made. This situation would even beat the absurdity the UK has already displayed during the last 2 years. And I am not even talking about the economic repercussions.

    So it can only be a 2-way referendum between May’s deal and remaining.

  • Yeovil Yokel 27th Nov '18 - 1:10pm

    No, John Roffey, I think May’s number one priority is not retaining her own position but keeping her Party in power. I’m not entirely convinced that she even wanted the PM’s job in the first place, maybe she saw it as her duty to keep the party unified and in charge during the fallout from the Referendum. It’ll be fascinating for the next generation to get a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes in the Tory Party after Cameron resigned when the archives are opened in 30 years.

  • Peter Hirst 27th Nov '18 - 2:57pm

    I like the idea of combining first and second preferential votes might show a large majority for a verdict, thus helping to unite the country. Could none of the above be included?

  • Arnold
    Of course no deal would be on the ballot. The question is not going to be written by 12 Lib MPs , labour are more interested in an election and the less Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party show every sign of backing May. In the truth the most likely referendum choice would actually be deal or no deal because it’s a relatively simple rerun of the parliamentary question. The Lib Dems have 7% of the vote( 30% which support leave) and have little means of swaying anything. It is absurd to imagine that losing side in a referendum would get to dictate the terms of a new one, when the main proponents of it haven’t got a foot in government.

  • I think the only sensible referendum option is a choice of remaining in the EU or accepting the deal as it is.

  • John Roffey 27th Nov '18 - 5:13pm

    Yeovil Yokel

    As you say YY what is and has gone on behind the scenes is anyone’s guess – and we are all entitled to our own interpretation. However, now that much of the fog on the final outcome has been cleared – isn’t the most salient issue for the Party what it should do in the current circumstances.

    All that has happened and is happening indicates that the Tories do not wish to allow the final outcome to be taken out of their hands via a second referendum of any kind. Although TM may revel her reputation as being a bl**dy difficult women – she is showing signs of withering and it must be dawning on her that the DUP are not going to support her deal – and she needs their support.

    She has changed her mind many times already and given the punishing schedule she has ahead – I would be surprised if she does not come to recognise that she is not going to change MPs views via the public – so has to change again to accommodate the DUP’s wishes.

    Given these circumstances – isn’t it time for the Lib/Dems to review their policy of prioritising a second referendum – which now seems very unlikely – and recognise that with so few MPs they hold very little sway. Then to start to prioritise the next GE – now that the architect of the current policy is off to pastures new and 3 or 4 mi££ion more rewarding each year?

  • “No deal”, if it is an option in an eventual vote, should not be confused with “On WTO Terms”. If we leave, we’re no longer in the WTO as our current membership is through the EU’s membership. So we cannot use the WTO to ensure fair trading. We’d ask to join, of course, but several countries from New Zealand (unhappy with possible lamb quotas) to Argentina (would want the Falklands) to Moldova (insulted by the Home Office not allowing their negotiators to enter Britain) are threatening to veto our membership. If they do, it will be a long slow process during which we will have no real friends because we’ve told them we don’t need them any more. “No Deal” MEANS “No Deal”!

  • A 2nd referendum always struck me as being what the Americans call a ‘Hail Mary Pass’ – a desperate last throw in a game that’s as good as lost; it’s unlikely to succeed but if it does against the odds it might just squeeze out a narrow win.

    While a 2nd referendum made sense as a strategy before the Withdrawal Agreement was concluded the case for it is now much weaker. Remain only has to stand clear while Leave organises a circular firing squad.

    May probably got the best deal available given that the advantage in so-called ‘Free Trade’ deals is entirely with the larger party despite Leavers’ wholly mistaken claims that a good deal would be easy and given also that there was no thought-through or widely agreed Leave proposal – only a tide of emotion. Meanwhile, the EU27 have said clearly that no more substantive negotiations are possible (a few words might be tweaked) and the clock is running down so it’s (a) May’s deal or (b) crash out with No Deal or (c) Remain.

    Now, despite May’s earlier claim that “No Deal is better than a bad deal” it does belatedly seem to have sunk in that it’s not – that No Deal would be utterly disastrous. I think May will try and create a panicked last-minute vote for her deal but the ‘ultras’ won’t buy nor will many others. So, we will very possibly Remain but in a bitterly divided and unhappy country and that’s not a good place to be.

    That makes it time to think of other, better options – like, for example, working with others to reform the EU from within to make it what it should be, not what it is. And that may not be as hard as some imagine – we’re not the only ones unhappy with the EU as it is; for instance, the unfolding of the disastrous consequences of the euro will force change and that gives huge leverage to reformers.

    A big step forward would be to break the thoroughly illiberal push to “ever-greater union” meaning more unaccountable and bureaucratic centralisation. This could be done by giving member states (in practice any subgroup of them representing some minimum of countries and population) the constitutional right to reclaim specific competences from Brussels – fishing for example.

    That would go a long way to shooting the Brexiteer’s fox because it would soon give us a much better EU.

  • Arnold Kiel 28th Nov '18 - 9:23am

    No deal essentially means the UK becoming the pariah of the free world. It would simply be a crime; its future trade would be on an advance-payment basis only. It. Let us not forget: the separation agreement only settles the past, but buys nothing for the future. It is simply about acknowledging the existence of prior ongoing UK commitments towards the EU budget, EU-citizens, and Northern Ireland. The included transition period was a UK-request. These three issues were solved within the EU and need to be settled upon leaving. Breaking these commitments is legally, logistically, economically, and morally impossible. 90% of MPs know that. Any liberal (Democrat) should know that too. It is no option, neither for Parliament, nor the people.

  • David Allen 28th Nov '18 - 5:22pm

    The best thing about People’s Vote is that it might rescue us from the madness of Brexit. But it has many flaws.

    A 3-way preferential vote is probably its least worst variant. But if No Deal is on the ballot paper, the nation could genuinely vote their way to famine and destitution – followed, no doubt, by riots and the breakdown of British democracy. But if No Deal is NOT on the ballot paper, then Leavers will raise merry hell for many more years to come, UKIP will be resurgent, and we might well see a “Best of Three” referendum in the 2020s.

    There’s a lot to be said for simply withdrawing Article 50!

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/28/forget-peoples-vote-parliament-ditch-brexit-article-50

  • Arnold
    It would be on any potential referendum paper as the Conservative Party are in power and the no deal wing of the government would insist on it. Obviously, this is assuming some sort of people’s vote could be cobbled together before a snap election is called.

  • Arnold Kiel 29th Nov '18 - 8:51am

    Glenn,
    you would be right if a majority in Parliament gave up on representing a civilised country; not even the Conservatives have such a majority.

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