The Question

A public vote on Brexit seems to be gaining in popularity; no longer just a view of those undemocratic Lib Dems it is now in the mainstream.  However there is no consensus on the question(s) to be asked in a referendum.  Many options are being floated and I believe the Lib Dems should have a consistent view that can be propounded in Parliament and elsewhere.

Most questions seem to be chosen at random and do not reflect any underlying principles.  I would suggest the following principles: 

  • All three options currently available (Remain, Leave on May’s terms, Leave with No Deal) should be on the ballot paper.  Some have suggested ignoring a No Deal Brexit.  Doing this would ignore the wishes of a sizeable proportion of the electorate and would lay the referendum open to claims of misrepresentation.
  • Only options available without further negotiation should be included.  Otherwise we are voting on something that may never be available like in the 2016 referendum.  Thus we can exclude the current Labour option which is unclear and which, in my opinion would not be acceptable to the EU (its somewhat ‘cakeist’).  Also to be excluded would be a ‘managed’ No Deal which would have to be negotiated.
    • The question should not be the same as last time.  The main argument of the opposition is that a second referendum is undemocratic because the people have already spoken.  Lib Dems have already been clear on this.  The first referendum established that the government should negotiate terms for leaving the EU.  Another referendum has the objective of judging those terms, the final terms, when these are negotiated.  This is the way unions conduct labour disputes, how people buy houses and many other decisions.

  • If three options are available then you have to either use some form of alternative vote or split into two questions.  My preference would be for two questions, simply because much of the electorate has only used simple questions with only one answer e.g. who should you vote for in a first past the post system or the previous referendum.

Using these principles the referendum should read.

  1. Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union on the terms as currently negotiated by Her Majesty’s Government


2.  If the answer to question one by the whole electorate is ‘No’.  Should the United Kingdom

A) Leave the European Union without a deal (place a Cross)


B) Remain in the European Union (place a cross)

* Richard Taylor is retired, having previously working in IT. He is a Lib Dem member since 2010 who lost enthusiasm during coalition but didn't resign. He believes we have to regain our position on the left of politics.

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  • Michael Blackmore 18th Dec '18 - 10:58am

    How would you interpret the results. If a majority voted YES plus A what would do next? REMAIN would require a majority of NO plus B.

  • Other way around, surely: question one should be remain or leave, question two ‘if leave, leave with May’s deal or with no deal?’.

  • paul barker 18th Dec '18 - 2:17pm

    2 stage questions raise all sorts of unnecessary problems, we should be advocating a multiple choice Question, where Voters number the alternatives in the order they want them, like Scottish Local Elections.

  • The question in the only referendum that has an electoral and parliamentary mandate that can stop Brexit is
    “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

  • marcstevens 18th Dec '18 - 2:39pm

    Could it not be done on a PR style vote eg 1, 2, and 3 so us Remainers would put that as first choice and either leave the rest blank or May’s deal 2nd. It would be interesting to see how the May’s deal first choice would share their other preferences whether between leave/no deal or remain. I suspect Remain would clinch it either on 1st or 2nd preferences. This system would work well as with the mayoral elections in London and the referendum to change the voting system in that there would be a clear majority.

  • It is said that Parliament won’t approve a referendum with no-deal as an option, as it is too destructive and irresponsible. I would hope that this would be the case, though anything is possible in the current climate.

    If you had “Fire the Trident nuclear arsenal on Downing Street” there is a finite chance it would succeed, and the voters would perish from the radioactive fallout along with everyone else. This is the problem with populism. The country has to be safeguarded against the volatile emotions which can be whipped up by the unscrupulous in any campaign.

    The people’s vote would need to be very carefully thought through,and tested for validity, by a respected institution like the constitution unit at UCL. There is a mechanism already mapped out for doing this.

  • nigel hunter 18th Dec '18 - 2:45pm

    What EXACTLY does no deal mean? Is it remain? Is it we trade on WTO rules (with an explanation of what that means) or ignore both and sail away into the sunset doing what!. Re previous post where no deal means remain in the EU.

  • Yeovil Yokel 18th Dec '18 - 2:51pm

    There is this alternative analysis which was published on Sunday and is more in line with what Dav suggested:

  • Andrew Melmoth 18th Dec '18 - 2:53pm

    There’s a high chance that all a second referendum will achieve is to lend democratic legitimacy to a catastrophic ‘No -deal’ outcome. People want to believe that this whole Brexit nightmare can be ended and that is blinding them to the risk that we are just doubling down on the folly of the first referendum.

  • Yeovil Yokel 18th Dec '18 - 2:54pm

    The link I posted above takes you to the ‘Martin’s View’ blog, and a link to his article will be found on the right -hand side.

  • Sarah Brown 18th Dec '18 - 5:16pm

    No conceivable parliament will choose to implement no deal. As a result it would be entirely dishonest to have it as a referendum question and serve to only further undermine trust in politicians.

  • Andy Hinton 18th Dec '18 - 6:00pm

    No responsible parliament should put before the public a referendum option which it believes to be profoundly damaging to the national interest. Since that is the general view of parliament on No Deal, I can’t see that it would be a responsible thing to put before the people.

    If No Deal must be on the ballot, then I don’t see how one can choose between the various ways in which a two-part question could be framed, without being accused of gaming the result just as much as you would be by not including No Deal. Leavers would say that “1: Leave/Remain, 2: Deal/No Deal” should be the way, Remainers that “1: Deal/No Deal, 2: Remain/No Deal” is better.

  • If there were to be another referendum
    Then No deal and leave on WTO rules HAS to be on the ballot.
    Since the first ballot asked us if we wanted to leave the European Union along with a Government Pamphlet that said leaving the EU would mean leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union and that the Government would implement that decision. Millions of people voted for that.
    To not give people that option again would be a fly in the face of democracy.

    Just because remainers did not like the outcome of the first election, they now want to subvert the same people from reaffirming their vote in a second ballot, and you call yourself democrats……..

  • Peter Martin 18th Dec '18 - 6:57pm

    Suppose we’d said before the 2016 referendum, which we weren’t going to call a Peoples’ Vote, that we were going to have another referendum in 2019 which we were going to call a Peoples’ vote. The first referendum was to be regarded as advisory. The second referendum was to be binding for a generation.

    In the meantime we were going to negotiate the best exit deal we possibly could with the EU, but if it wasn’t good enough then of course everyone would know that by the time the second referendum was to be held. Therefore everyone could make an informed decision as to whether to stay, leave with the deal, or leave with no deal.

    This would rightly have been regarded as completely absurd and no way to treat the EU or the UK electorate.

    But isn’t this now official LibDem party policy?

  • Tis almost tempting to wish for a hard Brexit just to prove the addage “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other and scare in that”. I expect however even when bad times roll the delusional Brexiteers would still blame it all in the EU failing to provide a continious conveyer belt of cake rather than any fault of theres. Reality is not kind to Brexiteers, all their assertions proved to be delusions, all their pretentions blasted away by the cold winds of reality. Still they will bravely stand against the harsh storm of reality, whispering “Will of the People”, “The Euro will fail, trust me I’m an economist”.

  • There are too many problems with a two stage vote, and it would require many to second guess how others would vote in the second phase before deciding which is best in the first. If there are to be three options, then it absolutely must be a preferential vote with voters placing numbers 1, 2 and 3 in the relevant boxes.

    I can see why many think that it would be entirely irresponsible to have a ‘no deal’ Brexit on the ballot, and simply including it lends it credibility it doesn’t deserve. However, I fear that by excluding it, the hard-core Brexiteers would spend the debate period banging on about how it would be preferable. This would divert attention from the necessary detailed discussion of the options on offer, whilst not requiring any detailed defence of their own bluster.

    I agree that only definite options should be on the ballot, and while that would get a bit of griping, we need to be honest with the public. Any deal that Labour might attempt to negotiate would be bound by the same limitations and that no Brexit deal is better than our current deal.

    We must also ensure that we are clear that in the event of a vote to Remain, we don’t just breathe a sigh of relief and pretend the last three years didn’t happen. We must recognise that many of the reasons that made Brexit seem appealing still exist. We can argue that avoiding Brexit means avoiding more austerity, but it isn’t going to reverse it. The utter farce of recent weeks in the Commons must surely provide all the evidence required to push for electoral reform, and a proper constitution. Plans to deal with regional inequality are also necessary, and much, much more.

  • Peter Martin 18th Dec '18 - 11:06pm

    @ Frankie,

    “The Euro will fail, trust me I’m an economist”

    The euro doesn’t have to fail. If the US$ can work so can the euro. You just need to make the EU like the USA with Federal Govt, a significantly high common system of taxation and spending. Then you need a strong central bank like the US Fed. The EU have actually got that bit right with the ECB. They just need to scrap all the national central banks like the Bundesbank and Banque De France next. There is no need for them. They just get in the way.

    No problem. Everyone knows how it can be done. Theoretically.

  • Arnold Kiel 19th Dec '18 - 5:07am

    “No-dealers” essentially want two things: default on indisputable financial obligations and destroy the Irish peace process. In doing so, they accept expats in limbo, new violence in NI, and having no transition period.

    WTO-terms would be available also after a May-deal-based separation (except for NI in N-S-relevant areas), if that is what the UK wants.

    No-deal is therefore no option for any politician or voter who wants to be compliant with existing, and party to future contracts, i.e. being a member of the advanced, western, civilised world.

  • Peter Martin 19th Dec '18 - 8:34am

    @Arnold Kiel,

    “default on indisputable financial obligations”

    I don’t believe there is any desire to renege on any financial obligations that are genuinely indisputable. The question is whether we should just pick up the tab as presented by the EU. If there is a settled agreement then I would expect that the UK govt won’t be too argumentative over a few billion here and there. It will be just written off as a price to be paid.

    But if there isn’t a deal then we’ll be looking much more carefully at the leaving bill and it may well turn out that there is some dispute!

    “destroy the Irish peace process”

    No-one can do that unless they pick up a gun and start using it. There is certainly no intention for that to happen.

  • Peter Martin 19th Dec '18 - 8:58am

    @ Martin,

    It takes two to make a deal.

    So what you are actually saying is that if the EU chooses to offer no deal at all, or such a poor deal that it is totally impossible for any UK Government or Parliament to accept it, then we are effectively trapped in the EU against our will.

    That’s not good for anyone. Least of all the people of the EU who have severe economic problems to solve of their own. They won’t want all the additional fall out with Britain if it turns out that we won’t be allowed to leave. There was quite a lot of coverage on LDV of the events in France when Emmanuel won the election some 18 months ago. There’s no mention of him now. I wonder why? Then there’s the Italian problem which is potentially a financial catastrophe in the making if it all goes sour.

    Brexit is not the biggest problem for the EU right now.

  • Personally. I think the pro-EU lobby want to remove the WTO option because it could win and they really just want any potential vote to be about May’s deal so that it becomes about the government rather than about post-Brexit Britain’s relationship with the EU. I don’t think there is any more to than that. All this “people’s vote” stuff is simply a cover for a hard core of Remainers trying to cling on and avoid becoming obsolete. As far as a lot of them are concerned the EU is supposed to last for centuries and the idea that it’s shows signs of fracturing after a mere 26 years is discombobulating.

  • Steve Comer 19th Dec '18 - 4:29pm

    Why do we need two sets of questions, it’s too complicated and confusing why not simply ask:

    “In accordance with the result of the 2016 referendum, the United Kingdom Government has negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the European Union. Now the details of that agreement are available we are asking the people whether this has their support, or whether they prefer a different outcome.
    (As there are three possible outcomes you will be asked to indicate a first and second preferences. If none of the options is supported by half of those who vote, then the least popular option will be eliminated and the second preference votes of those who voted for it will be counted).

    The three options available are:

    A) The United Kingdom leaves the European Union on the terms as currently negotiated by Her Majesty’s Government

    B) The United Kingdom leaves the European Union without any agreement with the European Union

    C) The United Kingdom continues to remain a member of the European Union.

    Please vote by placing a ‘1’ next to your first preference, and ‘2’ next to your second preference.”

    Of course the bit in brackets could go in the explanatory leaflet, not on the ballot if that is easier.

    If we have to have two questions then I would prefer a French/Cypriot two ballot option with 7 days in between.

  • We dont need 2 sets of questions.
    If there were to be another referendum. The question should simply be

    A) Reject the deal and leave the European Union entirely
    B) Accept the deal proposed by the European Union and the UK Government.

    That is the only way to respect democracy and the results of the last referendum and the majority who put a cross in the box to leave the European Union, which the Government promised to implement the result

  • Michael Romberg 19th Dec '18 - 6:44pm

    The answer is “Backward induction”. Ah yes, obvs.

    The final question that needs answering is “Would you rather have this particular Brexit or Remain?”.

    So there is a prior question “Which Brexit is best?” If Leavers don’t like Theresa May’s deal we have a two-stage vote. The first stage determines the best available Brexit. The second stage pits that Brexit champion against Remain.

    Set out elegantly in a blog from the economists at the UK Trade Policy Observatory.

    Set out less elegantly in my blog on London4Europe

  • Richard O'Neill 19th Dec '18 - 8:19pm

    We have an obvious proposition in front of us – May’s deal (or we might equally call it the EU deal, it has been made clear they are wedded to it).

    The case for the People’s vote had always rooted itself in the basis that it is not a second referendum. It will be a fresh vote on the final deal. People must decide not politicians.

    We should, as an initial stage just have a simple vote on whether to accept the May deal. Parliament may oppose it, but perhaps the people will vote for it.

    If a no vote, then we can open the possibility of a harder Brexit or some form of remain. It doesn’t rule out either later on, but it lets the people call the shots if there is a parliamentary impasse.

  • People seem to have forgotten that the 2016 referendum was fraudulent and we are hearing once again that it was the biggest democratic exercise etc. The result may well be officially declared void by an ongoing court case. If that happens article 50 submission is invalid, we stay in EU by default, with a possibility of re-running the original vote if people really want to go through all that again

  • @John King. Not so, I’m afraid. Legally, the Article Submission submission rests on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 ch.9, not the referendum. So declaring the referendum result void would not make the Article 50 submission invalid. It would be an interesting – albeit improbable – situation to arrive at, though.

  • Article *50* submission

  • I think Richard is spot on. A two-question referendum is required. This mirrors the New Zealand electoral reform referendum: “1) shall we keep FPTP or change to a different system? (2) Rank these four proportional electoral systems in order of preference for the case that Q1 elects to change system”.

    I don’t know why some people think that such referendum questions “are too complicated”.

    I’m sick of the intelligence of the electorate being insulted like that. I grew up with that sort of nonsense when the SDP/Lib alliance called for PR and the two big parties scoffed at change and said it was too complicated. Grow up, please.

    If we wish to honour the basic process of the first referendum, the first of the two-questions as framed by Richard does just that: it asks if we accept the Deal as negotiated. This Deal is the natural outcome of the article 50 process and follows on from the mandate (haha, lies and all that, I know) of the 2016 referendum. Everyone who had bothered to look at the rules would know that leaving the EU required triggering A50 and entering a 2yr negotiating position.

    Any sensible Remainer would vote No for Q1 and “Remain” for Q2.

    If Remainers are too scared of this arrangement of questions they could try to invert the order thus: “(1) Do you still wish to Leave the EU, or Remain? (2) If Q1 returns “Leave” do you prefer to leave on the terms of the Deal, or No Deal?”

  • Arnold Kiel 21st Dec '18 - 8:05am

    OK, I’ll try one more time. The options are:

    1. Remain at current terms
    2. May’s deal which provides for nothing else than a 2-4 year cliff-edge postponement. It makes sense if one excludes 1. (above) and assumes a rational UK political decision maker to take over soon.
    3. Breaking the Lisbon- and Belfast-treaties, without any trade deal anywhere anytime (i.e. becoming the only western pariah-state), and killing Irish and Brits through outright violence (including by the police and the army), medical- and food shortages, and a standstill of transport, incl. emergencies. Furthermore, remove GBP 1-2 Trillion (1-2000.000.000.000) home equity from the UK’s already delicate mortgage balance and banking system, stop all house-building, and suspend all pending real-estate transactions and other investments with immediate effect, cause the short-term emigration of 1-2 million people. Collapse of consumer durables markets, causing an immediate dismissal-and closing-wave in retail. Suspension, cut back, and eventual cessation of UK car making. Rocketing crime, and widespread takeover of weak regions of the country by organised crime. Effectively stop HS2, crossrail, Hinckley-point, Heathrow-expansion, etc. etc.

    Immediate return to 3-digit Billions of budget deficits that must be sold to markets that have lost all confidence in the UK, resulting in > 5% interest rates that quickly feed back into already underwater home-loans…

    3 options? Get real!

  • Peter Martin 21st Dec '18 - 9:26am

    I just like to make it clear that Arnold Kiel does seem to be a real person and not a sock puppet of my own invention.

    However, I must admit the thought has crossed my mind, from time to time, to invent an online persona who would make outrageous claims and demands, supposedly on behalf of the Remain side, and so damage their cause. However we all have devilish thoughts like that and the better part of my self quashed them without too much trouble.

    And in any case Arnold has saved me the trouble!

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