To revoke, or not to revoke? That is the question

I was a little shocked on Tuesday morning to find that one of the biggest policy shifts in Lib Dem history seems likely to be pushed through Conference with less than 6 days’ notice. The problem I have with the new policy of “Revoke if we win a majority”, is that it puts at risk some core beliefs of our Party and validates the accusations of being the “Lib Undems” which we have been successfully resisting for the last three years. I see the strong attraction of Revoke; no messy referendum, no arguing over the question on the ballot paper, no further delay to resolving Brexit which everyone is heartily sick of. And also of course clarity. Here I want to propose a solution which keeps the essence of the policy, preserves our core beliefs, and provides real opportunities to take the political high ground at the same time.

I have spent the last three years arguing with Leavers and soft Remainers that our People’s Vote policy is perfectly democratic. As Tim Farron said, how can voting be undemocratic? I don’t argue that the 2016 referendum was invalid. I argue that it is out of date, new people are on the register and others have changed their minds, and therefore we need to check if “The People” still think the same once the destination is clear. More important, I have spent the last 40 years arguing with people about our clearly undemocratic First Past the Post voting system. Thatcher did NOT have a mandate to enact manifesto policy in 1979, nor did Blair in 1997, and nor did Cameron in 2015 (although actually the policy to hold an EU referendum is the one thing where I do accept a mandate since Tory plus UKIP votes exceeded 50%). We live in an elective dictatorship. Changing that is surely Liberal Democrat core belief.

The Revoke policy states: “Conference calls for Liberal Democrats to campaign to Stop Brexit in a General Election, with the election of a Liberal Democrat majority government to be recognised as an unequivocal mandate to revoke Article 50 and for the UK to stay in the EU”. We could easily get a majority government with 37% of the vote as Cameron did in 2015. So we are saying that regardless of our beliefs, we will take our own chance to use elective dictatorship to push through a policy that may well be opposed by the majority of voters.

In my view the motion needs to be amended to say that we will Revoke ONLY if we get more than 50% of the votes cast, or importantly if a group of parties with the same manifesto policy collectively exceed that threshold. Otherwise we will test public opinion through a referendum. This preserves our core belief in PR, and gives the General Election validity as a means of overturning Brexit. What is more it gives us a huge political opportunity. We can call on all the other Remain parties to put the same policy in their manifestos. If Labour were to do that, there would be a realistic chance of success. If they don’t, they will have to live with the painful route that so floored Emily Thornberry last week.

I cannot go to Conference this year, so I appeal to any who are who agree with me to put in a suitable amendment and speak for it.

* ndrew McCaig is Chair of the Huddersfield Liberal Democrats, one-time Leeds City Councillor, and long-time member of the Electoral Reform Society)

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74 Comments

  • Sometimes I think the purity test issues we have in this party are worse than Labour have. The proposed policy is very clear and easily understandable to the voters. Yes we believe in PR, but we shouldn’t play by Marquess of Queensbury rules when nobody else does either.

  • This is absurd. Do you think the Tories/Brexit Party are going to care how they win a majority in the Commons and push through No Deal? There’s every possibility they’ll win a majority on 30% of the vote – and I can assure you they will offer zero concessions as a result – in fact, they will treat it as a mandate to do whatever they want. Just as they have treated the referendum itself as a mandate to push whatever they like; they even think electing their own leader is a mandate for changing government policy in drastic ways.

    We are already conceding ground and compromising by saying we will only advocate Revoke if we win a majority of seats. The real policy ought to be to revoke under every circumstance, as every version of Brexit is more damaging to the country and to its people than staying in the EU.

  • James – Boris has trained as a cage fighter, and his appeal is to those who enjoy watching fighters win dirty. We don’t do cage fighting, and our appeal is to those who believe in Queensbury rules. For us to support trashing democracy would be akin to putting up Mike Tyson as a Lib Dem candidate.

  • Peter Martin 12th Sep '19 - 11:57am

    Calling for revoke is actually a more honest policy than calling for a referendum.

    There’re two problems with new referendum. Firstly, the likely choices on offer will almost certainly lead to a Leave boycott and a Remain hollow win. That’s not going to resolve anything. Secondly, if by some remote chance, some modified TM type deal is accepted by the electorate they won’t trust Lib Dems to implement it.

    I previously made the comment that TM deal is the worst of all options for those who wish to leave the EU. If we do end up staying in, I’d look forward to the UK being as awkward an EU member as it is possible to be.

  • Andrew McCaig 12th Sep '19 - 12:11pm

    James, Tom,
    The worst possible excuse for doing the wrong thing is surely that Boris Johnson would do it. He may well, as you say, push through no-deal on 35% of the vote, and we need to be able to say why that would be totally undemocratic.

    My suggestion is not purity. It is political expediency linked to a tenable democratic position for our Party. Take a straw poll now on your High Street and ask “what is the chance of the Lib Dems forming a majority government?” and everyone will say “next to zero”. Ask “What is the chance of the Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid, SNP and Labour getting 50% of the votes between them?” and they will say “pretty high”

    By challenging the others to put this in their manifestos now, we actually open up a credible route to stopping Brexit without the pain of another referendum. We also, hopefully, avoid defeating the Leadership at conference.

  • Andrew is making some good points; we are in danger of being accused of not being democratic in calling for revoke of article 50. Calling for a people’s vote is different and there is a good case for a two thirds majority in the result of that vote.
    The motion as stated, could well loose us many votes because more people will perceive us as undemocratic. Already as a result of this proposal, the presenter of Newsnight on Tuesday referred to us as an EXTREME PARTY as, she said, is the Brexit Party. Public comments from some Brexiteers have said they do not like the Brexit Party even though they agree with them on Brexit. Do we not risk some remainers and plenty of waverers similarly turning against us because of this ‘extreme’ view ?

  • Katharine Pindar 12th Sep '19 - 12:30pm

    Thank you for posting this, Andrew. Absolutely agree with you, and if no amendment is offered, I and others will try to have the main paragraph about Revoke, lines 47-49, deleted. (Tried last night to register this, but the system wasn’t yet recognising the Europe motion.) We should not lower ourselves to the level of Boris Johnson and his followers, willing to say anything striking and change any policy for supposed electoral advantage: we are better than that.

    I am off travelling now. I hope you get plenty of support – and that that is reflected in the debate on Sunday.

  • If, heroic assumption, this goes in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and the Liberal Democrats win more than half the seats in Parliament and then revoke then at any future general election it will be open to any party to campaign on a leave platform and say they do not need a referendum first. So at all future elections we would be exposed to a “sudden death” exit. If BREXIT is revoked without a referendum then leavers will forever be able to bang on about the will of the people being over-turned etc.

  • Just in case the parallel thread is being overlooked, please see:

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/that-brexit-conference-motion-in-full-62005.html#comment-509536

    Katharine, I don’t know which are lines 47-49, but I think the problem lies not primarily with the lines which begin “Revoke”, but the lines which begin “Conference calls for”.

  • Goodness me. Do we live in a parliamentary democracy or not?
    In the UK decisions are made by MPs elected to represent their constituencies, not by advisory referenda or direct democracy. Those are the rules we have been given and if, under the present system, we were to win a majority in Parliament, then that would be viewed as a mandate to deliver our programme.
    Look at the problems we had in 2010 when we reneged on our programme and we were only the junior partner in a coalition!
    If we had revoke in our manifesto and if, and it is quite a big if, won, everyone would expect us to implement it.
    A general election trumps a single issue referendum any time in a parliamentary democracy.

  • Alison Baskeyfield 12th Sep '19 - 12:43pm

    I agree with Andrew McCaig, I think the straight Revoke Article 50 stance even if we got less than 50% of the vote goes against our core principles and values. Andrew has proposed a reasonable solution around this, which I would support. Unfortunately, I am not going to be at Conference either, so expressing my views here.

  • Richard
    UKIP and the Brexit Party have always had leave in their manifestoes. Whether we have a referendum or not, any party can put a pledge on those lines in a future GE.
    We joined the Common Market by vote of parliament and only later had a referendum when the government changed, and that was to sort out the split in the Labour Party! (Sound familiar)
    No, a referendum will solve nothing, otherwise the leavers would not have campaigned for 40 years for another one.
    The decision is parliament’s and therefore a majority LD government should implement its manifesto commitment, always assuming we do make a revoke commitment.

  • @Andrew McCaig – I , for one, agree with you. If we want to reserve the right to challenge the democratic legitimacy of any General Election mandate that BJ may claim for No Deal Brexit if he wins a Commons majority with, say, 35% of the popular vote, we must be seen to be acting democratically ourselves. We simply cannot have it both ways. Either we believe in proportional representation – in which case, we must uphold that principle ourselves – or we don’t.

  • Andrew McCaig 12th Sep '19 - 1:28pm

    Mick Taylor,
    Do you think Jo Swinson is going to come out the day after Johnson wins a majority of seats on 30% of the votes saying “fair enough, the People have given you a mandate for a no deal Brexit? I certainly don’t want to see her doing that.

    We should not have had a referendum in the first place, but we have had one now where many people turned out who never bother in General Elections because they see no point. Overturning that majority vote by means of a minority vote should not be in our manifesto.

  • I honestly would love to see a stake driven through the heart of the idea that “the only answer to a referendum is another referendum.” This is bad precedent and undermines the concepts both of Parliamentary supremacy and of representative democracy. We do need a more representative and more democratic system, but plebiscites, no matter how frequently held, are hardly icons of democracy—which is why dictators use them so much. Ultimately, it is the paid job of the legislature to make laws, not to kick the job of lawmaking back to “the people” (or a subset thereof). Let’s get back to having a Parliament that will take responsibility for its messes.

  • We don’t campaign for a referendum on electoral reform. We campaign for electoral reform. If we won a majority on 30% of the vote, I very much hope we would implement electoral reform rather than asking voters again.

    The idea that we have to account for the failures of our current system in what we choose to promote as policy is, frankly, nuts.

    The idea that we are therefore behaving in the same way as the people who have created and protected the current system in order to shore up their own political support and existence is also nuts.

  • Andrew McCaig 12th Sep '19 - 5:41pm

    Tom
    Nine years ago I watched in horror as our Leader first solemnly pledged to vote against any increase in tuition fees in the next Parliament, then strode through papers blowing in the wind saying “No more broken promises” and then tore up the pledge as if it was not worth the paper it was written on.
    We have spent nine years in the electoral wilderness as a result of that folly. Now we are back in business after painstakingly rebuilding our reputation.

    I want to see us a Party that can be relied on and can be trusted across the political spectrum. Where I come from we rely on Leave voters as well as Remain to win local elections because they trust our councillors. We have consistently argued for the last 3 years that Brexit can only be overturned by a majority vote. I would argue that majority vote could be in a General Election rather than a referendum, but only if more than 50% of voters support Parties that campaign clearly on Revoke. That way I can look Leave voters in the eye in Huddersfield.

    We tried “the end justifies the means” in 2010, and should have learned our lesson. I don’t want to see us use our broken FPTP system to overturn Brexit, however much I might want it (and believe me I do!)

  • Alex Macfie 12th Sep '19 - 9:01pm

    Andrew McCaig: You’ve learnt the wrong lesson from 2010. It has very little, if anything, to to with whether “the end justifies the means”. The tuition fees debacle happened because of a “solemn” pledge to vote against any rise *regardless of the circumstances*, then broke it *when we were a junior partner in government, not a Lib Dem majority government*. It has almost nothing to do with the proposed motion to this month’s Conference, which is that *if we were a majority government, we would revoke Article 50*, and has nothing to do with what we would do if not in a majority government. The main lesson from tuition fees is never to make pledges that leave you hostage to fortune. And actually, never make pledges written by interest groups.

    The other mistake made from 2010 is that the Lib Dems in coalition did not demand enough from being in government. The point about tuition fees is that we FAILED to do what we had pledged to do. It is a totally different thing from being in a majority government and actually doing what we pledged to do if that’s what we got.

    Broken or not, FPTP is the system. We stand for election under FPTP, even when we campaign against it. Getting an MP elected in a 4-way fight on 26% of the vote is “using our broken FPTP system”. What would you do if that happened to you? Stand aside and say you can’t accept the result because it’s unfair? Or just say, “A win’s a win,” and get on with being an MP, even under the broken system.

    In politics you have to play the game to win. The point about 2010 is that Clegg didn’t’ know how to play; he was TOO willing to concede, TOO concerned about “playing fair” even when Cameron wasn’t playing fair.

  • Martin
    I don’t think people do vote on who is asking the question in a referendum. I suspect that is just something people who don’t like the outcome say to delegitimise the result. I think that votes are much more issue focused in a referendum than in a general election. The real problem with holding such plebiscites is that they can be divisive . But once you’ve held one going back on it would simply lead to more, deeper and angrier divisions.

  • Ian Shephard 12th Sep '19 - 9:40pm

    Within an hour of hearing that the Lib Dems would revoke A50 if they won a majority my wife and I re-joined the party after a gap of several years. At last there was a party with an unambiguous offer to remain. Please, please don’t complicate it. Remember the reaction of Brenda from Bristol. There are many voters who, like Brenda, just want an end to Brexit. They are more likely to support a party offering a simple solution than one threatening yet another referendum. Leave the mixed messaging, and the consequential appearance of weak leadership, to Labour.

  • David Allen 12th Sep '19 - 9:51pm

    As Andrew McCaig suggests, the party by far the most likely to win an overall majority at the next election are the Tories. The bookies currently make it about 2/1 against the Tories achieving that, but a (rather ungenerous?) 50/1 odds against the Liberal Democrats achieving it.

    The proposal to be floated at our Conference is basically “Winner Take All”. The proposal is that, if one party wins an absolute majority at the next election, whichever party that is, whatever vote share (35%?) it received, then it can simply do whatever it wants to do about Brexit.

    If he wins, Boris can walk out of the EU with No Deal on Day 1. If she wins, Jo can revoke Brexit on day 1. But Boris is much the more likely to win.

    No doubt Boris will then explain that it is far too late to moan about Yougov showing a majority for Remain, and that, since he is merely adopting an approach to democratic governance which matches that proposed by the Liberal Democrats, the opposition parties and the Gina Millers should kindly shut up and go away.

    Are we crazy?

  • Richard Elliott 12th Sep '19 - 10:19pm

    The headline that comes across is that policy has changed from a second ref to revoke, the nuances of if this and if that and we would support either, are lost. I think this is a bit hasty and can be perceived as undemocratic on first hearing – we need a wide voting base than just hard remainers. Stop Brexit is a better message with the emphasis on the second ref – revoke as a last resort.

  • Geoffrey Dron 12th Sep '19 - 10:53pm

    The advancing of the federalist agenda in Brussels means a 2nd referendum is essential

    https://capx.co/welcome-to-the-new-eu-commission-its-as-if-the-european-elections-never-happened/

  • Michael Maybridge 12th Sep '19 - 11:19pm

    Thanks very much for this Andrew. Personally I’m hoping against hope that revoking Article 50 without a People’s Vote doesn’t become party policy in any way, shape or form, but if the motion is amended as you suggest it would at least allow me to, as you say, look voters in the eye and defend our party against accusations of being the ‘Unlib Undems’.

    Like it or not, the people were asked whether they wanted to remain in or leave the EU, and attempts to dismiss it as an ‘opinion poll’ which we can safely ignore are, I’m afraid grasping at technicalities in a manner worthy of our current government. People on the doorstep will treat such an approach with the contempt it deserves. But surely, say some, in the (wildly unlikely) event that we win a majority, we would have a mandate to overturn that of the (2016) referendum? Well, yes, under our ridiculous system we could insist that a mandate given by 35% of the vote overrides one given by 52%, but only if we’re prepared to permanently surrender our right to challenge the system of elective dictatorship and argue, with any credibility at least, for a fair voting system. In the mean time, when I’m confronted with the inevitable doorstep challenge that we’re overturning democracy I’ll have no option but to agree. Except I won’t, because I won’t be there trying to defend the indefensible.

  • Alex Macfie 13th Sep '19 - 8:37am

    @Michael Maybridge: The present government is not “grasping at technicalities”, it’s (potentially) breaking the law, or at least going against long-established constitutional conventions. Besides, that the 2016 referendum was advisory is not a “technicality”, it’s a simple fact. Our constitution is based on Parliamentary democracy, not referendums. To campaign to Revoke Article 50 if we win an overall majority, and then to do so in the (admittedly unlikely) event that we do, it NOT “overturning democracy”, it is PART OF democracy. For us go into an election on an unequivocal “revoke” wold provide a necessary challenge to the (sadly far too prevalent) idea that the 2016 advisory referendum result should be put on a pedestal, sacrosanct and immune from most of the normal democratic challenges. Calling a democratic challenge “undemocratic” is scarily Orwellian. It is why dictators are so fond of referendums, and so needs to be shot down.

    And by taking an unequivocal “revoke if we win” position we would not be “surrender[ing] our right to challenge the system of elective dictatorship”. To be clear, we already work in the current system in a way that would, by your logic, be surrendering our right to challenge it. You could argue that we do so by putting up candidates under FPTP, fighting to win, and accepting any win for us even if it is a narrow victory in a 4-way fight (e.g. Inverness 1992). We argue for reform of the House of Lords, but we still participate in it, and use its lack of a government majority to inflict major defeats on the government. We participate in Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections even though we don’t think the post should exist as an elected office. The simple fact is, like it or not, we have the system that we have, and the only way to get things changed is to fight within it.

    So if we, the Liberal Democrats, win an overall majority, the first things we would do in our first term in governmnent need to be Revoke Article 50, reform the House of Lords, and change the voting system to STV In multi-member constituencies. All without referendums.

    And to those who invoke Nick Clegg and 2010, what we are doing now is the EXACT OPPOSITE of the Clegg approach. His problem was that he insisted on playing by Marquess of Queensberry rules when the Tories clearly were not. And that approach failed, as shown in 2015.

  • Alex Macfie 13th Sep '19 - 8:42am

    Andrew McCaig:

    “Do you think Jo Swinson is going to come out the day after Johnson wins a majority of seats on 30% of the votes saying “fair enough, the People have given you a mandate for a no deal Brexit?”

    Of course not, any more than Johnson would do the same, mutatis mutandis, if the Lib Dems win an overall majority and we revoke Article 50. That’s just not how things work in a Parliamentary democracy. If Johnson wins an overall majority, then we would be in opposition, and we would therefore do what any opposition worthy of the title should do, which is to oppose the government where we disagree with its policies.

  • Bill le Breton 13th Sep '19 - 8:50am

    Andrew, this is very useful and the debate is very good below your piece, but the Clegg mistakes came from not knowing where are support really came from and pivoting towards a ‘voter’ who was never going to support us and doing so in a manner that gave our opponents a stick with which to beat us.

    Revoke is not like that. We would be pivoting towards greater and uncontested support. If our opponents beat us with the stick of pivoting to this policy they would merely do our communicating for us.

    But I fear all this may be too late – to use my analogy of the bus again (sorry David), we may have missed the bus.

    Last night the DUP appeared to signal that it is softening on the backstop. The Irish Times identifying the solution as a “I can’t believe its not the backstop” deal. Merkel, unlike Barnier, placing her a foot in the door he would close – “a deal can be done on the last day”.

    We may come to regret we didn’t snatch that General Election when it was offered.

    A Conservative leader returning from Europe with a piece of paper and sipping Canada Dry Ginger – a harder Brexit than May’s. Her Majesties Opposition shadow boxing still.

    The draft Lib Dem manifesto “Revoke and Renew” blown to the wind.

  • Andrew McCaig 13th Sep '19 - 9:27am

    Interesting set of comments. I make it about 10 agreeing with me, about 7 disagreeing, and a few talking about something completely different.

    Mark Pack’s straw poll also showed a similar division amongst members on moving to revoke. Where the Party is so divided we should not be being bounced by the leadership with 6 days notice.

    We are often accused by our opponents of being an opportunistic Party with no priniciples. The argument “the others do it so we have to” really is very disapponting for me to read. Overturning a vote by 52% with a vote by 37% is just wrong. This is something easily understood by people and no amount of casuistry about “advisory votes” alters that. The main comfort is that it is very unlikely we will be in a position to do it.

  • Alex Macfie
    You’re saying that an elected Lib Dem government would make major constitutional changes without asking if those changes have enough support or are wanted! The AV fiasco suggest there would be real problems. Such a government would face endless attacks on its legitimacy, prolonged attempts to remove it and huge public protests.
    Personally, I’d like to get rid of the royal family and introduce PR, but you have to persuade people it’s a good idea first because just being lent power for a few years does not give you carte blanche to do what you want. The point being that you would not be able to outlaw or avoid referendums for very long, not least of all because the electoral changes would quickly reduce the amount of power such a government held.
    This is the cause of the EU problem in the first place. The Major government signed up to far reaching political changes without bothering to find out if they were wanted.` This created a parliamentary rift that only needed a weak enough or strong enough government to take it to a public vote.

  • Alex Macfie 13th Sep '19 - 9:45am

    Glenn: Rioting on our streets over proportional representation? You must be joking. The general public don’t care very much about constitutional issues, and especially not about electoral systems. STV was introduced in local governmentin Scotland, without a referendum, and there was no civil unrest as a result.
    As for the AV referendum, that was lost because No2AV ran an extremely deceitful campaign based principally on the supposed cost, and the Yes campaign did not do enough to challenge it. In other words, it was like I said above, the Yes campaign played by Marquess of Queensberry rules while the No campaign did not. And the inevitable result was that the No campaign won.

  • Andrew McCaig 13th Sep '19 - 9:50am

    Bill,
    You may be right that Johnson will turn up with a deal. It may also get through Parliament. That is why we have to keep our “any deal must be subject to a referendum” policy intact (which tbh it probably is in this resolution, although in a rather fudgy way).
    There will be a substantial number of Tories who will still vote against any deal however, and so it will only go through with 50 Kinnockites supporting it. That could well be the end of the Labour Party and the Faragists will call Johnson a Quisling.
    To be honest Brexit going through was always the likely outcome and I factored that into my thinking in 2016. 2017 did give give hope of avoiding it, and that may still happen, but I am happy that the issue has finally breathed life back into our Party, and I think the “Party of Rejoin” will have an enduring core vote if Brexit does happen.

    I was one of many activists who left the Party in 2010 over breaking the Pledge, and only rejoined in 2015 to vote for a new Leader. I am not a big cog, but i am one that was pretty instrumental in one of our 700 plus gains on May 2nd, that proved so vital to our success in the Euro elections. Lets try and keep our cogs on board by sticking to our principles and trying not to copy the bad behaviour of the others.

  • I sort of agree in principle, but the devil is in what leave option there would be in a future referendum and how election-winning Remainer parties would implement it if either TM’s deal, No-Deal, or Boris’s Deal, etc won. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming Leave won’t win, it did last time to everyone’s astonishment. Voters can give the government a kick in the teeth and can’t be held responsible for how they vote, not like an MP whose vote is public. The fact is Remainer parties couldn’t implement Leave and we’d have to have another election. Revoke has to be the primary objective; People’s Vote second.

  • Michael Romberg 13th Sep '19 - 11:50am

    I agree with the original statement of the problem with the proposed resolution.

    However, the solution does not work. Suppose you add together all the votes cast for parties that back Revocation without a prior referendum and get over 50% of the votes cast. What of it? Perhaps people voted LD because they liked our education or drugs policies, or thought Jo Swinson would be a good Prime Minister. People do not vote on a single policy. We surely have Leave-voters in our ranks (in 2016, 30% of 2015 LD voters voted Leave – they won’t all have left the party or ceased to support it).

    The solution is to drop the revocation policy proposal and stick with the referendum policy that we have: what began with a referendum can only be confirmed/ stopped by another referendum.

    The reason is political not legal (a LD government would have the legal authority to revoke). In a democracy the winners need to conduct themselves in a way that ensures that the losers accept their position. That means that they have been given a fair hearing in a fair process. On Brexit, that means a referendum in which all Leave options that actually exist and that have a degree of support in the country are on the ballot paper, no matter how unpalatable we would find them.

    We say that we stand on the centre ground while the other parties have left for the extremes. Revocation, by denying what Leave voters would say was a fair chance to make and win their case, would show that we too had left the centre ground. Let’s stick to our values.

  • I just remember Andrew Neil taking Tim Farron apart over the gay sin thing. If Jo feels she can defend this policy against that sort of assault then fair enough. If she can’t then this might set us back badly.

  • Michael Romberg, you’re quite right in principle to point out that Andrew McCaig’s solution does not work. Unless Labour were to back Revocation (pigs might fly!), we would be left with mostly just (if these parties were to agree) Green and SNP votes to try adding on to our own. And if, in our dreams, that total vote were to surmount 50%, cue the Brexiteers searching out some individual Green voters who were prepared to protest loudly on TV that their vote was all about climate change and that they took strong exception to being falsely counted as anti-Brexit voters. Meanwhile, we would be ignoring millions of Labour Remainers who, if properly consulted by referendum, would help deliver a decisive landslide for Remain.

    So in principle you’re quite right – the best thing would just be to drop revocation and stick with referendum. In defence of Andrew McCaig, his proposal is much better than nothing, and if it is the only proposal that will pass, then it would be good to pass it. It does achieve two things. First, it exposes the original revocation proposal as unsound. And second, it sets the bar in the right place, a very high bar, and thus ensures that in practice, we can concentrate on working with allies and getting that referendum to happen.

  • Alex Macfie 13th Sep '19 - 3:06pm

    @Andrew McCaig: “The others do it so we have to” that exactly NOT what I’m saying. Johnson and Cummings are trying to circumvent and manipulate the rules. What I and others here are proposing is that we play by the rules as they are intended to work; play hardball but fairly. And it only applies to a situation where we do find ourselves in power, in which case I would expect us also to change the constitution according to our long-standing policies. I suspect that if we swept to power and the failed to implement electoral form, or HoL reform, we would be quickly called out and defeated faster than you can say “tuition fees”.
    And although an outright election victory based on 37% of the vote doesn’t provide the most democratic of mandates, I actually think it’s more democratic than a mandate from 52% of the vote in an advisory referendum. First of all, it’s binding, because election results are. Second, it can be overturned in future elections, which happen according to a calendar. A future referendum to reverse the 2016 result is only in the gift of government. Third, because an election result is binding, it can be challenged in court if it resulted from misconduct during the campaign. It has already been established that the 2016 referendum result cannot be overturned legally over electoral malpractice because it was advisory, so there is literally nothing to overturn. Therefore, saying that we have to “respect” that referendum result, even in future election campaigns, is essentially putting the result on a pedestal, such that it is sacrosanct and unchallengeable.

  • Michael Maybridge 13th Sep '19 - 4:45pm

    @Alex Macfie: We’ll see what the Supreme Court finally says about the legality of the current prorogation. The point is, though, that as far as Johnson and Cummings are concerned they are acting within the ‘technicalities’ of the rules. If that’s the case, the only sense in which the Government can be said to be breaking the ‘rules’ is if, as you suggest above, they are breaking convention (which I think they are, but I’m aware of examples they could cite to ‘show’ that they aren’t). However, since convention in the UK ‘constitution’ consists of nothing more or less than what has been done in the past, I’d argue that there is a strong, if relatively recent, convention that the results of referenda (referendums?) are implemented. So far as I can discover, this has been the case with every single referendum carried out in this country, starting with the Northern Ireland border poll in 1973 – making it a much stronger convention than any I can think of around prorogation! Of course, none of this means that the referendum result is immune from challenge, because conventions develop and change over time – but, as with Johnson and Cummings, the most important question is not what is legal, nor what is conventional, but what is right in a society that likes to think of itself as democratic.

    Here, I confess, is where your argument that a mandate from a 37% vote in a general election is more democratic than one from a 52% vote in a referendum really makes my head spin. Your argument essentially seems to be that a referendum vote is worth less because the rules around the process are inadequate. Well, fair enough, to a point. Maybe the referendum should have been placed on a more secure legal basis, maybe it shouldn’t have been run at all, but the fact is it was, and the people, narrowly, made their decision. Perhaps you think that the level of malpractice was such as to render the process not ‘free and fair’ (I don’t, but I suppose I could be wrong). If so, the normal response, internationally, would be to rerun it, not to dispense with it when you don’t like the outcome. That really is the attitude of dictators. I dare you to try explaining to an ordinary voter (leaver or remainer) that a potential 37% vote for the Liberal Democrats would be worth more than 52% (almost certainly of a higher turnout) in the referendum. But please, can I be there to watch? 😋

  • Alex McFie
    Where did I say rioting in the streets? But I beg to differ about constitutional reform. I think they do care and I think it is arrogant to assume they don’t. A government proposing such major shifts in voting habits without broad consent would not last long enough to implement it. You talk as if there would be a compliant opposition, but as they say no plan survives contact with the enemy.
    The Scottish system was used specifically to elect a devolved Scottish parliament, not in a general election. The result is dominance by Scottish Nationalists in Scotland. I suspect similar thing would happen rapidly in England, probably with a much boosted Conservative Party.

  • Nom de Plume 13th Sep '19 - 9:14pm

    Bollocks to Brexit.

  • Richard O'Neill 13th Sep '19 - 10:37pm

    Very good article. Although even a 50% plus vote in an election has mandate problems if it is on a much lower turnout than 2016 (as seems likely). We could end up with less than 20% of the population deciding our future Brexit policy. Along with the above suggestions of the importance of Parliamentary over popular sovereignty, it feels like were are heading back to a conservative 19th century view of democracy.

    I’ll admit I was a late convert to a referendum, partly due to some of the doubts expressed in these pages lately. (eg. What question will be asked that is fair to different sides, and will Parliament enact the result) Added to which second referendums have become a bit of a cliché in the EU (sorry I can’t consider it a third referendum as some do, I wasn’t born until twenty years after the first one). But it does seem there is merit in one as long as it engages enough of the population, and polls show interest in another referendum.

    I know Chuka has been pushing a Revoke line for some months, so I assume that has been a big factor in this sudden shift. But for Jo Swinson and others who have been shouting from the rooftops the importance of giving the people a “final say” on the issue so intensely for three years, it is a bizarre pivot. It will be easy for opponents to pick up quotes issued by leading Liberals that contradict the new policy.

    The reasoning put out is a murky – that Lib Dems priority is a People’s Vote, but that if the election happens first, we will not support a people’s vote in the event an election is won. In which case the party would be perfectly placed to hold a referendum and set the wording!

    I’d conclude this doesn’t make Lib Dem policy simpler. It actually puts the party similar to the Labour position of having a convoluted BUT policy. In this case, Lib Dems will cancel Brexit if we win a majority, BUT we obviously won’t. To me it has echoes of the 2010 tuition fees policy, where the headline pledge was shouted without making clear the small print if the party didn’t win a majority.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Sep '19 - 9:04am

    @Michael Maybridge: What you say about convention and referendums is just making things up as we go along. The UK is said to have an “unwritten” constitution, but really what this means is that the constitution is scattered across a multitude of statutes, rather than being codified into a single document. Previous referendums may have been “implemented”, but in all those cases there was no real argument about procedure, or fairness, or outcome. I don’t think it means that all advisory referendums always have to be “implemented”, regardless of circumstances. However, this reading of recent convention would explain the Johnson/Cummings government’s cavalier approach to Parliamentary scrutiny and the law. I think you are far too generous to those two when you say they just think “they are acting within the ‘technicalities’ of the rules”. Actually, comments made by government spokespeople clearly show that as far as they are concerned, breaking the law of the land is an option if required to fulfill Johnson’s “do or die” pledge (a kind of “noble cause corruption”). That Government Ministers have to obey Parliamentary instructions is not mere “convention”, it is THE LAW. And law trumps “convention”. This is why the Government was not allowed to use Royal Prerogative to trigger Article 50, but instead had ask for permission from Parliament.

    Yes, I DO think that a ballot with inadequate process rules is worthless. The Brexit referendum already broke international norms on the conduct of referendums. Re-running the original (broken) referendum would be meaningless and pointless. Saying that it was broken, but nonetheless we have to implement it is like saying that Lance Armstrong should keep all his medals even though it is acknowledged he cheated.

  • Is it really credible that if the LibDems were to win a majority, PM Swinson would head to Brussels to get an ‘improved’ deal (remember LibDem MPs voted against TM’s Deal and No Deal) and then put the Improved Deal against Remain on a referendum ballot? The LibDems would then campaign for Remain, *against* the Improved Deal they’d negotiated! If the Improved Deal won (voters often vote against a government), PM Swinson would take us out of the EU. Surely this is insane!!

  • “one of the biggest policy shifts in Lib Dem history”

    Very odd view of history. Bigger than abandoning equidistance? Bigger than the 98 conference vote limiting the scope of deals with Labour? Bigger than the 2008 shift from a tax raising to a tax cutting party.

    Moving to full on revoke is if anything a tactical shift. It certainly isn’t a major change to a major plank of the party’s platform.

  • Of course the real problem with holding a referendum is that you can’t rely on those stupid peasants to vote remain this time no matter how the question is phrased/rigged.

  • I’ve had a couple of days to think about this now and I’m coming to the conclusion that revoking art50 is not only defensible, but probably the right thing to do. The country is paralyzed and has been for the last four years. The referendum was badly conceived, lacked forethought and insight and because of the way the devolved areas of the UK voted, has lead to some unforeseen and highly dangerous consequences. If it was done again, a referendum of this consequence should have demanded a super majority and a simple majority in all all the countries of the UK. Not to mention a specific proposal of Leave intent. So when you are in a hole, stop digging, climb out and fill it in behind you. I honestly think that in five years time no one will want to go back to revisit this mess. We need to get on with other things. Whether it enhances our election chances is another question.

  • Glenn: Please try and get your facts right. The change in voting system in Scotland was for local government, not the devolved Scottish Parliament, which still uses AMS, as it did from the start. The change in system for local government has led to much more balanced Councils there. The dominance of Scottish politics by the SNP manifests itself most strongly at Westminster, where it is exacerbated by FPTP. It is more to do with the high-handed reaction of pro-Union politicians to the failure of IndyRef than any change in the voting system for local authorities 8 years previously. The Scottish Government is an SNP minority administration, having gone down from a majority in 2016.

  • Martin
    No, I don’t think the AV referendum was run as a judgement on Nick Clegg. I voted yes to AV. I know a few people who did, but I know more that didn’t. The reason they gave was mostly that they didn’t want get rid of FPTP. The assumption amongst people who advocate electoral reform is that the existing system is unpopular, but it isn’t really because people are used to it and mostly accept it. I’m a republican, a lot of my friends are also republicans, but I have little doubt that if it was put to a vote the Royal Family would win. Same thing with the AV vote. It’s very easy to imagine that because a view seems right to you and to people you know, then it must be the dominant view. As I said before I think referendums really are about the subject and not about who held them. I think the idea that they are not is mostly down the losing side’s incomprehension that people could disagree with them.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Sep '19 - 2:20pm

    Glenn: Most people “accept” the FPTP voting system because they haven’t given much thought to the alternatives. This is why they so easily fell for the propaganda from the No2AV campaign, with its emotive posters about how the £250M could be used instead of an “alternative voting system”, such as on a “maternity unit” and “bulletproof vests”. This campaign line was rather rich coming from the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which is generally opposed to public spending. They were “spending” the £250M multiple times on different things designed to pull at different heartstrings, but it was far more than the actual cost of changing the voting system, because it included the cost of running the referendum, and that of “expensive voting machines” that no-one was planning to introduce. It didn’t matter that Ireland and Scotland manage the much more complex preference voting system of STV in multi-member constituencies using pencil and paper, nor that supporters of electoral reform also tend to be opposed to electronic voting. And even this vastly inflated cost is a drop in the ocean compared with the total of government spending.

    The Yes campaign didn’t do anything to counter that propaganda (it seems they took the stance that to try to put it down would just give it more publicity; trouble was it was too late for that). They also didn’t do a very good job of explaining how AV works, so allowing the No2AV taunt that it was too “complicated” to stand. And, while No2AV was busy attacking Nick Clegg (and yes, that WAS a factor in the result, whatever you think), the Yes campaign didn’t attack the leading No2AV supporters. The BNP was in the No2AV camp; it would have been great if the Yes campaign had run a poster showing Nicks Clegg and Griffin, with the tagline, “Which Nick do you prefer?” But as I have mentioned. the Yes team was playing to rules of gentlemanly conduct that No2AV had no intention of abiding by.

    The turnout was 42.2%, hardly a demonstration of mass public interest in the issue. And Scotland and Northern Ireland, regions already used to preference voting, voted against it. It seems that the people there did not connect the proposed change in voting system with the system that they were already using such was the (i) public ignorance of voting systems in general, (ii) failure of supporters of electoral reform to sell it properly, and (iii) failure of the Yes campaign to attack No2AV’s lies.

  • Why is Boris Johnson Prime Minister? I blame the Liberals who broke the coalition agreement to vote against the recommendations of the independent Boundary Commission. Had they voted the other way then Mrs May would have entered office with a majority of 32 plus the support of the DUP and almost certainly Boris would not now be PM. If you don’t respect the existing conventions of our democracy then you are on a slippery slope.

    Have the Liberals learnt their lesson? No they have decided to double up and put us at risk of a government lead by Nigel Farage. Let me be clear. I support Leave. I have not and would not wish to vote for Farage in a UK election. The only exception would be if Article 50 was rescinded without a referendum. I think this is true of many Leave supporters with whom I am acquainted.

    Many people in this country fail to understand why people in the US voted for Trump. Jo Swinson obviously doesn’t have a clue about this. Someone should take her aside and explain it to her. If politicians in the UK fail to learn lessons from what has happened in the US, then historians will not be very forgiving to them.

  • As a Founding member of the SDP could I please remind your party that the ‘Democrat’ in ‘Liberal Democrat’ is a legacy from the ‘D’ in SDP. If you choose to vote to rescind Article 50 without a referendum, then you no longer would have any right to claim a legacy from those pioneering individuals who founded the SDP. I for one would demand that you revert to your previous name of ‘The Liberal Party’.

  • “I sort of agree in principle, but the devil is in what leave option there would be in a future referendum.”

    Your party is in favour of a ‘People’s Vote’. You obviously don’t understand the concept. The idea is to give people a chance to fully express their views. This can only be achieved by offering a full range of choices from ‘Join the EU and the Euro’, through to ‘Hard Brexit’. If you wish to offer only two choices (a choice between being half-in or half-out of the EU), then that is not a ‘People’s Vote’. You should call it something else. You could call it a ‘Confirmatory Vote’ or, if you wished to be completely honest, you could call it a ’Bogus Referendum’.

  • Alex Macfie 14th Sep '19 - 6:24pm

    TeeJay: The Lib Dems voted against the Boundary Commission recommendations because the Tories shafted us over House of Lords reform. The two things were part of a package in the Coalition Agreement: the Tories would get the boundary changes (which favoured them) and Lib Dems got HoL reform (and AV had that passed). But because the Tories scuppered House of Lords reform (and ran the deceitful No2AV campaign leading to the AV referendum defeat: see my earlier posts) we had every reason to vote down the boundary changes. This was one of the few occasions the Lib Dems stood up to the Tories during the Coalition, so we certainly should not be blamed for the boundary changes not happening!

  • Arnold Kiel 14th Sep '19 - 9:09pm

    Revocation by Parliament is entirely legitimate. Any decision on EU membership, including a leave-vote by Parliament would be equally legitimate. It would produce a better quality decision than any referendum. The reason being that MPs would perceive full personal responsibility for their vote. As a consequence, unlike in preparing, legislating, and conducting the referendum, a high-quality debate would happen among informed politicians, and no MP would have accepted voting on a nebulous concept such as “leave”. The required attempt to specify and evaluate “leave” would have killed the very idea. A referendum blurs MP’s responsibilities, allows them to campaign mendaciously, and then claim to have been “instructed”. Once was enough. No MP should be allowed to hide behind an ill-conceived, questionable, and unspecified “will of the people” again.

  • One of the important things to realize about the Brexit referendum is that in and of itself it had and has no force of law. Had it been attached to a definite piece of legislation which was to go into effect as a result of a positive vote on the referendum (as was the case of the AV referendum) things would be different. As it is, it amounts only to a rather dubious recommendation to the government of the time (i.e., the government brought in by the 2015 elections) to pursue an exit from the EU. Insofar as anything was implicitly required by the referendum, it has been satisfied by invoking Article 50. That having been done, following it up by a revocation under the same terms is perfectly within the rights of a succeeding government, both in terms of power and in terms of moral authority.

    If you are a Leaver, you can argue that such a revocation is unwise but you cannot say that it is illegal or even improper. The referendum has already been satisfied. Now it’s time to move on to next steps, which clearly can include revocation.

  • Sandra Hammett 15th Sep '19 - 6:10am

    As much as I wish to stay a member of the EU I feel the best way to do it would have been to spend the last 3 years campaigning to Remain and Reform in order to change minds and create a vocal majority for a People’s Vote.
    Unfortunately that opportunity has passed.

    Revoking Article has limited appeal, for only die hard Remainers. Leavers of all stripes, people sick of Brexit will not see it as a resolution, people who understood a democratic decision was promised to be implemented has been abandoned.
    We can debate Revoke’s democractic veracity, but the perception will be of an establishment/elitist overturning and Farage or those of his ilk won’t forget it.

    I fail to see how Revoke provides a chance of uniting the country and resealing Pandora’s Box.

  • nvelope2003 15th Sep '19 - 9:38am

    Teejay: The majority of the American voters supported Mrs Clinton, not Trump, by about 3 million. Their electoral system was designed to protect supporters of the status quo.

  • Teejay: (1) most voters don’t care two hoots about the Boundary Commission, probably they don’t even know what it is. (2) You were specifically blaming the Lib Dems for the failure of the BC recommendations to pass the Commons. I pointed out that actually it was the Tories who broke the deal by scuppering HoL reform, so the Lib Dems had no obligation in the Coalition to fulfil their side of the deal. I suspect most voters don’t care about that either. But the point is it is wrong to blame the Lib Dems as you are doing.

  • Agreed, Martin. The Liberal Democrats have given the Brexit Party carte blanche to put whatever policies it likes in its manifesto and then claim the right to implement those policies if they achieve a majority of seats, even if they don’t achieve a majority of votes. The big flaw with Jo Swinson’s vanity project is that the Brexit Party are far more likely to form the next Government than her party.

  • Alex Macfie 16th Sep '19 - 2:10pm

    TeeJay: The Brexit Party plc will do that anyway. I don’t think the Brexit Party cares tuppence what the Lib Dems are doing, or vice versa. The two parties are not fishing in the same pool of voters.
    As for your claim that “the Brexit Party are far more likely to form the next Government than her party”, have you looked at the opinion polls lately? All recent opinion polls put BXP 4th, behind the Lib Dems. And the Lib Dems have a much better targeting strategy than BXP, as well as a local presence that it simply isn’t possible for a flash-in-the-pan party like BXP. At most, BXP will win a few seats in the most Brexity areas of East of England, but more likely none at all.

  • Paul Barker 16th Sep '19 - 5:57pm

    Revoke is now our Policy (unless there is a Referendum before the next Election) backed overwhelmingly by Conference & our Current Leadership. We need to move on from arguing about something that is settled to thinking about how we use this to campaign.
    It seems to me that Revoke can be used to appeal both to Remain Voters & Leave Voters who just want to stop talking about Brexit. We can promise never to mention Brexit again once Article 50 has been Revoked.

  • Alex Macfie 16th Sep '19 - 6:04pm

    Teejay: Your faith in the Brexit Party’s ability to mobilize support is touching, but you forget that Remain voters are at least as mobilized as Leave voters. For sure, Brexit Partly PLC will gain support, mostly from the Tories, if Brexit has not yet happened by 31 October. But its main effect will be to split the Leave vote, as UKIP did in 2010 but on a much larger scale. BXP will not repeat its Euro election success in a FPTP election, which requires targeting and local campaigning. Look at its failure in the Peterborough by-election. It doesn’t know where its vote is. Brexit Party PLC is more likely to win seats in an election after 31/10 when Brexit hasn’t happened, but it will still be only a handful.

  • Peter Hirst 18th Sep '19 - 2:18pm

    Whatever we do or don’t do we must show that we respect that a referendum has occurred, however badly it was designed and conducted. So, if we revocate we must also commit to designing a better set of rules and then rerun the referendum. Ideally, a general election would also be held under improved rules, i.e. preferential voting, proportional representation and a larger franchise.

  • Daniel Walker 18th Sep '19 - 2:38pm

    @Peter Hirst “So, if we revocate we must also commit to designing a better set of rules and then rerun the referendum”

    Unfortunately, the case that proved revocation was possible also said you could only do so if it was “unequivocal and unconditional”; i.e. without a plan to re-trigger Article 50 in the near future. To run a referendum (presumably, WA + political declaration vs Remain) the UK would have to request an extension for that purpose (which would probably be granted)

  • Peter Hirst 18th Sep '19 - 3:36pm

    The rerun would depend on the people’s vote so there might be a fresh attempt to strike a deal or not. I don’t see how politicians in the eu could refuse to grant such a request if it is a clear result of another referendum. It is obviously better to have the referendum first an extension to do that. My point is that revocation on a General Election manifesto pledge would not finalise the issue either politically or constitutionally. What does “unequivocal and unconditional” mean? Nothing in political terms though the eu might not like a fresh attempt.

  • While the LibDems are gloating over the downfall of 17 million of their fellow citizens they might ponder what such a stinging humiliation might provoke them to do when, despite the foot dragging, the polling booths reopen.
    Lab and LibDem could split the left of centre vote and a Johnson Farage pact could wipe the smiles off many faces here.

  • Peter Hirst 18th Sep '19 - 4:34pm

    If we’re going to solve this issue for a generation, we need to define a consensus by referendum, say at least 60 – 40 under improved rules that is generally accepted. Why not take the opportunity to create a fresh new written constitution and solve some other issues on the way? So what if it takes a few more years; at least we’ll have done something useful as a nation and put ourselves in a better place for some of the other
    important decisions that will need to be made over the next decade?

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