Why a People’s Vote enhances democracy

Of course we should have a vote on the final Brexit deal. 

Because otherwise, we’re giving a free pass to the Brexit campaign of 2016 to say whatever they want, regardless of whether it’s achievable.

The Brexiteers could have promised 100% employment, free homes for everyone and class sizes of 10 if they wanted to. And then when the public voted for Brexit and none of this occurred, they could just say it’s too late. Brexit means Brexit. Anything else is frustrating the result of the referendum.

There comes a point when, if what was promised before the referendum is nothing like what has been achieved in reality, that mandate needs to be held to account. We need to know if the public support the actual Brexit which is staring them in the face – rather than the one which was pitched to them two years ago on completely different terms.

We clearly reached that point a long time ago. 

The Brexit campaign was based on a vision of Brexit which just hasn’t happened. £350 million to the NHS per week? A generous trade deal with the EU? An economically more prosperous country? None of that has happened. 

If the Leave Campaign had campaigned for May’s Brexit Deal, or for No Deal, they would clearly have lost under either circumstance. That’s why I don’t like it when people justify a People’s Vote by saying that the public have a right to change their mind. This isn’t about changing minds. This Brexit was never voted for in the first place. 

Our Prime Minister doesn’t support Brexit. Our Parliament doesn’t support Brexit. The only reason that we are pursuing this policy is because it is “what the people want”. When so much has changed since the vote in 2016, shouldn’t we at least check that this really is “what the people want”? What’s the harm – from a democratic point of view? If the public really do want this version of Brexit then they will vote for it. No one is overturning anything. The public will get their way.

It’s so easy to feel uneasy about the accusations that we are trying to subvert the will of the people, or tell the public that they got it wrong, and that they should try again. The Brexiteers argue that MPs voted for the referendum to take place in the first place, that no one ever mentioned another referendum during the 2016 campaign, and that the supporters of a People’s Vote care more about staying in the EU than actual democracy. 

But these arguments are just a mixture of ad-hominems and criticisms of past positions of MPs who could never have known how far the Brexit campaign would diverge from the reality of what could be achieved. 

They can’t escape from this basic democratic principle. If you say that you are going to deliver something, and deliver something completely different, then that needs to be held to account. Otherwise we make a sham of democracy.  

* Ben is a Councillor in Sutton, and has been a member of the party since the 2015 election. He used to work for the Sutton Liberal Democrats as a volunteer organiser, but now works for a charity focusing on poverty and inequality in London. He is particularly interested in inequality, mental health, political reform and criminal justice.

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32 Comments

  • Richard Underhill 11th Dec '18 - 12:06pm

    The current Brexit Secretary declined to say how much money the government had spent in contesting this losing case. He said that all the bills are not in yet, which implies that a row of top silks, who do not come cheap, had been contracted with an open chequebook. They should put their bills in (known in the trade as “costs”).
    The winning case was crowdfunded. Litigants had to provide personal guarantees.

  • Ethicsgradient 11th Dec '18 - 2:04pm

    Hi

    I agree fully with Jenny Barnes. I support brexit ( as I have whenever I have posted on here). I dislike May’s terrible deal and would reject it instantly.

    I have not problem with people campaigning for a 2nd (3rd) referendum although I still think logically the result of the first referendum should be honoured/implemented first. I.e. The UK leaves the EU as mandated, then the 2nd referendum is to rejoin the EU.

    Where Jenny is correct is the strength of the arguments that will be at the ‘remain’ side because the 2016 ref result was not seen to be honoured.

    Bad faith/betrayal by politicians on top of:
    Restoring sovereignty/control
    Not giving £39Billion
    control of economy, laws, judicial system (and fish) and so on.

    These are powerful arguments. I personally believe a 2nd vote would result in a vote to leave (with no deal) once more. Remember huge numbers of brexit voters felt they had nothing to lose last time. Nothing has changed for them? Except be told they were wrong and the denial of their decision if another ref were to be held.

  • Barry Lofty 11th Dec '18 - 5:29pm

    It may well be the same result if we have another referendum, but would It not be better to have one to solve the awful mess we are in. I for one would except it, with a heavy heart, if the result was the same but at least we would all know a lot more than we did two years ago? As for Ashcrofts poll, could it be a little biased??

  • David Evershed 11th Dec '18 - 5:49pm

    Since the people voted to Leave the EU at the last referendum the question at the next referendum would be a choice between

    a) The May deal

    b) A managed WTO deal

  • Michael Cole 11th Dec '18 - 6:03pm

    We had a referendum in 1975. We voted 67%-33% to join the EU (Common Market). The people have spoken. It would be profoundly undemocratic to reverse that decision.

  • Mick Taylor 11th Dec '18 - 6:24pm

    @David Evershead. You clearly don’t understand the way the WTO works. Before we can join that organisation (of which we are not currently members in our own right) we have to be accepted and at least one country (Moldova) has said it will veto our application. Then, if we do get to join we have to join a WTO group that has similar interests to ourselves, because that’s how the WTO works. Again, problems of veto and we have done our best to antagonise the rest of the world by making assumptions about the WTO.
    The same idiots in government who don’t understand how the EU works and the foolish Brexiteers who talk blithely of trading under WTO rules don’t understand that trade deals can take many years to negotiate and we don’t have any experienced negotiators and can’t afford to wait years before we start trading again.
    So it isn’t possible to offer the option Mr Evershed suggests or at least not for many years, years the UK does not have.
    Sorry Mr Evershed it’s now Mrs May’s deal or stay in. How we get to that is anyone’s guess. A referendum is no sure fire thing anyway. Certainly not if the remain side of the argument is as badly put as it was in 2016.

  • David Allen 11th Dec '18 - 6:33pm

    Two-and-a-half years ago, British voters asked their Government to journey to the end of the rainbow and bring back a crock of gold. They have travelled ceaselessly ever since. They have finally returned empty-handed. There never was a crock of gold. Brexit is a myth. No nation can maintain its key international trading relationships and simultaneously tear up the fundamental agreements on which those relationships were founded.

    The People’s Vote campaign is well-meaning, but it has a crucial flaw. It perpetuates the myth that there must be some kind of successful Brexit hiding away out there, an option which could still reasonably be put to the voters as potentially both attractive and feasible.

    It would be wrong to re-run a contest between reality and fantasy. The Government has exhaustively discharged the responsibilities placed upon it by the voters in 2016. It is now time to recognise that fact, thank the UK and EU negotiators for their hard work, and move on.

    When May’s hopelessly flawed “deal” is finally rejected, we should seize the moment. Parliament should simply demand the withdrawal of Article 50. But Parliament must equally recognise the need to be tough on Brexit and tough on the causes of Brexit. All parties, ex-“Leavers” and “Remainers” alike, should then be engaged to debate and tackle the real grievances which lay at the root of our abortive Brexit misadventure.

    No triumphalism. No giving Labour the chance to exploit Brexit in order to get another crack at a General Election they have done nothing to deserve. No telling ex-Leavers that what they were really looking for was socialism, or liberalism for that matter. No insulting ex-Leavers by claiming that their concern about immigration is racist. Instead we should give ex-Leavers leading roles in our ongoing negotiations with the EU after Brexit has definitively been abandoned.

    That is what it will take, if we want to convince both sides that they have achieved something akin to an honourable draw. A narrow win for Remain in a People’s Vote, by contrast, might avert immediate disaster. But it would assuredly mean unfinshed business, ongoing resentment, and quite probably unstoppable pressure for a “Best of Three”.

  • Christopher Haigh 11th Dec '18 - 7:32pm

    @micktaylor-i’ve also read that Norway would veto our application to join EFTA because of our disruptive character.

  • We must not have another vote because no deal might win. Well yes it would, but that would be the will of the people and as the consequences rolled in and facts shredded the Brexit myths perhaps we would as a people become resistant to snake oil salesmen and fantasists. So bring on a new vote and if leave win start to rehearse your excuses and defences, David and ethicsfreegradiant; “I am a fool” won’t cut it as an excuse by the way.

  • Tis sad Christopher that Brexiteers believe we are seen as a people of distinction when the reality is Brexit makes us appear to the world as a country wedded to delusion and governed by clowns.

  • John Marriott 11th Dec '18 - 8:16pm

    If Mick Taylor is right about the WTO then there’s another ‘myth’ that has been peddled out of ignorance. If also Norway is less than happy about our rejoining EFTA then we really are up that famous creek without a paddle.

    As for that £39 billion that Messrs Johnson and Duncan Smith want us to withhold, surely, if a good proportion of that is money we are obliged to contribute having agreed to do so, who will want to sign a trade agreement with us if we gain a reputation of reneging on our commitments? Instead of trying to strut our stuff, isn’t it time we chose a large slice of humble pie?

  • Mick Taylor 11th Dec '18 - 8:44pm

    Sorry Dave Allen, another referendum WOULD BE NO THREE!

  • David Allen
    The EU is a political organisation rather than a trade organisation. Trade agreements do not really need parliaments or foreign policies or a pan-national concept of citizenship or a legal system and so on. IMO, Brexit was the consequence of trying to fundamentally alter the nature of the nation state without ever asking the people of Britain whether or not they wanted it altering. The assumption at the heart of support of the ideal of the EU is that the nation states get in the way of progress and that people are deeply unhappy with existing national political systems. Everything is considered except the possibility that a lot of Brits simply do not think nation states are innately bad or that internationalism is innately good or that all change should be welcomed or that you can measure progress by ticking target boxes like a corporation’s PR department’s attempt to reconcile pocket lining with vague notions of inclusivity. In short, there might simply be a conflict of ideas.

  • Glenn,

    “The EU is a political organisation rather than a trade organisation.”

    It’s both types of organisation. Don’t be denialist, of course it is a trade organisation!

    “Trade agreements do not really need parliaments or foreign policies or a pan-national concept of citizenship or a legal system and so on.”

    No, they don’t, not necessarily. But the EU has most of these things, and most EU members think that they are, on the whole, a plus.

    “Brexit was the consequence of trying to fundamentally alter the nature of the nation state without ever asking the people of Britain”

    Yes, the EU evolved. The people of Britain (and 27 other states which to some are unimportant) were consulted repeatedly. Some agreed and some didn’t.

    “In short, there might simply be a conflict of ideas.”

    Yes, indeed. In principle, a loose commercial alliance of independent states might have been just as justifiable as the moderately loose EU federal structure, or for that matter the much tighter federal structure of the USA.

    But – In practice, attempting to simply walk out of the EU, and abandon its rules without the slightest clue as to how to continue trading, is just barmy. It’s as barmy as Passport to Pimlico.

    Remainers should stop arguing that their liberal internationalism is inherently superior to old-fashioned state-based patriotism. They should concentrate on practicalities. Brexit just can’t work.

    British patriots who insist on wrecking the British economy for the sake of their patriotic ideology aren’t actually terribly good patriots!

  • Brexit was the consequence of trying to fundamentally alter the nature of the nation state without ever asking the people of Britain whether or not they wanted it altering.

    And the people who were trying to “fundamentally alter the nature of the nation state without ever asking the people of Britain” were our elected representatives at Westminster. Interestingly, T.May is currently attempting to do exactly the same by not wanting the people to have their say on her deal…

  • Jenny Barnes,

    that’s an intriguing conclusion to voters perspectives in the summary of the Ashcroft poll:

    “…how serious is the Brexit “crisis” in the great scheme of things, if indeed it is a crisis at all? I found a majority of voters thinking the state of affairs over Brexit was equally or more serious than the financial crisis of 2007-8, with nearly as many saying it is at least as serious as the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and the power cuts and three-day week of 1973-74.
    Just over four in ten, but a majority of Remain voters, think the situation is at least as serious as the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978-79. More than one in ten Remainers think things are comparable to the two world wars, and a quarter of them think there is little to choose between Brexit and the Cuban missile crisis, which could quite literally have brought about the end of the world.”

  • David Allen
    Parliament voted to trigger article 50 by 498 votes to 118. Collectively the parties saying that they would continue with the policy of extracting Britain from the EU got over 80% of the vote in a general election on a high turn out. The Lib Dems,, the party of in got, about 7%. There was a referendum on exiting the EU, but not one on entering it in the first place. There is no parliamentary majority for the ” People’s vote”. The main opposition, Labour, actually appear to be more interested triggering a general election than another referendum. Then should there is to be a “People’s vote” there is the question of what would be on the ballot paper? Many EU supporters want to remove so-called Hard Brexit from the options offered to public. But then again why should remain even be on it when both a parliamentary majority and a majority in a referendum have already accepted the principle of exiting the EU? IMO many in the Pro-EU camp seem to believe in the representative nature of Parliament only when it is convenient to do so and another referendum only because they lost the one in 2016.

  • @ Mick Taylor

    Well we appear to be a member of the WTO according to the WTO…

    https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/whatis_e/tif_e/org6_e.htm

    Look under “U” and it says quite clearly that we have been a member since 1st of January 1995…

    or maybe I’m missing something?

  • Alex Macfie 12th Dec '18 - 9:30am

    Glenn: A fundamental principle of democracy — any sort of democracy — is that no vote can constrain the terms of any future vote. So the fact that Parliament voted to trigger article 50 by 498 votes to 118 is irrelevant. They did not — could not — vote to bind Parliament in the future to supporting the policy implied by triggering article 50. What Parliament can do, Parliament can undo.
    Likewise, it’s irrelevant that “parties saying that they would continue with the policy of extracting Britain from the EU got over 80% of the vote”. And that is quite apart from your implicit assumption that voters were consciously making a specific decision to vote on that one issue alone, in full knowledge of each party’s policy on Brexit. The 2016 referendum result is also irrelevant. What democracy can do, democracy can undo. To say that “remain shouldn’t be on the ballot paper” in a future referendum on the basis of past votes is like saying that the Lib Dems shouldn’t be on the ballot paper at the next election because they only got 7% of the vote in the last one.

    And the idea that the referendum result has to be fully implemented before it can be reversed is just a made-up rule. Even in Switzerland, that great bastion of direct democracy, it doesn’t work like that: referendum mandates may be abandoned before full implementation if this proves appropriate. If a policy mandated by referendum proves unworkable or undesirable due to unintended or unforeseen consquences, then it should still have to be implemented regardless of the impact? Really?

  • @Adam maybe I’m missing something? – You are.

    There are reasonable articles on the UK’s membership position and obligations with respect to the WTO.
    A few from a quick search:
    Can the UK Rejoin World Trade Organization. A Response from WTO
    Nothing simple about UK regaining WTO status post-Brexit
    The current state of affairs is summed up here:
    Update on UK’s WTO Membership:Written statement – HCWS1128

    So fundamentally, whilst the UK is a member, and so doesn’t have to reapply to become a member post-Brexit, all benefits accrue through the EU. Thus currently, as part of the Brexit negotiations, the EU and UK are having to put to WTO members (162 countries) their proposals for dividing the EU28 benefits etc. across the new EU27+UK. As the WTO doesn’t work on majority voting, the UK’s post-Brexit WTO deal depends on ALL 162 members not objecting…

    I seem to remember one of the complaints about the EU was having to get 28 member countries to agree to something, with the UK being one who pushed for the change to majority voting in some policy areas…

  • Alex
    That’s true but parliament could also trigger Brexit without a referendum for the same reason. You can’t bind incoming government to an agreement made by an out going government. Be honest the Pro EU camp do want to bind Parliament and Britain to the EU forever. People in Britain were not on consulted on joining the EU and when the were they voted to leave it. As for the ” peoples vote” if you want a vote on the on the future relationship with the EU you could offer a multi question ballot with a preferential choice system. Hard Brexit and Remain could be amongst the choices on that ballot paper. However I increasingly get the impression that a lot of people in the EU camp would prefer a ballot paper that said Remain or Stay. As for the election, granted you can’t prove that people implicitly voted for parties wedded to leaving the EU, but you can’t really prove they didn’t and you can prove that only about 7% of them voted for the most pro EU party .

  • @ Roland

    Thanks for the clarification.

  • Actually, Glenn you are incorrect. We did go in to the EEC without a referendum, but Harold Wilson called a vote in 1975, following his ‘renegotiation of the terms of entry’ on whether we should stay in or come out. 2/3 of those who voted decided we should stay in. So it is not correct to say the people didn’t decide, they did and overwhelmingly.

  • Adam. We are currently only members of the WTO through the EU as Roland carefully explained and not in our own right. And Roland is totally correct in outlining the obstacles to our becoming so.
    We can’t start doing trade deals on WTO terms until this is sorted out. Even if it is, trade deals take many many years to agree and as a trading nation we haven’t got that sort of time. There’s no draft trading agreements awaiting signature and Free Trade Deals are not boilerplate agreements, but crafted between the nations concerned.
    So the Brexiteers who write on LDV had better be careful what they wish for, because most of what they want is unobtainable in the short to medium term and probably forever. Albania plus, mentioned on another thread is certainly a risk if people don’t start looking at what the facts about the WTO are, how it works and how we are going to manage the hiatus between leaving the EU and trading on WTO terms, which could last a lot of years.

  • Mick
    The EEC is not the EU and by 1979 the was a majority for leaving it. It also took 41 years of being “in Europe” to get another referendum and you remain chaps are trying to overturn one after two years before the country has withdrawn. As I said you want the EU to be permanent and IMO are not really interested in giving people a vote on what kind of relationship Britain as with the European bloc. What you actually want is a vote with the least possibility of losing. Hence my wry comment about a Remain or Stay ballot.

  • Peter Hirst 12th Dec '18 - 5:17pm

    A People’s Vote only enhances our democracy if it is conducted in a much fairer way than the 2016 referendum. This implies stronger powers for the Electoral Commission, some sort of code of conduct for the media and an immediate and enhanced right of reply to counteract scurrilous remarks. Facts should be subject to an independent analysis.

  • David Allen 13th Dec '18 - 2:07pm

    Glenn said “I increasingly get the impression that a lot of people in the EU camp would prefer a ballot paper that said Remain or Stay.”

    You’ve just demonstrated that your mind is totally closed, you think only in insults, and that it is not worth arguing with you.

  • Steven Deller 13th Dec '18 - 3:03pm

    If The result is leave parliament will continue to refuse to implement the result. That is not democracy.

  • David Allen 13th Dec '18 - 4:53pm

    Steven Deller,

    You have a point. Brexit would just be too disastrous for a responsible Parliament to contemplate implementing. (Unless it was a soft Brexit staying in the CU and SM, in which case it wouldn’t be disastrous, but it would be largely pointless.) Since that is the case, it follows that Parliament should not ask people to vote. It should simply resolve to withdraw Article 50.

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