Thursday, 7 July 2016

Was the Brexit referendum a good reflection of "the will of the people"? Possibly not.

by Viva Avasthi

There's something both Leave and Remain supporters have missed. Discussing it matters for the short and long run of this country. 

Two weeks on, there is still furious debate among and between Leave and Remain supporters. Yet there appears to be consensus on one thing: that the referendum result was "the will of the people" and therefore "must be respected". Leave supporters are brandishing this as their infallible weapon against attempts by the Remain side to prevent or soften Brexit. Remain supporters, broadly conceding, are limiting their actions to lamenting the lies told by the Leave campaign and attempting to find (varying degrees of) obscure methods to prevent our leaving the EU. 

Both sides miss the point. 

There is a case for the referendum not being a good reflection of "the will of the people". The reasons come under two umbrellas. First, the problems with the information provided prior to the referendum; second, the problems with the structure of the referendum itself.

Missing: democracy featuring an informed electorate

For democracy to function well as a reflection of "the will of the people", it is essential that voters are well-informed. The first thing that the electorate should have been informed of was where to turn for an impartial and - crucially - thorough and accessible analysis. This did not happen. Instead, they were offered lies from the Leave campaign, list after list of influential figures backing the Remain campaign, and an extremely poor quality of public debate. Not a mix conducive to effective democracy.

The reader might justifiably wonder whether such impartial sources even existed. In fact, they included: The UK in a Changing Europe, a website based at King's College London and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council;, a non-partisan fact-checking charity; and, produced by the libraries of the House of Commons and House of Lords, this impartial analysis.

There is also some ground for criticising the BBC's role. In attempting to fulfill their remit of being non-partisan they gave roughly equal air-time to both sides on each aspect of the debate (the economy, immigration et al.). In reality though, if we take, say, the analysis on the economy, the sheer volume and quality of argument was on the Remain side. The BBC's coverage, therefore, may well have harmfully distorted the public's views by diluting some critical arguments.

All this matters immensely. Those who condemn Leave voters as "stupid" or "racist" do not appreciate how little information was actually provided to people to help them vote in an informed matter. They do not appreciate how little time people had to uncover and then analyse the intricacies of the UK's relationship with the EU once they'd come home from each hard day's work. Is it really a surprise, then, that large numbers of people brought sheer emotion rather than reason to the ballot box? Had people been aware of the facts, they might not have confused what lies within the remit of the EU and what does not; which problems were caused by our being in the EU and which were not; what our position might be outside of the EU and what it will not.

Then there is the issue of so-called "apathy" among young people. Rather than laziness, the very low turnout among 18-24 year olds was more likely a result of the paralysis stemming from simply not knowing which was the "right" side to vote for. Again, a sign of an uniformed electorate. That paralysis was possibly exaggerated by the fear created by the knowledge that the outcome would affect them for the longest of any of the voting categories. A low turnout necessarily means that such a referendum is only a limited reflection of the "will of the people".

Second, the electorate should have explicitly been made aware or reminded of the crucial difference between voting in a general election and voting in a referendum. This would have reduced the numbers of people voting Leave simply because they did not think we actually would (protest voting) and increased voter turnout - making the referendum a far better reflection of "the will of the people" than at present. Effective democracy depends on the electorate knowing how the system works. It is not acceptable to simply assume that the electorate surely must.

When is a referendum any good?

There's another angle. Even if we ignore everything said above, there are further legitimate reasons why we might not accept the referendum result as being a good reflection of "the will of the people".

First, the Condorcet paradox applies in the case of this referendum. In his fantastic (and accessible) article written prior to the referendum, Jonathan Portes outlines what the Paradox is and how it is relevant to the British case.

The introduction to his article reads:

The problem with referenda, writes Jonathan Portes – and especially this one – is that they often present binary choices which do not necessarily reflect voters’ true preferences. This can force politicians to implement policies that are at odds with the will of the majority. He uses the Condorcet paradox to illuminate the difficulty, and asks what it mean for Parliament after the referendum.

Second, we must not forget that the choice of referendum-winning majority was an arbitrary one. Cameron decided that a "win" for either side would require gathering over 50% of the vote. Other countries choose a best-of-three-referendums system, or a two-thirds majority system, for example. Was our choice necessarily the best one? As the Economist puts it:

[...] what about the 16,141,241 voters who endorsed remaining in the EU? The 52% of those aged 35-44? The 56% of Northern Irish voters? The 60% of Londoners? The 62% of Scots? The 62% of those aged 25-34? The 67% of Asian voters? The 73% of 18-24 year-olds? The majority of Britons in full- and part-time work who voted to Remain? And the large minorities of most other groups, as well? Not to mention the 1.1m Leave voters who, one poll by Survation suggests, now wish they had voted differently. Or the millions of Britons abroad who could not vote in Britain. Or the roughly 3m residents of Britain—who work, pay taxes and contribute to society like everyone else—who by dint of their foreign EU passports may soon be pawns in Ms May’s negotiation.

The long and short of it

The are two things to take from this.

If MPs have the chance to vote on triggering Article 50, as is likely, they have a difficult decision to make. Should they vote to Remain, which they overwhelmingly believe to be right, based on their expertise? Or should they honour "the will of the people" and vote to Leave, despite personally believing the opposite outcome to be best for the people they represent? If the referendum does not really reflect "the will of the people" this decision is no longer so difficult. Britain is a representative democracy and MPs should follow their professional judgement - as they have been elected to do.

In the words of Burke (1774):

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,--these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution. 

The second thing to take away is this: we as a society need to collectively reconsider how democracy can work best for us. We need to understand that there are different forms of democracy and that each of these forms is more or less appropriate depending on the context. We need to actively consider how to ensure that the electorate is provided with the vital information it needs to make decisions, and that young people aren't left confused or disinterested. In the context of an increasingly globalised world with the rise of technology in forming and shaping debate and opinion, we are likely to find that, upon observation, our democracy cannot and should not continue in its present form.


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