Analysis: The 5 questions People’s Vote advocates need to answer

Ben Wray

The People’s Vote is now emerging as a serious possibility – but does it stand up to scrutiny?

THE People’s Vote (PV) now appears to be closer to fruition than at any point since Britain voted to Leave the EU in June 2016. With few options for May remaining, and the refusal by Tory and DUP MPs to back a General Election, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure like never before to push for such a vote. Labour has tabled an amendment to the government’s new Brexit Deal motion which appears to call for a different Brexit deal and a parliamentary vote on holding a Public Vote, the closest Corbyn has come to officially backing a second EU vote. 

Thus, it is time to start scrutinising PV more closely. Here’s five questions that PV supporters have to answer.

  1. What’s the question?

The first and perhaps most difficult question is the most simple: what would be on the ballot? All of the options appear to have major problems attached. 

A Leave-Reman ballot, the same as in the first referendum, would not be a vote on a Brexit Deal, which PV is supposed to be. A straight re-run of 2016 would have the distinct danger of resolving nothing if Leave were to win, as this outcome would not tell us anything about what sort of Deal the British people want – so what would be the point?

Any vote which includes May’s Deal would be a difficult sell, since May’s Deal was just overwhelmingly rejected by MPs, thus what democratic legitimacy does it have to be put to the people?

This problem remains even when placed with a No Deal option on the ballot – if May’s Deal can be placed on the ballot, why not Norway Plus, or Canada Plus? It’s entirely possible that the latter two options would have more support in the Commons than May’s Deal, although they have not been agreed with the EU.

Even if it were to be granted that May’s Deal was on the ballot alongside a No Deal option and Remain, having two Leave and one Remain option on the ballot makes it difficult to have a fair vote. An alternative vote system would likely see May’s Deal – the middle option of the three – garner most support, while a first past the post system would split Leave in two, making Remain an almost certain winner. 

Some have argued that it will be necessary for the Commons to state its preference in a non-legally binding set of ‘free votes’ – where MPs are not whipped by their parties to vote a particular way – in order to determine what has most support in the House of Commons. If that position were not to constitute a parliamentary majority, it would then be subject to a referendum on that choice versus Remain. 

This is fraught with problems and complexity, and is not a position that has been backed by the official PV campaign – but that campaign does not have its own position on what would be on the ballot, a glaring limitation. 

  1. Is there a parliamentary majority?

Many PV advocates have made great play of there being no parliamentary majority for a General Election, proven by Labour’s No Confidence Vote falling last week as the Tories and DUP united against it. 

This, PV advocates argue, means Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour shadow Cabinet must move on and back a second referendum. 

But there is no evidence that, even with Labour’s official stamp of approval, a majority exists in the House of Commons for a PV. Guardian journalist Owen Jones has said considerable evidence exists to the contrary, with many Labour MPs in Leave voting constituencies adamant that they will not back a second referendum with Remain on the ballot. 

Several Labour MPs, including Melanie Onn, MP for Grimsby (which voted 71 per cent Leave), have stated publicly that they will not back a People’s Vote.

The SNP has backed a PV, but some MPs – including Pete Wishart and Angus McNeil – have said they are opposed and instead back an independence referendum, though it’s not clear that they would vote against if it came before the House of Commons. 

Even with all SNP MPs on board, as well as Plaid Cymru, Greens and the Liberal Democrats, if around 200 of Labour’s 262 MPs were to vote in favour of a PV, 70+ Tories would need to back it to get to the magic number of 322 (a majority in the House of Commons minus Sinn Fein, who do not take up their seats). That’s far more than have so far been willing to countenance backing a second vote, knowing their constituency parties are overwhelmingly pro-Brexit.

So the numbers for a PV are reliant not just on Corbyn backing it, but also successfully whipping just about every single one of his MPs, many of whom face almost certain defeat at a future General Election if they do so. An uphill struggle indeed. 

  1. Is there a mandate? 

It’s not clear what mandate there is for parliament to back a PV. Certainly, none of the Tories, Labour or SNP – the three biggest parties – can claim that they stood in the 2017 General Election on a PV ticket. The Tories and Labour both committed to delivering Brexit, while the SNP won a majority of Scottish MPs on the basis of holding an independence referendum due to the Scottish people being taken out of the EU despite a significant majority north of the border for Remain.

Since the 2016 referendum result has not been delivered, and the 2017 General Election saw no pursuit of a PV mandate by the main parties, what mandate exists for such a vote? 

A surge in public demand for one would be an obvious mandate. A Sky Data poll on Sunday [20 January] found 56 per cent were opposed to another vote. A previous poll by Sky Data in December found 53 per cent in favour of a second vote.

With polling inconclusive, it could still be argued a second vote may be necessary to break the deadlock. However, a General Election would also break such a deadlock, giving the electorate the opportunity to back PV-supporting parties or not, and thus securing a democratically backed mandate for a vote. 

PV leaders of course know that such an election could only secure a mandate of this kind if Labour were to put it in their manifesto, a possibility but no certainty. In any case PV leaders like Tony Blair, Anna Soubry and Vince Cable are not hot on a General Election, since they don’t particularly want to see Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister – further underlining the democratic legitimacy problem. 

  1. What if Remain wins by less than Leave won last time? 

Polling indicates a second EU referendum would be closely fought, with those in favour of the UK staying in the EU in front by around about five points over the past 12 months. 

How people would vote depends heavily on the question asked, making the outcome doubly uncertain. The first referendum and Trump’s 2017 victory should make us highly cautious about making any predictions, but the likelihood is that a second referendum would be close.

If Remain were to win narrowly, say by 51-49, on a similar or lower turnout than the 2016 referendum, would that vote settle the question of Britain’s membership of the EU?

Answers to this from PV leaders have not been at all satisfying, with the distinct impression left that this one would be final because it aligns with what the British and EU political establishment have always wanted. It has echoes of 2008, when the Irish voted against the Lisbon Treaty, and were then asked to vote again in 2009, and voted for. The second vote was final – for reasons which do not appear to have anything to do with democracy.

  1. Would a second Leave vote not make No Deal much more likely?

Supporters of a PV have talked up the “chaos” which would ensue from a No Deal Brexit, an outcome which they believe to be the worst of all possible outcomes. 

But with polls tight, what if a second EU referendum lead to a second Leave vote? The outcome would be seen as a decisive victory for hard right Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg, and thus increase their political authority over negotiations with the EU. Rees-Mogg and his acolytes would much prefer No Deal to what May has so far signed up to, and thus the possibilities of a No Deal Brexit would be significantly heightened by a second Leave win, something which many of the Cabinet, if not the Prime Minister herself, are not seriously contemplating now. 

Picture courtesy of Loz Pycock

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