In the event of there being a further referendum on the EU – the probability of which does seem to be slowly increasing by the day – two issues which will inevitably arise are ‘how many, and which, options should be on the ballot paper?’, and, in the event that the answer to the first question is more than two, ‘what system of voting should be used?’. Neither are as straightforward as they might appear.
At first sight, the ‘obvious’ options are remain, Theresa May’s deal, and no deal, but there are entirely valid arguments against including any of those. The argument against including remain – already being used by Brexiteers, naturally enough – is that that decision has already been taken; the question facing us is solely about how it should be implemented. I disagree with that, not least because opinions can and do change over time, but I can see the validity of the point. The argument against including no deal is that the current parliament has already made it clear that it will not support that outcome – and, of course, the same goes for Theresa May’s deal. Then there is a question about whether additional options should be included, such as Labour’s own particular version of a unicorn, EEA membership, Norway + etc.
That question about what parliament will or will not support is a key one. For any referendum to be meaningful, parliament will have to commit in advance to implementing it (something which parliament explicitly did not do at the time of the last referendum, whatever personal reassurances to that effect might have been given by the then PM and others during the campaign). That means that any MP voting to include, for instance, no deal on the ballot paper is effectively declaring that he or she is willing to legislate that into being if the vote goes that way. However fair or just it might seem that an option which currently appears to attract support from at least a third of the electorate should appear on the ballot paper, if MPs are not prepared to commit to legislating for it after the event, then including it is tantamount to offering the electorate a false choice. Whilst a General Election might (and only ‘might’) change the balance of opinion in the House of Commons, in the absence of a General Election there is no purpose whatsoever in parliament legislating for a referendum which includes options to which it is unwilling to give effect.
Then we come to the voting method. Some have suggested using something akin to STV, although there is an obvious danger that we end up with a choice which pleases almost no-one but is the closest to a consensus view about the ‘least worst’ option. Calling for compromise is all very well, but most of those currently calling for compromise seem to want those who disagree with them to simply give way. A compromise between two positions, both of which are agreed that a particular version of a halfway house would be worse than the status quo doesn’t appear a very rational thing to do.
(As an aside, I don’t really see, either, how STV would work in parliament itself as some have suggested. Coming to a consensus about the least worst option in a binding referendum at least gives parliament a clear steer about what to do next. On the other hand, coming to a least worst consensus in parliament merely tells the government what it should propose in a parliamentary bill; it does not prevent MPs dissatisfied with the result (probably most of them!) from tabling amendments which effectively re-open the whole issue on a clause-by-clause basis when the bill is discussed. There seems to be no way in which it can tie MPs hands to give the government a sustainable majority to get the legislation through – even if the government itself were willing to accept a solution which runs counter to much of what it has said to date.)
I favour a further referendum, of course; and with the current composition of parliament, the only realistic options for the ballot paper are Theresa May’s deal and Remain, either of which, I believe, could obtain a parliamentary majority if backed by a majority in a referendum. Reducing the choice to solely those two options would cause many to be justifiably angry, and I don’t pretend that overcoming that is as simple and easy as some are making out. But as a way out of the hole we’re in, it looks like the most realistic. Cameron has a lot to answer for.