Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Can a General Election Trump a Referendum?

“We will vote in Parliament to block any attempt to invoke Article 50 until Theresa May commits to a second referendum or a general election on whatever EU exit deal emerges at the end of the process.”
BBC News Website, 24 August 2016 | Brexit: Owen Smith opposes Article 50 move without vote

It is arguable that we (“the people”) should have some sort of final say – particularly since it is becoming clear that “Brexit means Brexit” could be many different things – some of which will strike the Quitters as “betrayal”. In this context Owen Smith’s position raises an interesting and potentially disturbing question:

Can a party winning a general election with say 36% of the vote claim a mandate to over-ride a referendum that voted 52% in favour of a particular proposition? And if it can’t, where would Prime Minister Owen Smith then stand?

We live in a “rotten democracy” – where the people’s votes outside the marginals don’t count – and this can lead to voices not being represented or heard. This resentment loosened the ties connecting many voters to their tribal party, so when asked their opinion in a referendum they gave an unexpected result. One that the recently departed mega-strategist, David Cameron (and others possibly blinded by the support of their phoney majority) did not expect.

Do we then allow the old rotten system to over-ride this result? It strikes me as very dangerous to say to the electorate in a general election campaign “gives us a standard Westminster phoney majority (of seats not votes) and we will use that to ignore the majority opinion expressed on 23 June”.

.. or a general election on whatever EU exit deal emerges …

Owen Smith does seem to want to make “the deal” a general election issue. This ignores the difficulty of being able to say “on second thoughts, er, ‘no‘” after seeing the results of negotiations that appear to only be possible after invoking Article 50 (irreversible notice of intention to leave).

His stance may be a little more understandable if he stated that a Labour Party under him would make a manifesto commitment to a second referendum, but that is not what he appears to be saying. For him a Labour “phoney General Election majority” would seem to be sufficient to reject a Brexit deal.

A “post Article 50 deal rejection” would presumably mean that we would then exit on WTO terms – which would seem to be the opposite to what Owen Smith desires (staying in the EU).

We seem to have little choice, either:

  • We accept the result of the referendum and trigger the only way to exit under the Treaties; Article 50. It looks as if the EU of 27 being rather busy with other issues and wishing to avoid possible contagion will refuse to negotiate any post membership deals until we have committed to leave. Therefore under the referendum result we must commit to leave without Brexit being defined. or
  • Parliament makes the difficult argument that Cameron (through his arrogance and stupidity) has created a stupid situation that may lead to a very unfavourable result (one not desired by a majority) and therefore parliament should not act on the referendum result. But what then? There will be uproar about a parliament (with a phoney majority) ignoring the wishes of the people. (This is actually allowed; referendums are technically only advisory.)

Ideally we would have been offered two fully defined alternatives; the status quo (Remain) and a fully worked-up Exit option (Leave). However in referenda the alternative to the status quo may often be incompletely defined. We did not even really debate different forms of Brexit. YouGov have done some interesting survey work that possibly indicates that a “Canadian” style post Brexit relationship is the most popular form of Brexit. However, it may not have won a “run-off” against the status quo (per the New Zealand flag referendum process). We will never know. Thank you Cameron – you have created a foreign policy situation that history may view as even more disastrously misguided that Suez.

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2 thoughts on “Can a General Election Trump a Referendum?

  1. Peter Lanky on said:

    We did not vote to leave based on how the politicians would implement the divorce; we just voted to leave. Absolutely straightforward.

    The decision to leave was based not on trade deals, nor on what our relationship with the single market would be, but on a strong desire to be completely separated from what people see as a control freak organisation with some quite absurd policies (monthly shift to Strasbourg as an example), that has done nothing positive for the UK, but simply taken our money and given us immigrants in return.

    Again, this is not based on any dislike of immigrants, but the sheer number of them which is resulting in a significant change in culture in some areas, and them having the same right to use facilities (NHS for example) as people who have bankrolled the NHS all their lives.

    Most people do not care what the terms of the exit are, as long as they are not watered down, which results in an end to making payments for little return, and mass immigration.

    The fear for many ‘levers’ at the moment is the interminable and unnecessary wait to implement clause 50, knowing that there are many who are easily influenced and unable to think for themselves, who are being bombarded daily by the BBC and the Guardian (among others) with all the negatives of leaving without touching on any of the positives. The media reporting is not a level playing field.

    • a strong desire to be completely separated

      I don’t think it is as straight forward for all the 52% (see the YouGov survey referenced in the post).

      However, given where we are and the one-way exit process defined by treaty, it may be that a complete separation is the clearest way to move forward.

      I have half a suspicion that May could be waiting to see if the Brexit Triad (Johnson, Davis & Fox) – once they have finished their turf wars – can come up with an agreed statement of what they want Post-Brexit Britain to look like before she triggers Article 50.

      If they can’t (say by the end of the year), there is a possibility that May might argue that to avoid a chaotic exit, Brexit should be put on hold and that a slower more deliberative set of negotiations should take place (EU of 27 willing) to redefine our relationship – what Cameron should have done if he had not just been posing.

      I don’t think that would work; the EU of 27 probably won’t play and ignoring (or setting aside) the referendum result would be politically dangerous given current distrust in politics. Politically we have got to go.

      But if the Brexit Musketeers can define a credible vision that commands the support of at least a sizeable minority of the population, the question then is how to get there. I think it is helpful to look upon it as a two-stage process (without much overlap).

      1. A complete separation from the EU, involving a withdrawal from EU institutions, a closing off of our financial accounts with the EU, and UK transitional legislation to avoid the legislative black hole caused by a repeal of all UK EU legislation. This meets the decision of the referendum.
      2. A building of new relationships
        • With the EU
        • With non EU countries (to replace the previous relationships via the EU)

        The creation of these new relationships will probably have to be subject to strong parliamentary oversight (to avoid giving up too much “sovereignty”).

      There will be an awkward (and damaging) hiatus between leaving the EU and the new relationships being agreed and implemented. But it will be cleaner and is probably a price worth paying to demonstrate that the referendum decision is being implemented.

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