Here’s a basic principle of decision making:
If a decision is critical and not easily reversible, consider all options deeply.
If a decision is easily amendable, make a quick decision and revisit frequently.
General election voting uses the first principle. Parliaments vote using the second. The Brexit referendum was an illogical mix of the two, causing a biased outcome.
Theresa May just survived a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. The MPs had two choices:
1. Continue the Theresa May led government, or
2. Any other alternative
The voting choices for MPs were not:
1. Continue the Theresa May led government, or
2. Form a Jeremy Corbyn led government, or
3. Form another leader led government, or
4. Call a general election
That’s how the votes in the parliament are – yay or nay to every bill, amendment or motion. This system keeps the decision making process moving, evolving, and also leaves the government a leeway in execution.
This system works because the votes are frequent, and can be called by almost anyone – government bills, opposition motions, members’ amendments. They allow for moving fast, and revisiting in case of change of opinion of the majority.
Key features of a parliamentary vote:
- Limited choice – yay or nay
- High frequency – Frequent, even repeated votes on same bills and motions, with extra votes on amendments.
A general election has a different operation compared to the parliamentary vote. The scale of logistics and costs involved mean that it cannot (or should not) be held too frequently.
It also presents the voters with multiple choices:
1. Candidate from party 1,
2. Candidate from party 2,
3. Candidate from party 3,
4. Candidate from party 4,
5. Independent candidate 1,
6. Independent candidate 2,
Voters make a choice between all the options, and the one with most votes wins.
The reason for presenting all the choices to people is strongly correlated with the cost of conducting a general election – frequent, repetitive yes/no votes in a chosen candidate would be blindingly expensive.
Key features of a general election:
- Lots of options – there were 3304 candidates for 650 seats in the 2017 general elections in the UK
- Very infrequent – UK has a law restricting general elections to once in 5 years (except in rare circumstances)
The Brexit Referendum
The referendum was an extreme case of an infrequent vote – a once-in-a-lifetime, if not once-ever vote. Yet, it was also a yay or nay vote. Talk about combining the worst of both worlds1.
The voters were being given a single shot to vote (a) or (b):
1. Continue in the EU,
2. Soft Brexit, or hard Brexit, or negotiate on free movement (else stay), or ‘I’m pissed so I will vote against whatever’
48% voted for option (a), 52% voted for all the scenarios combined2 under option (b).
Theresa May is either being dishonest, or massively ignorant when she stands in the parliament, and says that the people spoke in a clear voice during the Brexit vote.
The options in the ballot did not offer voters reasonable choice. People were offered a weighted question that the voters answered to the best of their knowledge.
No one would want to take a guess about what the result would have been if the options were:
1. Stay in the EU,
2. Soft Brexit version 1,
3. Soft Brexit version 2,
4. Hard Brexit
Key features of the Brexit vote:
- Limited choices – Leave or Remain
- Extremely limited frequency – one-time only, or maybe once-in-a-lifetime
I am strongly in the ‘no referendum’ camp. We elect the MPs, and give them the power to make the hard decisions for us. This was a hard decision, and they had to make it for the country. By calling a referendum they abdicated their responsibility.
(And then they did a crap job of designing the referendum)
But if the MPs were too scared, or disunited to make a decision, this may have been a better way for a referendum:
Step 1: Pass a motion in parliament to negotiate a post-EU treaty with the EU
Step 2: Negotiate a post-withdrawal treaty with EU
Step 3: Offer to the general voters a ballot option as above:
1. Stay in the EU as it is,
2. Go for an even deeper integration with the EU
3. Negotiated exit treaty (soft Brexit),
4. Hard exit
- There are other places that do referendums with a yes-no option. Switzerland and California are easy examples. However, they make up for that lack of options with a high frequency. Both places have multiple referendums, and have them frequently – California had 16 referendum questions on the ballot in 2018. The frequency gives the voters a choice to revisit a previous choice. It allows mistakes, because it also allows correcting them. ↩
- The reality of this situation was proven by the appearance of two strong Leave campaign groups – Vote Leave and Leave.EU. They appealed to different voters promising them entirely different, mutually incompatible dreams. After all they were campaigning for entirely different options that had all been clubbed under the ‘Leave’ option on the ballot. The only thing the two campaigns had in common was to ask the voters to vote Leave.
There was a single remain campaign, and it had to counter all reasonable and unreasonable, coherent or incompatible ideas by the two leave campaigns. ↩