Why it’s right to hold a new Brexit referendum

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To hold another referendum on Brexit in the coming months, three key questions would need to be resolved.

First, when would it take place? Holding a referendum in the UK is not straightforward. Parliament must legislate. The Electoral Commission must test the proposed question for clarity and impartiality. Campaign groups must form. A “lead” campaigner on each side must be selected. Voters must have a chance to hear and reflect on the arguments.

In a report published by the UCL Constitution Unit last autumn, my colleagues and I calculated that all of this takes at least 22 weeks. Some referendum supporters say the process could be sped up. That is true: parliament could dispense with normal practice if it wished. But the existing procedures have been put in place so that referendums are conducted fairly. Tossing them aside would undermine the legitimacy of the result.

Counting 22 weeks from now takes us into the second half of June, well beyond the March 29th date when Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union. A referendum could therefore be held only if the Article 50 period were extended—which would require the unanimous agreement of the 27 EU members—or if Britain revoked its Article 50 notification.

Second, what would the question be? There are three viable options that could be put to voters: leaving without a deal; leaving on the terms of the deal; or remaining in the EU. The question could pit two of these options against each other, or all three.

The choice of format for the question would depend on politics. It seems inconceivable that Parliament would call a referendum without putting Remain on the ballot paper: that is the outcome most referendum-backers want. A Deal option is also likely. Most supporters of a referendum envisage a Remain v. Deal choice; despite the protestations of the prime minister, Theresa May, there would also be a clear logic to the government calling such a vote if getting the agreement through Parliament proved impossible. No Deal is the option most likely to be excluded: the majority of MPs find it unconscionable. Given the deal’s unpopularity among Brexiteers, however, leaving No Deal out would fuel understandable cries of betrayal.

That points to a strong case for a three-option question. But this would pose its own challenges. A standard first-past-the-post vote could yield a split result, with no option carrying majority support. Remain might win even though most voters wanted a form of Brexit. No Deal might win though most voters wanted a closer relationship with the EU. So a three-option referendum would have to allow voters to rank the options in order of preference, with votes being counted to reveal the option with widest support. There are several ways of doing that, each with advantages and disadvantages.

Third, how would the referendum be conducted? One crucial issue is the franchise: some Remainers feel the 2016 vote was skewed against them by excluding 16–17-year-olds and EU citizens resident in Britain. Whatever the case for widening eligibility, however, it would be unwise to change it for a second Brexit referendum: if Remain won only because the franchise had been altered, the outcome would not be seen to be legitimate.

A more significant issue relates to the rules for conducting the campaign. The referendum in 2016 revealed major problems in the existing rules. The government was able to spend millions on a leaflet, sent to all households, that backed one side of the debate. The rules on campaign spending and transparency—written 20 years ago—were shown to be grossly inadequate for the digital age. The quality of information available to voters was woeful.

The Constitution Unit’s Independent Commission on Referendums proposed measures to address all these problems in a report last summer. Some reforms require work before they can be implemented. Others can be put into effect immediately, such as improving the transparency of campaign spending and extending the period when the government is barred from campaigning. That would increase the robustness of the referendum process and therefore boost confidence in the outcome.

How media outlets covered the campaign would matter as much as the formal rules. Broadcasters widely recognise that they must do better than in 2016. The internet giants have improved their practices over the past two years but could do much more. Parts of the print media remain too willing to put advocacy above truthfulness.

Another referendum is entirely feasible, and may prove to be the best way out of the current impasse. But no one should imagine it would be easy. Only if the process were designed to be scrupulously fair could the result hope to command legitimacy. And legitimacy across the political spectrum would be essential for any referendum to herald a stable outcome.

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Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit in the Department of Political Science, University College London.

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