I was quite disappointed this morning. I was watching BBC Breakfast News, Labour's Shadow Education Spokesman, Angela Rayner, was on. I'm not sure of her exact words or even the exact subject (though I can guess), but they are reported here. The thing which disappointed me was when she said, "I think we've had enough of referendums, don't you?" An off-the-cuff remark, not part of her main point.
It did make me think. I mean a referendum delivers both a result (one way or the other), and an indication of how unanimous we are. If a referendum is 99% one way, then it is probably something we'd agree/disagree with little doubt. A result which is 50.1% vs. 49.9% is more contentious.
I'm happy to apply this to the Brexit referendum, which was 52:48 and which has proved pretty contentious, to say the least. That 48% of voters wished to remain part of the EU said to me that we should execute Brexit, because >50% of voters wanted that, but that we should remain very close to them afterwards. At least until we decided to diverge in certain areas, which will be inevitable over time. A very soft Brexit. "But I didn't vote for a soft Brexit!" No, but just as you wanted a Hard Brexit, so 48% of your countrymen felt sufficiently strongly the other way that they didn't want Brexit at all, so if you want to keep these people engaged in the process... And, of course, that is exactly how it has played out.
With the Brexit vote, I wouldn't have complained if Cameron had stated up-front that a marginal vote, between 45% and 55% either way, say, would put the government at "action stations", and another vote would be held a year later, say, to see resolve the matter for good. But that should have been said from the moment the referendum was announced (or even before), and Cameron was complacent. he didn't think he could lose, so it didn't matter to him. Furthermore, if "Remain" had won the vote 52:48, you could guarantee that the issue would never have seen the light of day again, so it's not surprising that Leavers think as they do. And, it must be difficult for a Prime Minister whose whole ethos was first-past-the-post, who thinks that with 50% + 1 support, nobody else matters, to appreciate think in terms of proportions. To call for a second referendum after the 2016 vote, by the way, is just sour grapes - I didn't like the result so we should run the race again.
But I don't want this post to be about Brexit. A referendum does, at least, give the public a chance to express its wishes. A straight yea or nea. And if you do things smartly, you can read more into the numbers than just the headline result. And if you ask the question smartly, you can learn even more. I don't think they need to be yes/no, for a start.
By contrast, Angela Rayner is an MP.
At the last election, in my constituency, the winner, John Glen, received 58% of the vote. A high number - I'm in an ultra-safe Tory seat. But that still leaves 42% of people who voted, who voted against him. More if you include people who didn't vote at all (turnout in Salisbury was only 74%, perhaps people don't think there's any point in voting?), but I shan't include them here.
The point is that a guy who gets 60% of the vote gets to make 100% of the decisions as he thinks fit. The other 40%....tough.
Take that a level higher. John Glen is a Conservative. Nationally, 13,636,684 votes (42.4%). The Conservatives were the largest party, despite winning less than 50% of either the vote or the seats in parliament (in our system, the two numbers are different, don't get me started!) so they picked the Prime Minister.
Just now, in 2019, Boris Johnson was elected Conservative Party leader (and therefore Prime Minister). The Conservatives have their own rules for this. Basically, their MPs whittle the field to a final two, and their membership then elects the leader. In this last vote of the members, Johnson received 92,153 votes (66.4%) against his opponent's 46,656 (33.6%) votes.
So in somewhat fuzzy math, I admit, 42.4% of 66.4% chose the UK's Prime Minister. 42.4% of 66.3% is 28.1%. It's fuzzy because one number refers to the proportion of total voters who voted Conservative, and the other number refer's to Conservative Party members who voted for Johnson.
So, which would you rather have? Something where more than half of us make a decision, or something where a quarter of us decide? No brainer for me.
I appreciate that there is a difference between the broad-brush type of question you can ask in a referendum, and the detail that MPs sometimes have to apply. The former gives us a "direction of travel" only. But that's good, as far as I can see. The public decides broad policy and Parliament fills in the details. I appreciate that we're asking a politician's role to change - the're no longer wielding power overall, in terms of defining direction, but are more literal servants of the public. I don't mind that one bit either. And frankly, Brexit is a very good example of the type of questions that we resolve - after that referendum, the role of politicians should have been to implement the decision as best as possible, not to squabble about whether the public made the right decision or not. But whenever I hear a Parliamentarian telling me how bad referendums are, I'm acutely aware that the process is actually taking power from their hands, and putting it in the hands of the voters. I'm happy that it isn't referendums that they dislike, it's loss of control.