Monday 19 September 2016

Another referendum?

Both Owen Smith, the Labour leadership contender, and Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader are proposing a second referendum. Smith is unlikely to win the leadership contest but the post-Brexit landscape presents considerable opportunities for the Liberal Democrats to recuperate some of the substantial electoral ground they lost in 2015. Their pro-EU credentials are longstanding, and with Corbyn’s Labour at best ambivalent about the EU they could be a natural home for ‘the 48%’. Former LibDem seats like Cambridge Central, now held by Labour, could be there for the taking if they get their post-Brexit positioning right.

However, there are serious problems with Tim Farron’s (and Owen Smith’s) proposal for a second referendum. These problems are emphatically not those reportedly identified by Vince Cable and Paddy Ashdown. Their objection is that there are no grounds for a re-run of the June vote. That objection is flawed because Farron isn’t proposing a re-run of that vote, but a new vote on the actual Brexit deal, once it is struck.

The problem with Farron’s proposal is, rather, that there is no good question that could be asked of the electorate once a deal has been negotiated. Supposing the government had negotiated some sort of soft Brexit. Then, the question on the ballot paper would have to be: do you want to stay in the EU or leave on soft Brexit terms? But that question would never be acceptable to many leavers, as it offers EU or EU-lite as the only options. And, actually, I think they would be justified in their objections.

Alternatively, suppose that the government had negotiated some sort of hard Brexit. Then, the question on the ballot paper would have to be: do you want to stay in the EU or leave on hard Brexit terms? But that would be a highly unsatisfactory question as there would be many people who do not want to be in the EU, but to whom a soft Brexit would be acceptable, who would be pushed to voting for hard Brexit as the only non-EU option.

In any case, any negotiation – whether for hard or soft Brexit – can only happen after Article 50 is triggered, and it is entirely unknown whether once that has happened it could be rescinded and, therefore, whether it would even be possible to stay in the EU. Thus it is not clear that this could be an option on the ballot paper. On the other hand, whatever the negotiation has been, there will have been only one negotiation, and so the ballot paper question couldn’t be: do you want hard or soft Brexit? Because only one of them would actually be available, as only one of them would have been negotiated.

So what should the LibDem policy be? The answer to that is clear. They should be calling for a referendum before Article 50 is triggered on the question: do you want the UK government to seek soft Brexit or hard Brexit? In practice, this might be worded as: do you want the UK to remain a member of the single market or to leave the single market? This is eminently respectful of the June referendum decision because it would be saying: 'yes, you voted to leave the EU; now we are asking you what you want leave to mean'.

Such a referendum would also speak directly to the reality of the present political situation: the June vote was a vote against EU membership, but it wasn’t a vote for any particular alternative. So we actually don’t know what the electorate want now, and rather than leave this to the internal power plays of the Tory Party we should, if we think that the June Referendum must be respected as the will of the people, be asking that electorate how they want to proceed.

Although I am suggesting that this should be the policy of the LibDems, I actually think it should be the policy of all parties, because of the need to clarify what the June vote meant. It could be particularly attractive to the governing Tories because although the referendum was meant to resolve the EU issue for them, it has done no such thing. Instead, there is an internal struggle between hard and soft Brexiters.

I’m sure that many of us will feel exhausted at the very thought of another referendum. But given that the first referendum happened, and given that it didn’t mandate any particular way of leaving the EU, a second referendum on how to do so seems the only way to answer that question, and it must be answered before Article 50 is triggered, not after the negotiation is completed.

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