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NEW REPORT: Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit Revisited

1 December 2019

With another referendum potentially on the cards after the election, the Unit’s new report finds that, though it would not be without difficulties, a vote on Johnson’s deal may be the quickest option and the one most likely to command public legitimacy.

NEW REPORT: Mechanics of a further referendum on Brexit revisited

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With another referendum potentially on the cards following the election, a public vote on Boris Johnson’s deal may be the quickest and most legitimate option, according to the Constitution Unit’s latest report.

The outcome of the general election cannot yet be known, but proposals for a further public vote on Brexit lie at the heart of many parties’ manifestos.

Jeremy Corbyn promises that a Labour government would ‘get Brexit sorted’ within six months, and Boris Johnson plans to reintroduce his Brexit deal to parliament by Christmas if the Conservatives win the general election. The Liberal Democrats pledge that, unless they win a majority and can enact their policy of revoking Article 50, they will ‘fight’ for a second referendum with the option to stay in the EU.

The Unit’s new report, The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit Revisited: Questions for the New Parliament, substantially updates previous analysis on this topic. It examines the scenarios under which a further referendum might come about, and considers the key questions which referendum advocates in parliament would face: what options should be put to voters, whether the result should be legally binding and how the vote should be run.

Key conclusions include:

  • A referendum is conceivable under either a Labour or a Conservative government. Labour’s policy is to hold a referendum on its renegotiated deal within six months of taking office. A Conservative minority or slim majority government might find itself forced into accepting a confirmatory referendum as the price of passing its Withdrawal Agreement.
  • Holding a referendum requires legislation, and electoral processes designed to maximise fairness and transparency. These are likely to take a minimum of 22 weeks, and cannot be compressed without risking the fairness and legitimacy of the vote.
  • In light of this, Labour’s proposed timetable remains feasible, but is ambitious: renegotiation of the deal would need to be very swift if Labour were to be certain of holding a referendum within six months. A referendum on Johnson’s deal, which has already been agreed with the EU, could fit within the timetable much more easily. However, such a referendum could only be held if the government were prepared to implement either result, and there are clearly concerns about the deal among Labour and other parties, which include its impact on Northern Ireland and the Union.
  • With broad acceptance of Johnson’s deal amongst Brexiteers, there are now few ‘no deal’ advocates. It is therefore very likely that any referendum would be between Remain and a deal. A two-option referendum such as this would be far less problematic than any three-option vote (a possibility which was envisaged and explored in detail in the previous edition of the report), and would follow a format familiar to UK voters.
  • For a referendum to command public legitimacy, the options on the ballot paper should reflect the range of public opinion. A referendum offering a choice between ‘Remain’ and a softer Brexit deal than Johnson’s, would thus risk being criticised and perhaps even boycotted by Leave supporters.
  • Referendum regulation should be updated to account for the dramatic rise of online campaigning, to enhance transparency, and to prevent one-sided campaigning by government.
  • Broadcasters, academics and others could also do further work to improve the quality of debate and the information available to voters. This would ideally include deliberative processes such as a citizens’ assembly or smaller citizens’ panel.
  • It is preferable for the franchise for a referendum to be the same as in June 2016, to avoid any perception that a change in the rules might alter the result.
  • With a tangible deal on the table, the referendum could be made legally binding in a way that the 2016 referendum could not. Most obviously, a bill could both provide for a referendum and implement a Withdrawal Agreement subject to the referendum outcome – as the Labour Party proposes. This route would provide maximum legal certainty, although, depending on parliamentary arithmetic, it could also slow the timetable down.

The likelihood of a further referendum, and the form it would take, depend crucially on the outcome of the general election and the new parliamentary arithmetic that it produces. But a new parliament is certain to focus immediately upon Brexit, so advocates of a further referendum should be considering these core questions now.

The Constitution Unit has no position on Brexit or on whether a further referendum should be held. But if a further vote is considered, it is critical that it is carefully planned, transparently conducted, and commands the maximum legitimacy. The new report seeks to inform debate on those issues.

 

Lead author Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit (UCL Political Science), said:

‘If the post-election government seeks a referendum on Brexit, following a robust process will be crucial for ensuring the legitimacy of the vote.‘Our report outlines the key options for a referendum, including the questions that might appear on the ballot, whether to make the referendum result legally binding and how to update the rulebook in the age of digital campaigning. It also highlights the central role of broadcasters in fostering a fair campaign.’

Co-author Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit (UCL Political Science), said:

‘The window of time necessary to deliver a referendum on Brexit will be tight for any incoming government, so it is crucial that all parties think through the mechanisms fast.
'Labour plans to renegotiate a new Brexit deal and legislate for a referendum within six months, should it win the election. Alternatively, Johnson might be forced to put his deal to a public vote in the event of a Conservative minority government. This form of referendum could be staged more quickly, and would maximise legitimacy among Brexit voters – so might even have some attractions for pro-referendum parties under a Labour government.’

 

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Image: ‘People’s Vote’ march, 23 June 2018 by user ‘ilovetheeu’ CC BY-SA 4.0