Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 28 August 2017

Would Remain win a second referendum?

I think it unlikely that we will have a second referendum before we leave in 2019. [1] Brexiteers fear losing it and Labour fears fighting it. So why ask the question? It will become clear.

I think if a second referendum was just a rerun of the first, then Remain would win comfortably. It is now pretty clear there will be no £350 million a week for the NHS, and instead as the OBR suggests there will be less money if we leave the EU. The economic concerns that the Leave campaign so effectively neutralised with ‘Project Fear’ are now becoming real: we had a depreciation (as predicted), real wages are falling, and GDP per head in the first half of the year is almost stagnant. I could go on, but this is enough for many Leavers to change their minds.

Partly because of this, a second referendum would not be a rerun of the first. Leave would have a new theme, which they would plug away at relentlessly. They would argue that the very existence of a second referendum was an attack on democracy. The people had already decided, and a second referendum was an attempt by MPs to take power away from the people. The people needed to take back control from MPs as well as the EU. They would argue that you should vote to Leave again to preserve democracy.

The simple point that people should be allowed to change their mind would be met by lots of rhetoric that sounds convincing. If a second, why not a third? Referendums are meant to last a generation, and not to be held every few years. (Quotes from David Cameron saying similar things from the last campaign would be trotted out.) We know from the polls that this argument has power, as many people who voted Remain think that nevertheless we should respect ‘the will of the people’. Many think that on a constitutional issue like this, a referendum should override the views of MPs, and will feel that by voting Leave they will be upholding this principle. In this sense it would be like the Labour leadership election in 2016, which Corbyn won in part because members felt MPs were trying to take members power away.

If your reaction to this is to say ‘what nonsense’ or ‘who would be so idiotic to fall for this tactic’ then you are who I’m writing this post for. The view that Remain lost and that result should be respected is a perfectly valid point of view. Furthermore, as Owen Jones has pointed out, the polls suggest there are many besides himself who take that view. It does the Remain cause no good whatsoever to suggest that people who hold this view are in any sense stupid. (The opposite is also true - the Re-Leavers view is also not obviously right, and needs to be argued. Is parliament overriding the referendum result really a 'coup against the popular will' when people realise they were duped and so no longer support Leaving?)

In addition, Remain campaigners just saying a majority of the electorate didn’t vote for Leave because some people did not vote will not convince anyone. Simply asserting that the original Leave campaign was based on lies is also not sufficient, because all election campaigns involve politicians telling lies of some kind. We need much better arguments than this if we are going to convince Remainers who think the original referendum result should stand.

A good place to start is a post by Richard Ekins, a Professor of Law at Oxford University, who argues “Political fairness and democratic principle require one to respect the outcome of the referendum even if one is persuaded that Brexit would be a very bad idea”. His arguments are strong and they need to be addressed (as I tried to do in March). We need to argue that the chosen electorate for the first referendum was not fair, and to allow just a simple majority to decide such an important and potentially irreversible event is not democratic, even after the event. We need to argue, as I tried to do, that the lies told by the Leave campaign went well beyond what normally happens in an election. In these circumstances a referendum result is not something to respect, but something you resist with all your power.

Remain campaigners also need to be politically realistic. To say, as some do, that Labour’s commitment yesterday (to staying in the Single Market and Customs Union during the transition period) means nothing and is “not good enough” because it still involves leaving the EU in 2019 completely misunderstands political realities. Brexit is not going to fall apart of its own accord. As George Eaton argues (see also Stephen Bush), the best bet for reversing Brexit is through a Labour government. Given this, to suggest that Labour would campaign against Brexit if it wasn’t for Jeremy Corbyn is both misdirected (it ignores many MPs in Leave voting constituencies who think Labour have to support Brexit) and counterproductive (if Brexit is reversed, it will likely be by a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn).

When Owen Jones described ‘Hard Remainers’ online as increasingly resembling a cult, I was both shocked and surprised. I am, after all, someone who argues online that the referendum vote should not ‘be respected’. By cult he meant those he encountered who were
“Intolerant, hectoring, obsessively repeating a mantra that doesn’t convince outside of their bubble, subjecting any who dissent from their hardline stance to repeated social media pile-ons, engaging in outright abuse and harassment, saying that people who voted Remain aren’t really Remain supporters and are heretics.”

Now I like to think I do none of those things, and I know some of those campaigning to Remain who do not do these things either, but I can also see that others might take a much more aggressive and purist approach. This is a strange but I think real phenomenon: the less likely something is to happen, the more some demand that only it will do. The reality is that staying in the Single Market and Customs Union outside the EU permanently is a lot more likely than simply staying in the EU, and less costly that leaving either. Because it is obviously inferior to staying in the EU it may be how rejoining the EU eventually happens. Those campaigning to Remain are in no position to be aggressive or absolutist.

[1] A referendum where Remain is an option, and assuming we leave in 2019 and the Conservatives remain in power until then.  


  1. SW-L;
    "Those campaigning to Remain are in no position to be aggressive or absolutist."

    It's taken you 15 months to BEGIN to understand this point? For shame, as an academic.

  2. I think the best argument to re-run the referendum would be that we don't know what kind of Brexit people actually wanted. In which case a choice between Hard & Soft Brexit should then also include a No Brexit option with a transferable vote.

  3. I strongly agree with your position on Starmer's announcement. I don't understand this insistence on making the best the enemy of the good, or entirely trust its motives.

    There's also an interesting point in this post about what it actually means to withhold the required 'respect' from the referendum result. The absolutist argument advanced by the likes of A. C. Grayling and Jo Maugham assumes that respecting the result is something like clapping your hands to show that you believe in fairies, or joining the chorus of approbation for the King's new clothes: witholding respect is as easy as it's essential. But respect for the referendum result hasn't been established as the default because the people shouting Yes were louder than the people shouting No; the point is not to take a stand as a dissenter but to engage in and win the argument. If somebody asserts that the referendum result shows that the question is done and dusted for all time, we certainly shouldn't agree, but we shouldn't just shout at them either.

  4. Yes!Other factors as well Millions more young would be eligible to vote and quite a few old would have died! So even the electorate has changed,and if change could be etched out of the EU then even the EU would have changed,a week is a long time in politics a few years is a short time for fundamental electoral change to occur?

  5. I wonder how far Labour could push the argument that Remain was voted for by majority in work or soon to be in work, and that they as a Labour Party should resist those pensioners saying that they would rather the economy would worsen than vote Remain.

    This argument also finishes off the claim that Tory Party and their voters are for economic efficiency and capitalism.

    Labour as the party for responsible pensioners who want to play their role in society across the generations, not a nostalgia ain't what it used to be party of anti-immigrant prejudice which puts the economy and the NHS, schools, the police, fire service, army and so forth at risk through sluggish economic growth.

  6. I agree with you. Labour’s shift in position is to be welcomed. It should be celebrated as the most sensible least damaging way possible to leave. If people want to cry, talk about loss of freedom of movement and diminishing horizons for the young. As to Corbyn, more joy in heaven over a sinner repenting etc. or malice to known charity to all as I might once have said.

  7. Are referenda a good idea?
    If so, the UK seems rarely to have them.
    If not, why only have them about membership of the EU?

  8. The UK and the EU should work out the terms of Brexit (hard, soft, etc) and put the alternatives (if more than one) to British voters for approval. If all alternatives are rejected, just continue negotiating. Preferably the EU should let the UK retract the formal exit process, as otherwise the exit would just happen automatically.

    Just a suggestion.

  9. I don't think that the argument that a second referendum is undemocratic would win Leave many new votes. There are indeed many Remainers who think the issue has now been settled & it shouldn't be re-opened but this doesn't mean that 'on principle' they'd turn down another chance to keep Britain in if they were given it. But people might switch to Leave next time for other reasons. As someone who voted Remain mostly because I feared a Leave vote would lead to the break up of the UK via a yes vote in a second Scottish indyref, but now sees this as unlikely, I might count as an example. My guess is that Leave would just squeak it a second time.

  10. «Remain campaigners also need to be politically realistic. [ ... ] as increasingly resembling a cult»

    Oh there, for the past year and over this blog has been pretty solidly obsessed with "Remain" (and anti-Corbyn) at any cost, when it was dramatically, shiningly, loudly obvious to politically sensitive "Remainers" that the best that could be done was to do damage limitation and playing the long game like Corbyn was doing, with all the ambiguity that unfortunately that requires.

    It is welcome that this blog is a bit more realistic than usual; even if admittedly sometimes realism becomes defeatism.

    However quite recently the (economic) case for "Remain" was made in this blog as “the major economic cost will not become apparent until years after we actually leave the Single Market”. That's not going to work.

    Sometimes I wish that "Remainers" realized that the real case for the EU is the honest one, for geopolitical and political reasons over the next century, not for 8% more GDP over 10-15 years.

    Surely a lot of people like presumably J Redwood would rather that England be just a sycophantic, largely ignored, "with you whatever" protectorate of the USA than a leading force in the EU ruling inner circle, but younger generations seem to have a distinctly more realistic impression: the EU (and the UK within it) should be allies of the USA but without being their vassals, and they can only avoid being vassals by "better together".

    The issue put pithily is still "how many carrier groups can England fund by itself". The current answer is something like 0.3 or 0.4.

  11. I want us to remain. Soft brexit would be better than hard brexit, but makes no sense. But I cannot see the current arguments of Remainers having any effect.
    You have quoted people like Dominic Cummings, who realised that a simple emotional message was all the Leave target voter and MSM needed or wanted.
    FWIW I am asked in face-to-face conversations with leavers why we haven't left yet? What's so difficult? Just do it.
    Yet, you, and almost all remainers on social media, are still making rational arguments.
    We not countering the emotions that led to Brexit, and indeed the large number of re-leavers acquiescing.
    The immigration message has been challenged, but persists.
    The big bad, undemocratic, EU bureaucracy message persists.
    The £350m for the NHS, and other campaign promises have been debunked.
    The idiocy of the government, messrs May, Fox, Davis, and Johnson, has been exposed, but even after GE17, they remain in charge.
    You've quoted, and puzzled at, the figures showing how resilient the leave vote remains, even when Leavers acknowledge that Brexit will make them poorer.
    A great many leavers weren't even listening. They wanted to believe in a future, any future, different from their present. They voted, job done.
    We Remainers have been talking to ourselves.
    Surely it is now a fact that quoting facts didn't win the referendum, or GE17, and facts are still not winning?
    So, if the facts change, what should we do?

    I would like to think we remainers could create an emotional appeal, a simple progressive vision, more attractive than sepia, WWII, pink globe, nostalgia; that being in the EU, has actually been, and will continue to be, a positive, beneficial, experience.
    (What advertising/PR agency would take on that challenge?
    FWIW smart marketing people may well be more persuasive to Leavers than have been politicians, economists, and lawyers)
    And, with negotiations becoming tense, its natural to take sides - we have a local team to support, and an opposition to demonise.
    The EU, despite being demonstrably reasonable and professional, will increasingly easily be portrayed as the bad guy. No matter how badly our team plays, we still have to support our team.
    Which of course makes it harder to argue that we really should be joining the opposition.

    So, it's:
    a) clear that facts haven't won the argument;
    b) unlikely that more facts will win the argument;
    c) difficult to create an emotional response for Remaining in the time and circumstances available.

    Before I reach for the valium, my only suggestion is that it might be easier to argue for a democratic mandate now/soon to suspend article 50, and slow/pause the negotiations, so we can have a serious national debate to work out what we want, but include a commitment to a final referendum.
    Leavers would argue that delay is a betrayal, but that argument has already been weakened with the cabinet accepting a transition period. We could argue that we are strengthening leavers' position by legislating a final referendum.
    If negotiations show no significant progress by end of year then the case for a change of plan to minimise chaos may become stronger. Maybe this could be that change of plan.
    It would also allow time to develop plans for a post-EU UK economy, including the investment needed to counter loss of inward investment etc.
    The article 50 timebox works to raise the temperature of the national debate, reducing likelihood of changed minds. It will stoke the emotion of Leave, rather better than the rational argument of remain. Remainers may become more negatively emotional, and less effective.
    Also, while demonstrating a return to rational thought, any delay would extend the period of uncertainty for businesses, making contingencies more likely.

    If we are going to succeed in at least moderating, far less reversing, Brexit, then we need to change the remain proposition.
    Ideas, anyone?

    1. "....suspend article 50, and slow/pause the negotiations, so we can have a serious national debate to work out what we want...."

      I think that is the last thing that Theresa May and the hardline Breixteers want.

      Triggering Article 50 in March 2017 meant that the UK would leave the EU in March 2019 which is a couple of months before May 2019 when the next set of elections for MEP’s are due. There was a good reason for this.

      Imagine if Article 50 had been triggered in, say, September 2017. The UK would then be obliged to hold MEP elections in May 2019, four months before leaving the EU. Elections mean campaigns, and campaigns mean public debates. Debates might have caused the public to have second thoughts, with the prospect of leaving the EU only months away.

      One ray of sunshine comes from the fact that the general election did not go as Theresa May planned. The Revenge of the Remainers produced a House of Commons split into a ConDUP government and, possibly, a Progressive Alliance Opposition ( Lab/SNP/LD/PC/Green ) favouring a softer Brexit.

      There is another complication for the Brexiteers: the popular vote in the election. For every 100 votes for ConDUP, there’s 121 votes for a possible Progressive Alliance.

  12. Athens has voted once on the matter of Mytilene. Another vote would not have any legitimacy, and therefore there should not be one.

    1. So if there are new facts to appraise, and lies and misinformation from the previous vote have been identified, there should still not be a second vote? How foolish.

  13. "We had a depreciation (as predicted), real wages are falling, and GDP per head in the first half of the year is almost stagnant."

    The Treasury model (in the severe scenario) predicted that the pound would depreciate by 15% and that inflation would be 2.7%. Spot on!!! ... and it predicted that within 2 years GDP would fall by 6% and unemployment would rise by 800,000. Oops! (One of Remainers dire predictions now is that UK industry will suffer due to a lack of workers, which is the exact opposite of the previous prediction of rising unemployment.) Osborne predicted that he would implement an emergency budget. He lied.

    I know people who were quelled into voting Remain because of Project Fear. They wouldn't be so easily bullied a second time.

    1. I note that you cherry-picked the severe scenario and didn't mention that this is predicted AFTER we leave the EU, not before.

      You need to try harder.

    2. Absolutely not. Table 2C on page 46 of the Treasury report projects GDP reductions of -0.1%, -0.1%, -0.1%, -0.1% for Q3, Q4 of 2016 and Q1 and Q2 of 2017 in one scenario and -1.0%, -0.4%, -0.4% and -0.4% in the other.

    3. I have somewhat misquoted the Treasury data. They did predict falls in GDP for 2016 Q3 onwards in both their scenarios but the actual 6% figure is the difference between the predicted fall in GDP for ‘Leave’ and the predicted rise for ‘Remain’.

    4. To clarify further, the Treasury model predicted falls in GDP of -0.4% or -2.2% in their two scenarios for Q3 2016 to Q2 2017 when the actual figure was +1.7% (compared to +1.8% for Q3 2015 to Q2 2016).

  14. I think the argument that another referendum is not democratic is based on the idea that people in the past have a right to bind people in the future. Because should you be certain you have the majority anyway, what do you care?

    Which is deeply contrary to our constitutional order, and the idea of democracy.

  15. No one knows what would happen with a second referendum (unless we do have one) but the same type of argument would be raised as to why the result was not acceptable.

    You have also not given a cogent reason as to why only two tries; why not four or six? Odd numbers are of course better because you can use "best of five tries" type of argument.

    We have to get on with this and not be continually regurgitating arguments for and against.

    What I find slightly amusing about your stance - in common with many others of the same Remain persuasion - is that you exhibit one of the best arguments yourself for leaving by the stance you take. At the very least leaving the EU will shake things up quite considerably and, certainly for those on the Leave side, this is one of the objectives of leaving the EU but this must also apply to many on the Remain side. No one who looks at this thing realistically and for longer than five minutes thinks it will be other than very difficult to make headway outside the EU and that any difficulties are likely also to last quite a number of years. But are these difficulties all such a bad thing? Is it better to be submerged in a giant bureaucracy like the EU which is finding it increasingly difficult to accomplish anything or at least try to regain some semblance of independent thought and action over the many important issues that affect us today? I don't think the issue is at all clear and to see the EU, by implication, as a version of heaven and an independent UK (whatever that may mean in time) as a version of hell is really pushing things to the point where you could stand accused of the same exaggeration as you see in others.

  16. I can offer another reason why the referendum vote should not automatically mandate Brexit, derived from Theresa May's visit to Japan.

    Because the referendum result was narrow, and concentrated among older voters, while, as Simon points out, many of the problems that the Remainers warned of are now being realised (like the Irish border problem), not to mention because of blog posts like this, there must be a significant possibility that Brexit is cancelled or reversed in the foreseeable future. So, if you are one of the UK's key target countries for a trade deal like Japan, you are likely to be less inclined to spend much time working on a trade deal with the UK that might never be operational.

    In short, the very closeness of the EU referendum result undercuts the feasibility of implementing it.

  17. My concern about many Remain arguments is that remainers are generally (not always) looking at what is good for the UK, instead of trying to make the leap of imagination to envisage what the EU might think is good for the EU.

    What the experience of EU-UK relations in the periods 1974-75, 1979-84, 1987-93 and after 2010 has revealed to many EU policymakers and citizens is that the UK lacks any meaningful communautaire perspective (even among many remainers) and that it is, generally, more trouble than it is worth. That other member states have also used EU membership as a mask for the advancement of their own interests is almost beside the point; it is the optics which count.

    Having seen many stories about Brexit in the continental press (and, especially, the BTL comments) it seems to me that we are perceived by a critical mass of opinion as transactional, selfish, perfidious (viz. the French) and, essentially, the fifth columnists the hardline Gaullists always thought we might be in the 1960s and early 1970s.

    I suspect that we would only be allowed back in if we were suitably humbled and prostrate (and perhaps only as England, Scotland and Wales); naturally, we would have to forego all of our opt-outs. I suspect that the requirement to adopt the euro, and to meet the necessary criteria (re budget deficit) would make even many remainers blanch at the prospect.

  18. A significant number of people that voted to leave were either misinformed or uninformed.

    The opposite argument cannot be used as a response because those that voted to remain were voting for an already known reality.

    Good decisions are not built on a foundation of lies and (almost always inevitably largely far right wing) manipulation.

    On that basis alone,there's a very strong common sense argument for anothet referendum. Clearly, there is already a greater understanding of what leaving implies and really a very nebulous idea of what leaving might.. hopefully.. in a very utopian circumstance.. bring about.

    The only present realities brought about by leaving appear to be heightened political tension throughout Europe, the growth of complex political fissures, a considerable divorce bill, a less-than positive macro and micro economic reaction and the continuation of internal political divisions within the UK that the referendum was supposed to quell.

    On the basis of what we now KNOW, why not ask the question again? Too often the history of humanity has been beset by a willingness to destroy or separate (often predicated on lies, propoganada and a manipulation of the fearful). The EU is an attempt to unify what was once a severely fractured continent. We work at things, we move forward. We destroy and separate, we inevitably move backwards.

    The UK could easily remain and work to makes things even more favourable than they were. It's hard to imagine that a majority would now vote to leave based on known information, forecasting, financial reaction, political instability and the gut instinct of most people currently experiencing the leaving process.


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