Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 9 January 2019

The 2016 referendum was a badly designed rigged vote corruptly and unfairly won. Why is there so much deference to it?

We are probably about to take the huge step of leaving the EU that a majority of the population no longer want. We will do so because certain political forces have elevated a rigged, corrupt and unfair vote into something all powerful, that demands to be obeyed. If you doubt this think of all those who claim a second referendum would be undemocratic: a statement which is a contradiction in terms unless 2016 has some unique, special status. The purpose of this post is to argue it does not deserve this status.

The UK is a representative democracy that very occasionally holds referendums. Although referendums have been reserved for constitutional issues, it is not the case that constitutional issues are always decided by referendums. Instead they often tend to be used by governments to put to rest major internal debates over constitutional issues. Cameron promised to hold a referendum on EU membership in order to (temporally as it turned out) silence internal debates within the Conservative party.

I discussed why the referendum was badly designed here. Leave were not required to settle on a particular alternative to being in the EU: EEA membership (Norway), being in the Customs Union or not, being in the Single Market or not etc. For that reason Boris Johnson can claim that leaving without a deal is closest to what Leavers voted for even though No Deal was never proposed by the Leave campaign. This lack of specifics also made it easier for the Leave campaign to spin fantasies like ‘the easiest deal in history’.

The result of the referendum would have its impact on two main groups above all others: UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK. The only people in that group allowed to vote were UK citizens living in the EU and registered in a UK constituency less than 15 years ago. However Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK were allowed to vote. In the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence EU residents were allowed to vote. How do you describe excluding UK residents who would be most affected by a referendum as anything other than rigging that referendum.

Vote Leave broke election law in at least two ways, yet neither of the main political parties seem to care (one for obvious reasons, the other less so). We still do not know whether the Leave campaign was funded by Russian money or not. To dismiss this by saying the extra spending probably didn’t influence the result misses the point. If all that happens after one side breaks spending rules in an election is a fine then we are on the road to US style elections where money plays a very big role. That in turn leads to a plutocracy of the kind I describe here and which Jimmy Carter has recently talked about. The penalty for overspending has to be very large, and the obvious penalty is to cast doubt on the validity of the vote. Rather than speculate on whether law breaking influenced the result, we should just say the vote was corruptly won.

But there was a much deeper unfairness with 2016 than Leave campaign spending, and that is the behaviour of much of the media. Most of the right wing press effectively groomed their readers long before the referendum with constant stories, often simply false, of an interfering Brussels bureaucracy: so much so that the EU set up a website to correct untruths. During the campaign most of the right wing press (80% by daily readership) were effectively part of the Leave campaign, providing what is best described as propaganda. The influence of the press was particularly important because, unlike a General Election, most people before the campaign were uninformed about the EU. This propaganda might have been counteracted with information provided by broadcasters, but the BBC in particular decided to balance truth with lies. Elections where information is replaced by propaganda are not fair. 

For all these reasons 2016 was not a free and fair referendum. But the same political forces that had championed Leave in the campaign went about deifying the (narrow) victory. Brexit quickly became the ‘will of the people’, as if the 48% who voted to Remain - and especially EU residents whose future was put in doubt - had either ceased to exist, or have become traitors. This alliance between Brexiters and the right wing press is the main reason why support for Leave has stood up despite everything that has happened since: who wants to be a traitor? An indication of how successful this continuing campaign has been is that if you ask people about how the economy has been since the vote, they will probably mention first the pre-vote Treasury short term forecast that predicted a recession, rather than actual events like the fall in real wages caused by the Brexit depreciation.

Once it became clear that the Leave campaign’s claim that the EU would allow us to retain the benefits of being in the EU after we left was pure fantasy, it was natural for the Brexiters and most of their press allies to migrate to advocating No Deal. It is the only outcome that might give the UK some more sovereignty (or perhaps US regulations), albeit at a terrible economic and political cost. Project Fear easily transfers to what might happen with No Deal.

In a rational world, and dare I say in any real democracy, the possibility of No Deal would be eliminated with ease by MPs, who would simply mandate the executive to Revoke Article 50 on March 27th if no other way forward had been agreed. That this has not been done, and all sensible MPs dare propose (and narrowly win) is something weaker, is indicative to the hold that the 2016 referendum still has on MP’s attitudes.

When this is all history will people struggle with how a narrow victory in a rigged, corrupt and unfair referendum could lead MPs to vote for a Brexit that a far greater majority of people no longer want? Not really. It is pretty obvious how people with lots of money to spend combined with extreme neoliberals and little englanders to subvert the political process in the UK. Just add to this a tendency of too many on the centre-right to appease the far right, from Cameron who allowed a rigged referendum that was badly designed to May who constantly set policy to please the Brexiters in her party, and you get the subversion of democracy that is Brexit


  1. My Leave father, I voted Remain, would retort he voted for a defined EC but not Maastricht EU Lisbon. I would add Remain did not rule out Euro Closer integration More power for Commission etc etc these would be handed over without a 2nd referendum bar maybe the Euro ( which is a non starter anyway).

    I think that argument spurious or at best not acknowledging past abuse of plebiscites. And we had an election since so that fig leaf further undermined.

    Having read through the 156+++ LSE paper pre the vote to be met with 5 lines of glibly glossed over assumptions about historic parallels I do not think anyone wins on sincerity.

    The better funded campaign lost and it was hardly close enough to claim 2% people are rubes. Foreign money was on all sides and yes illegality should be stopped but we're not sending Labour figures who endorsed torture and rendition and war to the Hague. Point is prosecute but hardly undermines a 4% majority. Plus MPs and others clearly dont see the result as tainted enough.

  2. By that standard, is any referendum or election "fair" ? You might as well control the press and ban private campaign funding.

    Referendum or Election has always been imperfect, and for beeter or worse Brexit Referendum is within "normal" standard of Western democracy.

    Brexit is mistake and British democracy and voters made huge mistake. You want former is true, but denying the second.

  3. This analysis greatly appreciated. Cameron ,perhaps, did not realise he could not count on the press-as conservative Leaders always can in general elections ! He clearly misread the strength of Remain support amongst Tory voters and even members. It is worth noting that a strong majority of Labour voters were Remain,even in Labour-held Leave seats. Most of the Leave voters in this seats would have been tories and UKIP. This has been studiously avoided by those at the top of the Labour Party.

  4. I look at it like this.

    Voted leave 17 million
    Voted remain 16 million
    Did not vote 15 million
    Not eligible 17 Million (children and migrants)
    UK population 65 million

    So about 26% or roughly one quarter of the population actively wanted to leave the EU in the non-binding referendum. But if we take eligible voters its still only 35% voted leave.

    The will of the people is that remain and disinterest vastly outweigh leave.

  5. Bad design: the Leave side as a whole shouldn't be "required" to come to an agreement on what future relationship they want n order for the vote to be legitimate, any more than the Remain side should be required to specify the future relationship either. It's subject to change via future treaties. The same was true in 1975 and that result is just as valid.

    In the Scottish case the inclusion of EU residents and 16 year olds neither of whom can vote in parliamentary elections was itself an attempt to "rig" the vote by choosing a more pro-independence electorate. They feared losing under the normal rules and decided to change them. How is that not "subversion" by your own logic? Would you have rejected a Yes result on that basis or on the basis of the economic rubbish Yes campaigners spread about?

    EU residents don't get to vote in such referenda in the Republic of Ireland either, only citizens can. Wanted to ratify Nice or Lisbon? Nope, no foreigners, only Irish citizens can vote. And why not?

    I want Leavers to be punished for all violations. But the point of casting doubt on the result here isn't to invalidate the result to punish crime. Spending violations can happen in any election at any level, it doesn't invalidate the overall result just disqualifies an individual MP.

    There's reason for you to steer clear of the actual result aspect to support Remain: you know that a Remain-controlled Commons gave themselves £8 million to do a pro-Remain HMG mailshot. Because that will have had much more effect on the result, but wasn't crime, you choose to prioritise crime over the fairness of the rules.

    My mind boggles when I consider whether you'd support a Leave result if a pro-Leave govt had spent £8 million on that mailshot and then Remain organisations had cheated by a smaller amount.

    As for the press, I hated their Europhobe propaganda since the 90s, but by the same standard you should question the 1975 result. I don't think you will, because you agree with the conclusion.

    If you are gonna to use media bias in this way, then we never have "free and fair" elections let alone referendums, and this is hyperbole.

    Did the 25% No voters in 1975 get a seat at the table afterwards? How could they? In or out is a binary choice. And Remainers ARE being represented as they are part of the debate over what the future relationship should be i.e. various kinds of soft Brexit.

  6. I'm a Remain voter myself and obviously leaving, especially if no deal threatens return to recession, Scottish independence, etc. I can't agree with your arguments over fairness (as opposed to desirability) of the result.

    Radio 4's Document programme found that the Foreign Office's Information Research Department secretly organised a letter writing campaign to the newspapers while Heath was negotiating EEC membership because 70% were against joining, and they wanted to make MPs more willing to pass it. This wasn't the 1975 referendum, but it was about the parliamentary vote that sent us in. Do you think the vote to accede to the EEC was rigged, corrupt, unfair, or subverted democracy?

    Also affecting our decision to go in was the European Movement being one of the organisations getting the ball rolling, in its early years it was generously funded in secret by the CIA. How do you feel about that?

    The Open Democracy article you link to is interesting. It condemns "a small pool of large donors, many of whom have offshore connections". Yet OpenDemocracy gets cash from the Open Society Foundation, and George Soros is literally a foreign billionaire. |The CIA was literally a foreign intelligence agency. And "without party activists, they are likely to rely ever-more on companies like AggregateIQ". Yeah -- and pro-Marketeers were so lacking in activists that the PM did his secret IRD efforts to astroturf our entry. (Who knows what difference that made, compared to the editorialising of the press itself. We don't know what different "dark money" made. The point is both things are cheating.)

    All of this is a distraction from debating why we should or shouldn't be in the EU in the first place. Is any Leave voter going to support Remain, or even a second referendum, because you say " you won but the people in charge cheated, and the mail shot doesn't count as cheating"?

    I'd be much obliged if you'd reply to this comment.

  7. Interesting. Like your take on Krugman's view that the EU didn't take Cameron's Pre-Referendum negotiations seriously enough. I also suspect that the Conservatives were trying to have it both ways and deflect from the botched job of the economy through austerity.

    1. Or rather, Cameron saw UKIP rising in the polls (because immigration cuts became popular due to slow growth?) and kenw it was a threat to him being re-elected. So he stole UKIP's clothes with the referendum.

  8. “During the campaign most of the right wing press (80% by daily readership) were effectively part of the Leave campaign, providing what is best described as propaganda.”

    Yes I read one article where the right wing press made the ridiculous claim that the European Parliament shifted lock stock and barrel from Brussels to Strasbourg every fourth week. There must have, originally, been some element of truth in this. Perhaps in the early days there was some shabby compromise which caused the Parliament to regularly shift. But the suggestion that the EU is so dysfunctional that it hasn’t resolved the matter after all these years is ludicrous. Fortunately, it was obvious ‘fake news’, so it probably didn’t influence people.

    More seriously, all the Press, including the broadsheets failed to suppress the news that there was mass youth unemployment in southern Europe. Fortunately, up until the referendum, younger people took little notice of current affairs so they voted to stay in the EU anyhow. But of course the older generation were more aware and their concern about youth unemployment caused them to turn up in large numbers to the ballot box.

  9. Firstly, EU citizens in the Scottish referendum were more likely to vote remain, as they would've lost their right to work there if Scotland was forced to leave the EU, which it would have been by default. I don't see the problem with 16 year olds voting either, I think there's an argument they should vote in general elections anyway.

    In terms of the design argument, the referendum wasn't informative because the public weren't able to indicate what they wanted instead of EU membership. It's unlikely many were voting to have a hard Brexit knowing what this would consist of.

    If we're going to give the public the voice to say what they want then they should have a vote on May's deal versus remain in an informed referendum.

    I struggle to understand why this is seen as betraying the will of the people.


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