Christopher Kirkland

It has been argued that the deadlock in Parliament regarding Brexit has been generated by the lack of understanding about what the electorate voted for in 2016. But the message of the referendum was further complicated by the electoral system of First Past the Post. Could a more proportional electoral system be a way to move past the current political gridlock?

With the Brexit withdrawal date of 29th March just one week away the implications of inaction are becoming increasingly widespread. Yet as indecisiveness spreads and Parliament’s inability/reluctance to vote for a solution becomes a paralysis, little attention has been placed on how constitutional reform (in particular adopting a different voting system) could offer a means of overcoming the problem.

First past the post (FPTP) is the electoral system used to determine referendum results and to decide votes in Parliament. It allows voters to choose between two (or more) options. The problem here is that in any complex situation of two policy options (as the 2016 referendum and each Parliamentary vote have hitherto been), FPTP favours a default or status quo option. Broad coalitions of MPs can form to block a particular method of exiting the EU. For example, MPs that favour no deal are able to vote alongside either those that favour a second referendum or who wish to remain in the EU and have voted to block May’s deal. Here, alongside the guise of no deal being better than a bad deal, inaction is preferable to MPs, who hope that Brexit can ultimately be stopped before a no deal scenario is reached rather than voting for any Brexit deal.

Whilst politicians have continually promised to honour or respect the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016, such intentions have failed to translate into a policy which a majority of MPs are able to accept, thus paving the way for the UK to leave the EU. MPs have continually blocked efforts to reach an agreement on terms of the UK’s exits, voting down May’s deal (twice), the prospect of leaving without a deal and other proposed solutions, such as a general election.

Indeed, amongst all the rhetoric, far less has been done to establish what the result actually was. Some who advocate a further referendum argue that the result is unclear – that those voting were not a homogenous bloc and represent many different views, which can only be tested by again putting the issue back to the public.  

In order to explore the meaning of the result — or to overcome the weakness of trying to infer a single meaning of the result — it is important to understand the differences between the 2016 referendum and other recent referendums. Between 1997 and 2015, the UK held 5 referendums: Devolution in Scotland and Wales; the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland; the AV referendum and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. All were all under the FPTP electoral system. These votes were seen to offer clearly defined policies, despite creating new (or in the case of NI, reviving) political institutions.

Such policies were easy to identify, as the referendums explicitly asked voters to vote for a policy to reject the status quo. Here, the status quo was offered to voters if they rejected the policy. For example, the 2014 Scottish referendum asked voters, “should Scotland be an independent country?” If a majority of voters voted “yes” then it would have been granted independence; the default “no” position was to remain a part of the UK. The 2016 Brexit referendum altered this process. It offered no explicit choices; a vote for “remain” became a vote for the status quo. As Colignatus argues, the wording of the question put to the public in 2016 was flawed. Combined with a lack of information — or dissolution of accurate information with misleading statements and misinformation throughout the campaign — the referendum boiled down to a vote in favour of the status quo or voting for (undefined) change.

The problem then to emerge from such a binary choice is that of homogeneity. The vote became a rejection of the status quo (remaining in the EU) without offering a specific policy (or policies) in its place. Throughout the referendum, different options were presented to the electorate and options such as Norway, Canada plus, or even WTO were all advocating voters to select the same box on the ballot paper. Such a simplification of options has further been problematic, as MPs have been asked to vote for a particular means of leaving the EU.

If then a majority cannot be found for a policy, there are wider constitutional issues that emerge. If Parliament in its current guise is paralyzed and unable to make a decision, how can policy be formed?

One way of reaching an agreement is to use a different voting system, one which is able to generate a majority from a range of options, rather than require votes to have a default status quo option. Here the question “how should the UK leave the EU?” with a variety of options could be put either to MPs or — if they are unwilling to have such a vote, as demonstrated by the rejected proposal for a series of indicative votes — the electorate. Such options could draw upon the alternatives mentioned in the 2016 referendum campaign, such as the Norway or Canadian models, and incorporate also May’s deal or leaving without a deal on WTO terms.

Here rather than using FPTP, using other systems such as the Alternative Vote or Single Transferable Vote (STV) system would allow voters to rank these options in order of preference. Through a system of eliminations, this system would generate a majority for a particular policy option. These systems work by allowing voters to rank the options put to them, normally candidates, but it would also work will well defined/explicit policy options. Here votes for the lowest option are reassigned to more popular options in a series of rounds until one option commands a majority (50% plus one vote) or all votes cast.

Such options could either be voted for in Parliament or by the electorate. Leaving the EU without a deal would not require any agreement on behalf of the EU. May’s deal has already been agreed in principle, the Norwegian, Canadian or Swiss models are existing deals and could presumably be easily incorporated with little or no modifications, and other deals could also feature on the ballot if they receive EU support/backing. If all these options on the ballot paper were pre-approved by the EU and the result was to be binding, then such a vote would take minimal time and could be concluded within a short extension of Article 50. Such a ballot could even be concurrent with local elections in early May, allowing for the UK to leave ahead of the EU’s parliamentary elections in June. Such a further ballot could be justified on the grounds that it is asking the public how the UK should leave, not if the UK should leave – overcoming critics who argue that it could be used as a means of simply reversing the referendum result.

Such a decision could be appealing to politicians, especially if it were to be put back to the people. Doing so could also allow political leaders to distance themselves from the terms of any exit or to avoid blame for choosing the “wrong option”; something both May and Corbyn have been criticised for (attempting to do) recently. By bypassing a series of individual votes, the parties could further reunite by focusing on different issues and solidify their relative positions within the political system. It could also be important in maintaining the traditional two-party system of the UK (certainly in the short term) – something that is often attributed to the FPTP system. Given MPs defections from both the Conservative and Labour benches, resolving this issue quickly could be important in maintaining the 82% vote share the parties received in the 2017 general election. Electoral reform: The secret to passing Brexit?

Chris Kirkland is a lecturer at York St John University, having previously worked at The University of Leicester, University of Liverpool and University of Sheffield. His research interests include British politics and elections and voters.