Following on from all of the arguments, disputes and political deadlock over Brexit, there has been much talk of holding a new or 'second' (or 'third'!) or 'Peoples Vote' referendum over the issue, to allow 'the people' to make a decision. It is something I have always supported, and continue to help campaign for. And I make no apologies for doing so! From where we are, I don't see any other way out of the situation - we have to understand what the majority actually want, knowing what we know now about both possible outcomes and about the potential wrongdoings in the previous campaign. I can see no other solution that could remotely be described as 'democratic' - in my opinion, it would simply not be 'democratic' at all to take the previous 'advisory' referendum result as a 'settled will of the people' decision to leave the European Union, under any circumstances, no matter what the terms. As Nigel Farage put it with regard to a possible 52/48% result for Remain, it would have been 'unfinished business', and it clearly is now.
Over the last two years, I've given much though to what form that new vote should take - what should be the questions, and what should be the possible answers. I think I have reached a conclusion now, in my own mind, that it should be a 5 option referendum, conducted with an STV voting system. I have always been extremely wary about the idea of a simplistic 'either/or' kind of referendum - it just doesn't give any indication of the true opinions among the population. It was a disaster last time particularly because one of the options didn't have any kind of clearly defined outcome, so it allowed contradictory and competing claims to be made about 'Leave' actually meant in practical terms. Even now, any binary referendum would fail dismally to cover anything like the range of available options, whether it be 'Remain versus Deal', or 'Remain versus No Deal', or whatever. It leaves an awful lot of options out entirely. We need to do a much better job than that at assessing the public mood if we're going to find out what the majority of the public actually want from their politicians.
For a long time, I was thinking along the lines of a 4 option referendum, because that could be balanced between two Remain and two Leave options (more about those 'two Remain options' later). As time has gone on and things have become slightly clearer, though, I've come to the conclusion that the balance is less important than reflecting all of the options under a workable preferential voting system. 'Single Transferable Vote' is, I think, the best kind of voting system, and it works best once you have 5 options or more for people to choose preferences from. As it happens, we now have 5 options that I think can be clearly defined, with each option having an apparently reasonable amount of support among 'campaigners' such that it would be possible to form an 'official campaign' for each.
One of the big issues with a simplistic binary question is that it throws together people who have quite different opinions and forces them to be 'on the same side' and within the same campaign. That causes several problems, as we saw in the 2016 campaign:
1. Since they don't agree, they can very easily end up making contradictory statements to the public among themselves - we saw a great deal of that from Leave campaigners, giving mixed messages (an overall effect of 'having cake and eating it', a cynic might suggest), although it also happened to some extent among 'Remainers' with some of the attempted 'Remain and Reform' messaging.
2. With different people within the same campaign saying, and emphasising, different things, the media can pick and choose what they show and discuss. The broadcast media have a duty of 'balance' between campaigns, but that all too easily becomes 'balance' between the campaigns on the basis of what they deem most 'controversial' (and therefore interesting) and what is being said by the people they deem most 'important' or 'interesting'. This happened in 2016 to the Remain camp, as prominent government figures focussed on 'controversial' and 'negative' ('Project Fear') economic arguments - the voice of those campaigning on the basis of a more positive pro-European vision were simply ignored, but without any apparent issues with 'balance' (because they were only a part of the one campaign, and that one campaign was being 'adequately covered' for 'balance' by showing the other part).
3. Those who are 'most important' set the messaging agenda to an extent anyway, and if they've got it 'wrong' there's really nothing that others with different messages can do about it.
On top of that, a binary question is always open to the danger, or even promotion, of 'emotional reaction' over 'thinking', and that's a very bad thing. Having a range of defined options to choose between forces people to examine them and think about them, and to feel that they want to be more informed about the decision that they are being asked to make. Making people choose between 'Yes or No', or whatever, can allow it to appear deceptively simple, as if the issues involved are simple and they only have to 'go with their gut' and should make a decision based on 'initial instinct' alone. That's not a good way to have an 'informed' democratic decision making process at all. That's something we really ought to consider when it comes to any kind of referendum - there are always going to be multiple possible options and outcomes, and a reasonable variety and number of those options should always be put to people so that people are encouraged to find out what they all really mean, and think about all of their possible implications, before going ahead and making their mark on the ballot paper. I don't buy the 'it's too complicated' argument at all - the issues are complicated, and people should be thinking about that as they make their decision. People are perfectly capable of doing that, and reminding them to do it by giving them multiple options can only be a good thing, in my opinion.
A binary referendum on a complicated issue with multiple potential outcomes is never going to provide a true reflection of how the public feel about those different options, and it could even contribute towards producing a 'false result'. Aside from all the other potential arguments about failures in the last referendum, how many of those 'Leave' voters thought we were set to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union, and would rather Remain than leaving with No Deal? The only honest answer is that we haven't a clue, because that referendum didn't tell us anything useful like that. We need a referendum that does.
So, here is my solution. A multiple STV referendum vote, with an 'open' question and 5 options to choose from (in order of preference). Note that for the 'short title' of each option, as well as avoiding the previous 'Leave; and 'Remain' terms, I have also avoided some of the most common terms that have been flying around - it's entirely possible that some of them are not as well understood as we often assume (in the case of 'No Deal', for example, some apparently believe that it means 'Not doing a deal so we Remain in the EU', rather than leaving altogether without agreeing anything on anything).
Question: 'What should the UK now do about membership of the European Union?'
Option 1: Withdraw With No Agreement - Essentially the 'No Deal' scenario, leaving the EU without signing any agreement on terms or future relationships, then negotiating trade deals on a case by case basis.
Option 2: Sign The Negotiated Deal - Sign and apply the Withdrawal Agreement, as negotiated by the government, and then negotiate a future arrangement as put forward in the existing political declaration.
Option 3: Adapt our position to only membership of the Single Market and Customs Union - the 'Norway' option of leaving the EU itself, but staying in the SM and CU for trade purposes (with all that complying with the rules entails, including keeping 'freedom of movement').
Option 4: Stay in the EU, under our current membership terms - maintain the status quo, and continue out membership under the current circumstances (assessing any future treaty changes as we do now, in parliament).
Option 5: Integrate further into the EU - Seek further political integration as a leading EU member, looking to enter the Schengen Agreement and Adopt the Euro as our currency at the earliest viable opportunity.
That last 'Integrate' option is, I think, a really important one to have on the ballot paper, whether or not it's 'expected' that it might 'win'.
Firstly, it is a body of opinion that we ought to be aware of among the population - are 'Remainers' actually wanting to go down that route, or do they just want to stay as we are? At the moment, we have no more idea about the relative strengths of those opinions than we do about he various 'Leave' options. Indeed, it could be speculated that, in a reverse of the current 'Leave' situation, a Remain win could have been used as a supposed 'mandate' to suggest that the 'will of the people' was 'overwhelmingly' in favour of becoming more and more involved in the EU. That suggestion would obviously have been as entirely false as the 'will of the people' being used to support any given Leave option, but it would have been just as possible to do so had that been the result.
It also avoids the 'Stay' option being dogged by false assertion that 'stay' automatically means 'Integrate' further, which has been a significant issue in the public debate (with fabricated accusations being currently circulated, for example, that in 2022 we cease to be allowed to call ourselves a country, will be forced to adopt the Euro and sign our armed forces over to the EU, and so on). That is obviously an issue as seen from the 'Remain' side, but the same principle holds true for supporters of the 'Leave' options equally - there can be no false suggestions from 'Remainers' that one of the 'Leave' options really means another, because all of the options will have to be be pretty closely defined.
Secondly, in the context of the referendum itself, it ensures that the aforementioned issue of 'balance' doesn't allow the 'positive pro-European vision' part of 'Remain' to be submerged beneath the 'negative' stuff about 'preventing the economic damage of leaving'. That's really important. Without that, the 'Leave' side has an advantage (as they had before) in being able to present their 'vision' of the future in emotional terms, rather than just as a set of dry and boring 'projected accounts'. That positive vision of a UK leading in Europe would be presented as a distinct option, and would have to actually be adequately covered to ensure 'balance' (and again, the same applies to the different 'Leave' options, with each being able to put its own case without it being submerged beneath another).
The three possible 'Leave' options reflect where I think we have got to now that we have a negotiated 'deal' on the table, and can see what it is - what used to be referred to as a 'Hard Brexit' outside the Single Market, but not going as far as to leave with no agreements on anything (with all that that could involve). Having all three Leave options, and both 'Remain' options, on the ballot paper means that nobody can really complain that an option they voted for 'wasn't really what they voted for'. Nobody can use the result to claim in as something that it actually might not have been, and at the same time nobody can claim (rightly or wrongly) that that is what 'the other side' is trying to do. It would give us clarity about where public opinion really lies - something that we haven't had since 2016 (or at all before that, for that matter!), and something that we desperately need in our current farcical state of stalemate and mutual suspicion all round.
Of course, with an STV voting system, there would be a 'winner', and that 'winner' would be what would have to be enacted without further obfuscation or delay. Such a referendum could and should be 'binding', in setting out the legislative process that would follow in the event of each of the options securing a 'win'. Alongside that, though, we would have an idea from the 'first preferences' how many people actually favoured each option individually, and that would be very useful as we move forward to the future with whatever option is ultimately chosen, since nothing in politics is a 'fixed situation' and the UK and EU will continue to develop. If, for example, 'Stay' won the referendum vote, but the 'first preference' round showed that there was little public support for 'Integrate', that would strengthen the arm of UK negotiators in future treaty negotiations in being able to point out that significant further EU integration that includes the UK would not have UK public support (and that reason alone should really be an answer as to why 'Leavers' should accept 'Integrate' as an option for this referendum - if we do end up staying in the EU, it could provide them an strong argument for going no further 'in' than we are now).
Some of the voting patterns might look fairly 'obvious' at first sight, but I don't think that is necessarily as much the case as it might look. For example, I guess you'd expect people choosing 'Integrate' as their first option to automatically take 'Stay' as their second, but there might well be some people who think we should be 'in or out', believing that the 'European Project' is more important than the UK, and should proceed with greater political integration without us moaning all the time and 'holding them back'. On the other hand, their might likewise be people who believe that we should be 'out or in', and if we can't 'Withdraw' altogether we should stay in and at the decision-making table rather than be the 'worst of both worlds' 'vassal state' that some have suggested we would be under other options that tie us in to the Single Market or whatever. There will also, I suspect, be a number of people who choose 'Stay' as a first option, but would rather leave in some way than 'Integrate'. Individual votes really could go in any direction from all options, and we really need to know the kind of balances we are dealing with among the opinions of the public if we are going to not only make this decision but make future decisions on a more democratically informed basis (at least to some extent, noting obviously that a referendum is a 'snapshot' and the balance of opinions may change - on that, though, at least we are giving the pollsters some defined options for their future 'how do you feel about it now' questions!).
So that is my preferred kind of referendum. Whether such a (sensible, I think, of course!) referendum is likely to be considered and agreed by those responsible for doing such things is obviously an entirely different question!
One further thing I would like to add, on the issue of that now infamous 'government propaganda leaflet', sent to everyone in advance of the referendum, giving the 'government recommendation' alongside 'information' about the vote. It isn't unreasonable for the Leave campaigners to point out that it was an expensive exercise aimed at helping one side, and equally it isn't unreasonable for Remainers to consider that it was quite possible counter-productive anyway, opening up an easy 'establishment' line for the opposition. I would suggest that that isn't repeated, and that indeed the 'government' takes no 'official line' on the whole thing anyway. It would be for each 'politician' to join whatever campaign they wanted, and it might not be a bad idea for some senior government figures to be seen to be favouring no option and keeping their noses well out of it if they want their actual preferred option to have any chance of success! Other political parties and individuals can do as they please, although the same kind of argument might perhaps be considered by some of them them, too - from the 2011 AV referendum, I suspect many Lib Dems (for example) are acutely aware of the dangers of a referendum option being seen as 'here's a big stick to beat the politicians you currently don't like'.
That certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't have a government-funded document sent out to everyone, though, in my opinion. We need to have an informed electorate - informed about the options they have to choose between, and what the campaigns supporting them have to say about them. We should also have a level of 'fairness' between campaigns, regardless of the funding that donors choose to give them - spending limits don't help much if you don't have a few millionaires coming to support your campaign, and the decision should be much more about the options themselves than the relative support they have received from extremely wealthy donors.
I would suggest a format something like this:
Each 'official campaign' is given 4 pages in a pamphlet, to be sent to everyone as before. Firstly, they set out their arguments (however they like) on two pages. Once they are finalised, those two pages from each campaign are circulated to all of the other 'official campaigns', and their other two pages are set aside for their responses to what other campaigns have put forward. That means that all of the electorate will have an initial overview of the main arguments from every campaign to read and consider, regardless of what happens over the next few weeks as those are developed and communicated through the media and the campaigns' own activities (and also anyone can then 'dispute' or 'fact check' things said in that leaflet, of course). No possible accusations of 'bias' or 'unfair government interference' or anything - everyone gets to have their own say, communicated to everyone, at the start of the campaign.
I won't go in to other issues of ensuring 'fairness' in the campaign here, though there are a number of points that could be made about the Electoral Commission and its role and powers to deal with potential illegal activities as they happen (not just spend years after the result investigating possible stuff when a result has already been declared and enacted), and the way in which campaigns are permitted to work with social media, and so on.
What we need is a free and fair vote that allows the electorate to express clear opinions on clearly defined options, in a way that 'politicians' can then read and react to from an informed position about what really has the support and consent of the public. That is what democracy should be all about, not the general mess of fog, suspicion, claim and counter-claim that we find ourselves in at the moment. The previous EU referendum didn't really tell us what any kind of majority of the public actually want at all - let's have one that does.