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Analysis
Leave does not guarantee leave

Leave does not guarantee leave

Referendum shows limits of British democracy

by Brian Reading in London

Tue 7 Jun 2016

If the Brexiteers win the 23 June referendum, we still won’t know the next day whether the UK will leave the EU. The 2015 Referendum Act does not bind the government to the outcome. Parliament is sovereign, not the administration.

Even if the government accepts the result, it still has to get the necessary legislation through both houses of parliament. As the then Labour government advised of the 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the Common Market, 'The British parliament in Westminster retains the final right to repeal the Act which took us into the Market on January 1 1973.'

If the result in three weeks is a landslide on a high turnout, the government could perhaps push exit through parliament. But such an outcome is unlikely. Following a marginal victory on a low turnout, Prime Minister David Cameron could not get a Leave Act through, and probably wouldn’t try.

The referendum issue has driven a wedge between MPs and voters – revealing Britain’s own democratic deficit.

Opinion polls have Remain and Leave running neck-and-neck, at a little more than 40% each of the popular vote. Don’t knows are 15% to 20%. But most MPs do not reflect this grass roots opinion. The 650 members are split 70% Remain, 20% Leave and 10% unknown.

This shows some democratic shortcomings behind the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system. At the 2015 general election the Scottish National party with 4.7% of the vote won 56 seats. The Liberal Democrats got 7.9% of the vote and eight seats. The UK Independence party collected 12.4% of the vote and one seat.

The referendum is a single constituency first-past-the post system. In 2015 SNP and Lib Dems’ combined votes were 3.9m, while UKIP got 3.6m votes. If all SNP and Lib Dem supporters vote Remain, and all UKIP supporters vote Leave, Remain gets only 300,000 more votes than Leave. But the corresponding MPs from these three parties are 64 to one against 'Brexit'.

Tory MPs are split 50% Remain, 40% Leave and 10% unknown. Party members seem to be split 40% Remain and 60% Leave. The disparity between the MPs and the party membership is greater higher up the party hierarchy. The Cabinet is split between 23 who wish to remain against seven Leavers. Career prospects, patronage and bets on a Remain victory all accentuate the cleavage with the grass roots.

The Labour wedge between party and people is in some ways still greater. Remain is supported by 215 MPs and Leave by seven, with 10 unknown. Yet Labour voters seem split 70% Remain to 30% for Brexit.

A simple calculation supports the poll findings of a close race. If each party’s 2015 votes are allocated according to their Remain/Leave shares, the result will be 49.5% for Remain against 50.5% for Leave. Compiling MPs' known preferences reveals a quite different result: 453 for Remain and 147 for Leave, with 50 unknown.

In the event of a pro-Brexit vote on 23 June, Cameron’s game plan must be, on the plausible assumption that his prime ministership survives, to pay lip-service to the result and start negotiating divorce terms without seeking parliamentary approval for a UK departure.

To do otherwise would split the Tories and lose the parliamentary vote. Negotiations could take two years or more. They would probably be onerous. The 2016 referendum result would be deemed invalid because the public did not and could not know the consequences.

Another referendum would be called. Elite casualties, as at Agincourt 600 years ago, would litter the bloody field. Leave would win the referendum battle but not the fifty years European war.

The public were told by both sides their decision was the most important in our times. They would be furious to discover it solved nothing. Not much of a victory for democracy. But then it takes a referendum to show the system we have is pretty threadbare.

Brian Reading was an Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Edward Heath and is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board. This is No.83 in the series – the 100th article will appear on 23 June.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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