Archive for the 'Referendum' Category


On a huge political day the main Brexit linked betting changes

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

Punters now think..2019 GE now MORE likely

UK LESS likely to leave EU on March 29th

A second Brexit referendum MORE likely

Charts once again based on latest trades on the Betfair exchange shown as a percentage probability and derived from

Mike Smithson


The deal splits the Tories whilst a referendum would split LAB as well

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

One of the arguments that pro-second referendum Tory MPs are using at the moment is that the Brexit deal basically splits the Tories and Labour gets off scot free in spite of its equivocation and huge policy differences. So it is being said that if there was a referendum then it would split Labour as well.

For Corbyn’s equivocation on Brexit and the referendum has really cost the party almost nothing so far and indeed the polling finds that those wanting a referendum are much more likely to support Mr Corbyn than Mrs May.

This is in spite of the bland, read it either way, language that is coming from the Labour leadership about the issue. At the weekend Corbyn described it as an “option for the future” while at the Party Conference in September he simply said he would back members though he was careful not to make a commitment beyond that.

    The party’s approach has enabled it to do remarkably well since the June 23rd 2016 in managing to appeal to both sides. A second referendum, it is argued, would be much more difficult for Labour’s “riding two horses at the same time” approach to succeed.

The other interesting second referendum development has seen leading CON figures like Raab and others saying that remaining in the EU would be a better alternative than the deal that TMay has negotiated.

Maybe that is just rhetoric to put pressure on a prime minister but it’s certainly focuses greater attention on the second referendum notion.

I’m coming to the view increasingly that a second referendum might just happen should the deal get rejected by MPs by an overwhelming majority. As a result I’ve had a little flutter that one will take place before the end of next year at odds of 37%.

Mike Smithson


More and more punters are putting their money on a second referendum happening

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018

I really do like showing betting charts simply to indicate how opinions about a likely outcome change all the time and it’s good to see it in graphic form.

Giving the response so far from parliamentarians to the brexit deal the chances are that this might get voted down by MPs and if so then what? The consequences of no deal have not yet been spelled out to voters but there’s little doubt that ministers are aware.

There’s increasing speculation that if that does happen then maybe Theresa May would back that herself. In any case there is said to be a possible majority of MPs from different parties supporting the idea.

Oxford politics Professor, Stephen Fisher of exit poll fame, has just posted an interesting analysis on his blog under the heading “IN WHICH THERESA MAY CALLS A REFERENDUM DESPITE EXPECTING TO LOSE HER JOB”. He notes:

“.The prime minister has said that a no-deal Brexit would be “a bad outcome for the UK”, and also that she believes, with her “head and heart” and “every fibre of her body”, that the deal is, “in the best interests of our entire United Kingdom.” If this is really how she feels she should want to ask the people to back her deal in a referendum to force parliament’s hand. May has previously ruled out a referendum, but she also ruled out a general election in 2017 and called one anyway.

Even if she does not really feel so strongly in favour of her deal, calling another referendum still looks like it would be the most palatable of the options that would immediately be available. Calling a general election would be much riskier. Resigning would be a dereliction of duty without any obvious indication that any other prime minister would yield a better outcome for her party or the country. She would have no credible argument for trying to unilaterally revoke Article 50: it is not what she wants, it may not work and it would provoke a major legitimacy crisis. If she calls and fails to deliver a referendum at least she will have taken every opportunity to avert a no-deal Brexit.”

Mike Smithson


How referendums can add to the democratic process

Saturday, November 17th, 2018

Principles for calling referendums

This thread header is a response to Mr Meeks’ thread of 6 November, in which he wrote, “we can at least set out some principles for calling referendums.”  It does not ask whether referendums are desirable (though I believe they are). Instead, I look at how the UK political system should accommodate more direct democracy in the future.

International experience

An excellent study by UCL in 2017 noted 550 nationwide referendums in 43 stable democracies between 1990 and 2017, of which 261 took place in Switzerland.  Apart from Italy (which held 57), all of the top ten countries were relatively small, with populations of less than ten million. Large countries, such as France (3), the UK (2), the United States (0), Germany (0) and Japan (0), tend to be much less enthusiastic, though this is far from a hard-and-fast rule, as Italy, Belize (0), Jamaica (0) and Israel (0) demonstrate.  In addition, large US states, with populations greater than many democratic countries, are some of the most enthusiastic holders of referendums. California held votes on 1,253 statewide propositions between 1910 and 2016 – twice as many as Switzerland has held federal referendums since 1798. Florida has held 398 (1886-2016). This is in addition to large numbers of city and county ballots.

This is therefore an area from which we can learn much from international experience.  However, each country’s system is different. Therefore, studying foreign countries may inform the UK’s debate, but it should not determine its answers.  There are two particularly relevant features of the UK’s politics which make it exceptional, if not unique: the absence of a codified constitution, and the unusually long tradition of Parliamentary government.  

The three big questions we need to answer if we are thinking of introducing more direct democracy in the UK are:

  • Should referendums be binding?
  • Which issues should be subject to referendums?
  • Who should be able to initiate referendums?

Should referendums be binding?

In practice, I think this question is less important than it might seem.  The EU referendum clearly showed that even a relatively close victory in an advisory vote hands to the victors an almost unanswerable mandate.  However, I favour making future referendums binding, for two reasons. A referendum result which may not be honoured is a democratic absurdity. Also, binding votes should encourage voters to take their votes more seriously than they otherwise might.  


Referendums are expensive and time-consuming compared to Parliamentary votes or executive decisions.  It therefore seems fairly self-evident that they should be called only on important or controversial issues.  If this is granted, we might consider using referendums on:

  • Constitutional amendments.  Most countries which allow or mandate referendums at all do so on constitutional issues.  In many democracies, referendums on constitutional amendments are mandatory, though, oddly, Portugal’s constitution prohibits them.  Examples are Austria, (arguably) Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Switzerland (of course) and every American state except Delaware.  This category is not directly relevant to the UK, however, as we do not have a codified constitution. However, in a more normal country, the 2011 vote on the AV system might have fallen into this category.
  • Questions of individual rights and conscience, such as abortion, the death penalty, drug legalisation or euthanasia.  In Britain, as the UCL study notes, these are generally settled by free votes in Parliament. However, they are often the subject of plebiscites in, e.g. Switzerland, many US states and Ireland.  
  • Major questions involving national sovereignty.  This category might include membership of the EU (eleven out of the thirteen joiners this century have conducted referendums) or NATO (Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia), or independence and devolution.  Even in Britain, recent governments have gone some way towards establishing a convention that these questions (such as Scottish and Welsh devolution or instituting mayors of cities) should be subject to referendums.
  • Other policy issues.  This is a “none of the above” category.  Referendums on these issues are confined to fewer countries than the previous three categories, but are common in Switzerland and many American states.

Who should initiate referendums?

If we conclude that referendums on some or all of the above categories are appropriate, the next question to decide is who should initiate them:

  • automatically, as in some countries for constitutional amendments, or in the UK for the (never used) referendum lock on new EU treaties which transfer power;
  • by the executive, as in Iceland, which must hold a referendum if the President refuses to sign a law;
  • by the legislature, as in the UK’s referendums; or
  • by the people through some form of petition, as in New Zealand, the Philippines, Switzerland or many American states.

If we are going to make greater use of referendums, I favour allowing groups of citizens to initiate them.  Triggering them automatically risks holding many votes on issues about which few care. Allowing politicians control means that they will only hold votes when they are fairly sure it is to their advantage.  This turns referendums into either, as Attlee said, “a device of demagogues and dictators”, or into a device for risk-averse politicians to dodge responsibility for their views. Allowing the people to decide when they are consulted is more democratic, and hence in keeping with the spirit of direct democracy.

As in some countries, once a petition gathers a set number of legitimate signatures, it should trigger an automatic vote.  There should be a registration fee to discourage “Boaty McBoatface” type petitions. Then a vote should be held at the next local election date, to keep Brenda from Bristol quiet.  The extra expense and effort should be more than offset by a more involved and empowered electorate. Of course we voters will make mistakes, but at least they will be our mistakes.



What price democracy? 

Tuesday, November 6th, 2018

In late 2018, as Britain wanders down the path marked Brexit, the route ahead still looks murky, thorny and pot-holed. The country is still divided almost equally between those who think Britain was right to vote Leave in 2016 and those who think it was a mistake. An increasing number of hardcore Remainers are calling for a second referendum, while many hardcore Leavers argue that would make the first referendum meaningless, undermining democracy. 

So the question arises: is democracy a means or an end?  Let’s take an extreme example. Until sanctions bit in the late 1970s, Rhodesia was a fairly successful economy in southern Africa. There’s no particular reason to ascribe this to any great talent on the part of the white minority government: in common with its neighbours Zambia and Botswana, the country had excellent mineral resources and it also had a strong agricultural sector (though the label “the breadbasket of Africa” seems to have been bestowed retrospectively). 

After that, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and it became a proper democracy with black majority rule in 1980. The government for many years enjoyed genuine popular support. 

Measured in economic terms, however, the government’s performance was lacklustre from the outset.  Despite a post-sanctions growth spurt, GDP per head grew just 11.5% in the 1980s (the equivalent figure over the same period for the USA was 38%, with Britain’s growth per head in the same period not far behind).  Things got progressively worse in the 1990s and 2000s.

Despite mounting concerns, democracy only really went off the rails in the late 1990s, post-dating Zimbabwe’s economic collapse. The policies that were so damaging, including the institutional weakening of civic structures that enabled the corrupting of the democratic process, appear to have been popular enough. Was it worth it? Is, in fact, vox populi vox dei? 

If, like Churchill, you take the view that democracy is the worst form of government except for all of the others then by implication you believe that democracy is a means not an end. Many have fought and died on the opposite assumption.  But let’s for now assume you take the utilitarian view. Is democracy a good idea?

Nothing is beyond the reach of mathematics. In the eighteenth century, the Marquis de Condorcet applied probability techniques to assess the value of democracy. Best known in geeky political circles for the importance of his work on electoral systems, part of his work has implications for democracy in general.  

So here is Condorcet’s Jury Theorem. Imagine that a group wishes to reach a decision by majority vote. Each voter has an independent probability of voting for the correct decision. If voters are more likely than not going to vote correctly, then adding more voters increases the probability that the majority decision is correct. On the other hand, if each voter is individually more likely to vote incorrectly, then adding more voters makes things worse, making the probability of a bad decision more and more likely. You would do best to let one person decide.  

Perhaps we understand this intuitively. On Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, contestants correctly “ask the audience” relatively early on, when they can be expected to be more likely than not to know the right answer, and save the “phone a friend” option for as late as possible.

If you run with this logic, one implication of Condorcet’s Jury Theorem is that we should not ask the public for their views on complex problems because they will get it wrong. The shade of Condorcet might agree – though a liberal, he died in the French Revolution.    

Remarkably, Britain’s electoral system is actually set up to take that into account. We elect people not policies. I think it was Matthew Parris who first noted that at successive general elections the public had chosen the best option available to them. This is to be expected.  If we believe that individuals are more likely than not to make the right choice between candidates, we can strongly expect them to elect the “right” government. Condorcet’s Jury Theorem works for us. 

Election over (having asked the audience), governments are then responsible for getting the policies and implementation right. Again, this is in accordance with Condorcet’s Jury Theorem. If the general public don’t have the skills to direct these, it is better to leave this to a non-democratic cadre of skilled people who do. As you would expect from the Theorem, the success rate is much lower here (but still as good as we can hope for). 

Democracy in Britain has always been tempered with Condorcettian common sense by this means. In recent years, however, Britain has started to hold referendums. The public is invited to weigh not people but ideas. According to Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, this is only a good idea if individual members of the public can be expected to give the right answer. We can ask the public questions that turn on value judgements. But we should not be asking technocratic referendum questions (and where referendum questions involve technical detail, the public needs to be briefed on that detail). When Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher referred to referendums being devices for demagogues and dictators, they were referring to referendums where strongmen secured spurious mandates for policies by force of personality. They had a point. 

The EU referendum is an edge case, judged by this test.  It raised questions of broad principle (what kind of nation should Britain be? how open to immigrants should Britain be?) and questions of technical detail (what kind of trading and societal relationships are feasibly capable of being secured with Britain’s closest neighbours? how would those interact with Britain’s other trading and societal relationships if changed?). Your view on whether the EU referendum result needs to be respected may well depend on whether you consider the referendum question to have been one about values or technical details. This is a question on which there can be honest disagreement.  That disagreement is part of what has made the aftermath of the referendum so bitter. 

How do we proceed from here? We can at least set out some principles for calling referendums. We might not be able to agree on a policy decision but we should at least be able to agree on the categories of questions on which the public can be expected to be able to set direction. Referendums on Scottish independence are proper subjects for referendums, since they are centred on questions of values. Referendums on voting systems look much more dubious, since they require technical judgements. 

If you believe that it was a bad idea to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, however, you have a different problem: how to unravel this mistake. Unfortunately, it’s easier to make the mistake, if mistake it is, than correct it. If you think that it was wrong to hold a referendum on such a technical matter in the first place, then it is hard to see why holding a fresh referendum would be any better. A different means of resolution would be advisable.   

So that leads onto some fresh questions. Does it matter if democracy is undermined if that produces a better policy result? Or should the country make its choices by majority, even if they are objectively bad choices? I don’t have final answers to those questions. If Brexit is deemed to have gone wrong, however, they are going to be much-discussed. 

Alastair Meeks


How the Labour conference reacted when Sir Keir Starmer said Remain should be an option in any public vote

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

Mike Smithson


The danger for Leavers is if tonight’s developments provide a peg to de-legitimise the Referendum outcome

Saturday, March 24th, 2018

Ever since June 23rd 2016 the main reason for going forward with Brexit is that, based on the referendum result, it is demonstrably the will of the people. There’s a strong argument to say it would be undemocratic not to go forward.

What tonight’s coverage on Channel 4 news and in some of the papers might do is cast doubts on the legitimacy of the vote itself. In the UK we operate strict rules on expenditure on elections and, if it can be shown that the rules were broken then who knows where this might lead?

The referendum outcome was tight and it would have only required a swing of 1.9% for Remain to have been the winner.

Vote Leave is said to have sent a staggering 1.5 billion Facebook messages to 7m voters in the closing stages of the campaign. If that is what the disputed funding helped to generate then these developments could have potency.

Whatever this is just going to widen the gulf in opinion just as things appeared to be settled.

Mike Smithson


ICM finds the biggest backing yet for a referendum on the final deal

Friday, January 26th, 2018

Meanwhile Ipsos-MORI has CON 3% behind

YouGov has 4% remain lead