Not Whether to Vote But How To Vote – That is the Question

Posted on 2 October 2019 by John Curtice

Often ignored and sometimes heavily criticised, the Fixed Terms Parliament Act has finally come into play. It stipulates that a General Election can only be held before the five-year term of a Parliament has concluded if either (i) the government is defeated in a vote of no confidence and no alternative administration can be formed, or (ii) if two-thirds of MPs vote in favour of a dissolution. As a result of the Act, a Prime Minister can longer call a ballot at a time of his or her choosing. Rather, he or she needs the Leader of the Opposition to acquiesce in an early election – and while Jeremy Corbyn did precisely that when Mrs May proposed an election in 2017, this time around he has so far at least refused to do so.

That has led to criticism from the government that the opposition is intent on maintaining a ‘dead’ parliament that is incapable of making a decision about Brexit  – other than to block leaving without a deal – while being reluctant to be held to account by the voters. Holding an election, the government anticipates, would pave the way for the creation of a parliament that would back it in delivering Brexit. The opposition parties, however, are disinclined to allow an election to take place until the Commons has had the opportunity to vote – and potentially block –  whatever deal – or no deal – emerges from the European Council in the middle of October.

However, holding an election is not the only possible way of consulting the public with a view to ending the Brexit impasse. An alternative would be to hold a referendum in which whatever package for leaving the EU is proposed by the government is pitted against the alternative of remaining in the EU. Holding some such ballot is now the preferred stance of all the opposition parties (albeit as a second preference in the case of the Liberal Democrats) and also seems to be backed some by some of those former Conservative MPs who backed the anti-no deal legislation passed at the beginning of September and now find themselves denied the Conservative whip. The government, however, are opposed to holding such a referendum.

So, in truth, the debate about holding a vote on Brexit is not simply about whether or not a ballot should be held. Rather, it is a debate about what form any such ballot should take. It is, perhaps, not surprising that, given it enjoys a substantial lead in polls of election vote intentions, the pro-Brexit Conservative government thinks it could well win an election held under the single-member plurality system. On the other hand, given that on average the polls put Remain ahead of Leave by six points (as well as ahead of leaving without a deal), it is equally unsurprising that the predominantly anti-Brexit opposition parties think the future of Brexit should be decided via a referendum. The two forms of ballot could produce very difficult outcomes.

However, the debate about whether to hold an election or a referendum is not simply one between government and opposition. Which of them should be held first is a source of division within the opposition. Some are happy for an election to be called once the Commons has voted on the outcome of the negotiations between the UK and the EU – and paved the way for an extension of the Article 50 process if necessary. The SNP, well ahead in the polls and mindful of the forthcoming trial of their former leader, Alex Salmond, in the New Year, appear particularly keen for an election to be held as soon as possible and not delayed until after a referendum. In contrast, an early ballot would not seem to be in the interest of those former Conservative MPs who now face the difficult prospect of having to defend their seats as independents.

But where the debate appears to be particularly important is inside the Labour Party. Some, such as the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, have suggested that a Brexit referendum should be held before any election. In contrast, others, including most notably the Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, appear minded to allow an election to be held first.  The former group are perhaps less sanguine than those in the latter camp about Labour’s prospects in an early general election.

This debate about the relative merits of holding a referendum or an election may now be beginning to be reflected in the pattern of public opinion. It has long been the case that most Leave voters, unlike their Remain counterparts, do not want the principle of Brexit to be reopened via a referendum. That stance has been confirmed by polling in the past month. For example, Deltapoll have reported that while 71% of Remain voters back ‘a second referendum on British membership of the European Union’, 75% of Leave voters oppose the idea. Similarly, while 75% of Remain voters told YouGov that they supported a public vote on Brexit, 72% of Leave supporters indicated they were opposed.

That said, polls that have asked voters during the last month whether there should be an early general election have found Remain and Leave voters, and Conservative and Labour supporters, to be largely at one in their level of support for the idea. For example, Survation found that Labour voters (64%) were just as favourable as Conservative voters (61%) to the idea of an early election, while Remain voters (66%) were only a little more supportive than backers of Leave (58%). Still, given that all parties are in favour of an election in principle, this lack of disagreement perhaps is not surprising.

Nevertheless, when the question of when an election should be held is introduced, a division does emerge. According to YouGov, 46% of Leave voters back holding a general election before October 31st, while only 23% favour one afterwards. Conversely, the equivalent figures among Remain supporters are 30% and 64% respectively. A similar pattern is found if we compare the views of Conservative and Labour voters.

However, it is not clear that Remain voters – and Labour supporters – are keen on an election at all. In a first attempt to ascertain whether voters would prefer a referendum or an election, YouGov have reported that voters as a whole were evenly divided between those who would prefer a referendum (32%) and those who would like to see a general election (31%). (In addition, 17% opted for a third option of forming a cross-party government.) However, whereas 53% of Leave voters would prefer a general election, 56% of Remain supporters favour a referendum. Similarly, while 66% of Conservative supporters prefer an election, 53% of Labour voters are keener on a referendum. In short, voters appear inclined to prefer whichever ballot the polls suggest would be more likely to produce a favourable outcome from their point of view.

The aim of Brexit is meant to be to implement the will of the people. Trouble is, there is seemingly little agreement about how their will should now be ascertained.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

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