How referendums can add to the democratic process

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.



So the Deal’s going down. Then what?

November 17th, 2018



May’s numbers don’t add up for now. Is the threat of No Deal enough to change minds?

You have to salute her indefatigability. Despite the Prime Minister being just about the only MP prepared to champion the government’s Brexit Deal, despite the loss of another two cabinet ministers, plus various other more junior ones, despite the letters of No Confidence openly going in to the Chairman of the 1922, despite the three hours of parliamentary pummelling she took – mostly from her own side – when reporting the Deal the House, Theresa May soldiers on.

That she does so is down to the fact that while no-one likes what she’s putting forward, she at least does have a plan that doesn’t involve flying unicorns. Rees-Mogg made a serious tactical error when he openly announced his letter being sent, and then failed to trigger the No Confidence motion. His credibility as the voice of the Eurosceptic right – and the threat they pose to the PM – have to be diminished now it’s highly likely that his colleagues have failed to follow his action.

(It is just possible that the 48 letters have gone in and the Graham Brady is waiting for an opportune moment to make the announcement. There’s no obligation for him to announce that the threshold has been met the moment the 48th letter goes in, though the spirit of the rules suggest he should. Some commentators have suggested that he would give May advance notice of the No Confidence vote, were one triggered, and reports this week that he’s already met with her and with the Chief Whip don’t entirely go against him doing so now. However, were she to know that such a vote was imminent, I don’t think the PM would be flat-batting the bowling).

However, while the PM might survive for now, her Deal will not; not in its current shape anyway. Labour is going to vote against, as will the smaller parties, including – thanks to the two-tier backstop – the DUP. That alone would leave the PM in perilous danger, relying on Labour rebels, of whom there are just a handful. Those votes will be far outweighed though by the Tory rebels opposed to the deal, of which there could easily be fifty or more.

The net result is that the government is likely to lose the vote by a hundred or more.

One tactical problem the whips have is that the numbers are so heavily against them that it will be very hard to play to the sense of MPs’ loyalty. If the votes of a few could mean the difference between success and failure then there would be immense pressure on the waverers but that isn’t the case. Those opposed can vote it down with safety in numbers, knowing that theirs wasn’t the crucial vote.

So far, so bad. There are, of course, a small number of MPs and members of the public who actually want for Britain to leave the EU under a No Deal outcome. Some of these genuinely have a fair idea of just how hard the hit to the economy and essential services could be; most almost certainly don’t. The rest of the MPs voting against the Deal, and the members of the public backing that position, are doing so because they think that out of the political chaos that would result, some means to a different outcome would be found – perhaps with the side-dish of a general election, a change of government, a change of PM or whatever else the person in question is apt to desire.

How realistic is that? Perhaps the best way to think about it is to look at each of the options in turn.

A change of PM

In some ways, it’s surprising this hasn’t already happened. As Rees Mogg finally noticed, the policy is a function of the person. As long as May remains in place a deal something like Chequers will be on the table – hence, if you want to replace the policy, you have to replace the person. There are at least four big downsides to that logic though. Firstly, it only really counts if you are really not keen on both the deal and No Deal, both of which are currently on the table and therefore don’t require a change of PM; secondly, even if you can get someone else who will aim for a different policy, it has to be deliverable and it’s pretty clear that the EU is unlikely to budge much; thirdly, elections are inherently unpredictable and there’s no guarantee that you will get the sort of leader you want; and fourthly, the public is unlikely to look kindly on a Tory Party which decides that the best use of half the time left before 29 March 2019 is to engage in an outright civil war.

As on so many occasions so far, May is likely to survive for now because the alternatives are worse.

A change of Deal

The downside to Chequers Plus is that no-one likes it; the upside is that it probably remains less intolerable to more players than any other likely possibility. If it’s voted down, can the government (led by whoever), go back and get something different? Two huge hurdles make that very hard: time and negotiating space. The EU are understandably keen not to give any hint that there are more concessions on the table and that the Deal took them as far as they could go, and that’s probably true. It’s highly unlikely that there could be any looser transitional deal available, so the Brexiteers, it’s this or nothing. For Labour though, or others who want a closer relationship, that might be possible. The EU won’t want to reopen talks but nor will they want Britain to crash out. Of the two, they traditionally prefer putting a crisis off, where possible. In reality, that would need a Labour government though. What I wouldn’t like to guess on is whether there might be a deal where the UK trades a closer relationship for now – putting Britain on the same level of alignment as N Ireland, for example – for either a definite expiry date or a unilateral withdrawal clause. Something like that might satisfy the Tory and DUP MPs.

A genuinely different deal is probably undeliverable while the parliamentary maths remain as they are, though some amendments might be possible.

A change of government

This is Labour’s stated – and probably actual – goal. The problem with it is that it requires either the government to deliberately commit hari kari (as opposed to doing so accidentally), or for Tory MPs to defect, or for the DUP to vote against the government on a confidence vote.

The first two outcomes are highly unlikely. The government is not going to want to call an election when it is so split and when its core policy is so lacking in popularity. To choose to do that would be to invite an even worse election campaign than last time. Nor are defections likely. Rebellions, yes; defections, no. There is still more than enough – not least Corbyn – binding the Tories together.

By contrast, the risk of the DUP voting the Tories out is not inconceivable, though it too is unlikely. In reality, it’s only probable if May’s deal – with the two-tier backstop – goes through. Otherwise, an outcome that preserves N Ireland’s relationship with the EU on the same basis as Britain will satisfy the DUP, even if that’s No Deal. The reality is that the parliamentary maths give the DUP enormous leverage and it’s far more beneficial for them to retain the balance of power than to hand Downing Street to Corbyn – but that doesn’t mean voting against the Tories on key policies.

The Deal v1.0.1

Could May simply bring back the same deal a second time, with only tiny tweaks? Possibly, yes. As time ticks on, renewed negotiations go nowhere and the pressure of time becomes ever more acute, Labour might start to wobble, as might some Tory MPs who’ve currently wavered to opposing it. Come January, or even February, will Labour continue to try to force an election even if all previous efforts have failed, there’s no obvious mechanism and there’s no time left? Perhaps that would be the point where May and the Tory whips could put together 320 votes, banking on a lot of Labour ones. Doing so would seriously risk a split in the Tory Party though.

A second referendum

This is the most popular of a whole herd of unicorns. A second referendum offers no attraction to the government, which would have to advocate the Deal, and which would have no enthusiasm or support in doing so. Leave aside that it could only be delivered now with an A50 extension, which is a questionable proposition – there is no-one to put the legislation forward. Parliament cannot simply force an Act on the government that the government doesn’t want, all the more so if its passage is only a matter of weeks. And even if it could, polling probably means that whatever won would have no stronger mandate than what we have now.


This is a period of extreme volatility and unusually, the rule that Things Usually Don’t Happen doesn’t apply. Something will happen, if only because Brexit is currently hard-wired into the timetable and simply amending that is Something Significant Happening.

However, I don’t think things will simply tick on like that. It is entirely possible that May could be deposed before March next year, in which case the Tories choose a Hard Brexiteer and the UK leaves without a deal – though that will hardly be the end of the affair.

More likely is that May struggles on, loses the vote, goes back to Brussels and tries to get change. Brussels, needing a deal to be signed off in order to protect the Irish, might offer quid pro quo amendments, which could be enough for the Commons to vote it through at a second time of asking. That’s now the best-case scenario.

David Herdson


At one point this morning punters made it a 55% chance that TMay would be out this year

November 16th, 2018

That’s now dropped sharply

When you get dramatic political days like today it is interesting for gamblers to look back and see how betting prices have moved as events have unfolded.  The chart above shows the last 24 hours on the “which year will Mrs May leave” betting market on Betfair. The odds are shown as percentages.

As can be seen this morning from about 0900 the money started piling on Mrs May going before the end of the year with the market reaching a peak of just over 55%. It is dropped down a fair bit and currently as I write an exit this year is rated as a 36% chance.

As I reported on a thread header earlier I’m backing Mrs My to survive 2018 though I expect the odds to move quite sharply should the required 48 signatures for a confidence vote before coming.

My guess is that if there is a ballot then Theresa May will survive simply because her ousting would trigger an immediate leadership contest with all the uncertainties that that entails.

What has not happened is a unifying figure in emerging with in the party.  When the Conservatives leader confidence procedure was used in 2003 against Iain Duncan Smith there was broad consensus within the party that Michael Howard should be a successor.

We simply don’t have a similar situation at the moment and that is probably Theresa May’s greatest defence. I have to say that I think she has performed against adversity remarkably well in the circumstances and at least her voice is holding up.

Mike Smithson


Mad Tory Friday part 2…..

November 16th, 2018


Moggsy’s TM confidence vote gamble could rebound into a confidence vote on himself

November 16th, 2018

He’ll look weak if not enough fellow CON MPs follow

Yesterday the old Etonian father of six, Jacob Rees-Mogg, took a massive gamble when he had an impromptu press conference outside the palace of Westminster in which he declared his lack of confidence in the state-school educated Mrs May. He announced that he had sent a letter calling for a confidence vote and it looked as though the other 47 letters needed were either there or would be arriving quickly.

He built up the expectation that others would follow and that maybe we could have had an announcement from Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee, last night that a confidence vote had been triggered.

Well now that hasn’t happened and each hour that goes on without news from Mr Brady will increase suggestions that this attempt to get rid of the prime minister is struggling.

    The most important thing when you’re mounting a coup is to get a body quickly and that does not seem to have happened. Could it be that Moggsy has overstated his position?

If this proves to be the case, and the next day or so will reveal that, he will have actually strengthened the position of Theresa May who has been trying to steer a very difficult course on the EU exit over the last few months.

Currently on Betfair 2018 as TMay’s exit year is rated as a 43% chance. I’m laying that which means I win if she is still in post on New Year’s day 2019.

Mike Smithson


A massive Westminster day ends with TMay still in place

November 15th, 2018

The “bloody difficult woman” will be difficult to shift

Although I disagree with her on so many things you can but admire the way she is holding on and battling forward in spite of all the obstacles and setbacks. This was always going to be a very difficult period for the Prime Minister who took over shortly after the referendum in July 2016 never more so than today.

Throughout she has made as her objective ensuring that the referendum outcome is delivered while at the same time seeking to safeguard the economy. We have seen over the years how Conservative Party can be hideously difficult for a leader to navigate when it comes to things relating to the EU as has been illustrated so much today. This was never going to be easy.

Dominic Raab the Brexit secretary who has quit had a lot of coverage during the day and it is probably the first time many have had a good look at him. I’m less than impressed. He’s a lightweight especially when it comes to comparisons with the Prime Minister. He would have done his position much more good if the resignation has come after last night’s cabinet meeting and not today.

I thought Moggsy’s announcement that he had sent a letter in to the 1922 committee chair would be the trigger for the other 47 letters that would start a leadership process. So far that hasn’t happened and suggests a lack of organisation if indeed there is an ousting plot in place.

Whatever this is all a welcome break from Mr. Trump.

Mike Smithson


If TMay survives a confidence vote she’d be immune from another challenge for a year

November 15th, 2018

After an extraordinary 24hrs at Westminster in which a total, as I write, of six ministers having resigned all the talk now is that Theresa May could soon be facing a confidence vote.

For this to happen it requires 48 different CON MPs to write to the chairman of the 1922 committee, Graham Brady, asking for such a move to take place.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has announced that he has sent a letter in and has indicated that he might support Priti Patel or Penny Mordaunt. Moggsy made clear though there was now nothing that the Prime Minister could do to change his mind that she wasn’t right for the job.

So we could be heading for a leadership contest but the first requirement is that a majority of Tory MPs participating in the ballot actually vote that they have no confidence in Mrs May.

    That is far from certain. There is a big difference between getting the 48 letters in to trigger the ballot and securing the support of perhaps 155 MPs in order to ensure that the motion succeeds.

It would, however, clear the air.

The big Gamble the letter signers would be taking is that if Mrs May did survive that confidence vote then she would be guaranteed a full year before another challenge could be made. In the ensuing period, of course, Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29th.

My guess is that the PM would probably survive the VONC but it is nothing like as certain as it might have been a week or so ago.

If she was forced out Mrs. May would arguably be the fourth consecutive CON PM to have been brought down by the EU issue.

Mike Smithson


Raab’s resignation sparks off huge movements on the TMay exit, next GE date & next CON leader betting markets

November 15th, 2018

Punters expect TMay to go this year

Raab becomes the new CON leader favourite

And 2019 the year for the next general eletion

The prices are based on the Betfair exchange and the charts are from Betdata.io.

Mike Smithson