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My 350 on BREXIT: The will of the people

“All the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum.”

The 2011 referendum  -  AV v FPTP?  -  a choice of Cameron’s 1st preference or his 2nd, did not identify “the will of the people.”  We all know that many people like PR, either the (Danish, say, or Swiss) PR-list, or the (Irish) PR-STV or maybe the (German) mixture, half PR-list and half FPTP.  In contrast, when New Zealand had a referendum on their electoral system, they had five-options, so (nearly) everyone could vote for what they actually wanted.

The winner of the 2014 referendum in Scotland was devo-max.  But it wasn’t even on the ballot paper!  No-one voted for it.  They couldn’t.  The choice was only status quo or independence.  The outcome, therefore, involved a highly inflated level of support for one or both of these options.

The EU referendum was also hopelessly inaccurate.  If people vote positively  -  I want ‘this’ or ‘that’ or ‘the other’  -  we can work out which is most popular.  But when some people vote negatively  -  Greek Cypriots say no, Gibraltar says no, Ulster says NO!  -  it is impossible to say what in fact is the vox populi.

Back to the EU.  OK, 48% want to remain, 52% do not.  But nobody knows for sure what the 52% actually want.  The referendum ballot should have asked at least three positive questions: d’you want the UK in the EU, in the EEA, or independent?

So, as in New Zealand, set up an independent commission.  It draws up a (short) list of options.  (Almost) everyone can then vote positively, and the result is a much clearer representation of “the will of the people.”

The (simple or weighted) majority vote is the most inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented.  Furthermore, its adversarial nature is often the catalyst of division if not bitterness and violence.  Indeed, “all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum,” (Oslobodjenje, 7.2.99).  It really is time democratic structures evolved into a post-majoritarian mode.

In the aftermath of the historic British vote to leave the EU, openDemocracy is asking for our readers' thoughts on Brexit and what needs to happen next in 350 words. We've had an extraordinary response and you can read them all here.

About the author

Peter Emerson, the child of an English Catholic mother and Irish Protestant father, is the director of the de Borda Institute, a Belfast-based NGO which specialises in voting systems for decision-making.  He has worked in several other conflict zones as well, in the Balkans, the Caucasus and East Africa.  His latest book is From Majority Rule to Inclusive Politics, (Springer, 2016).

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