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The Glorious Referendum on the EU – Why it doesn’t represent the will of the people

With millions from Remain voting demographics excluded from the vote, and the result narrow, there's no reason for the government to see the Brexit result as final.

Vote Leave's notorious £350 million lie.

Both the main political parties in the UK seem to have accepted the result of the BREXIT referendum held in June and repeat continuously that ‘the will of the people’ must be observed. This despite the fact that the UK was more or less split down the middle – of those voting 51.9% were in favour of leaving and 48.1% wanted to remain in the EU. The majority was 1,269,501 votes. While the turnout was high by the standard of recent general elections it was still only 72.2% of those registered to vote (the electorate was 46,500,000). So more than a quarter of those on the electoral register did not vote – some 13 million people.

It needs also to be recalled that the Electoral Commission estimates that some 2 million people have disappeared from the register and that those not now included are mainly ethnic minorities and the poor. Changes in registration processes for students introduced by the Cameron government must have reduced the numbers on the register and thus affected the remain vote (in the age group 18-24 the remain % was 64). One of the other factors reducing numbers on the register has been the growth of those on short term tenancies where constant changes in residence have affected the propensity to register. Evidence suggests that this group (of renters aged 25-39) were also heavily in favour of remain (some 65%). Furthermore the Bill establishing the referendum deliberately excluded some 2 million British citizens resident overseas – most of whom would almost certainly have voted to remain. The Bill also excluded those aged 16/17 who numbered 1.6million – those who would be most affected in the long term by BREXIT.

As a result of constitutional changes introduced by Blair the UK now has various devolved governments. It is worth reporting the differences in voting patterns so as to have a different perspective on what the ‘will of the people’ means. England voted to leave (53.2% to 46.8%) as also did Wales (51.7% to 48.3%), while Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain (62% to 38%) as also did Northern Ireland (55.7% to 44.3%). Both the Scottish and Northern Ireland governments have made it clear that they want to remain in the EU and the Scots have indicated that they will call a second referendum on independence from the UK if necessary. Any hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would also fall foul of the security arrangements between the 2 countries negotiated under the Good Friday Agreement and a so called hard BREXIT will be deeply resisted.

It is also worth reviewing some disaggregated data to understand the scale of the differences between the remain and leave camps. Thus London voted strongly to remain with 59.9% against 40.1% and within the city there were large majorities in many of the boroughs [Lambeth at 78.6%, Hackney at 78.5% and Harringey at 75.6%]. At the same time there were significant votes for the leave campaign – mainly in more rural and Eastern parts of the UK [Boston with 75.6% and Great Yarmouth with 71.5%].

What the data suggests is that the UK is deeply divided and it seems a huge simplification to think that the overall small majority to leave in any real sense represents the so-called will of the people. Indeed the data confirms how divided the country is with those voting to leave being less educated, on lower incomes and coming from towns and regions that have gained least from the neo-liberal economic and social policies of recent governments. An interesting study of the referendum by the Rowntree Trust (BREXIT vote explained; poverty, low skills and lack of opportunities, August 2016) concluded as follows:

After controlling for other factors support for leaving the EU was consistently higher, and significantly so, among those people with only a GCSE-level of education, or below. These differences by educational attainment were far more striking than differences by income level. …where people live also played a significant role. The left behind groups, those who were the most likely to support Brexit, face a ‘double whammy’. While they are being marginalised because of their lack of skills and educational qualifications this disadvantage is then being entrenched by a lack of opportunities within their local areas to get ahead and overcome their own disadvantage. 

The Rowntree Trust also found that those voting to leave were overwhelmingly characterised by illiberal attitudes on social, gender ,law and order issues and immigration. Thus they concluded that:

Part of the reason why education and age matters is because of the distinctive world views of people with high and low education; and old and young people. People with high levels of education and young people tend to be more socially liberal and more open to immigration than people with lower levels of education and older people. Similarly, part of the reason why there are such sharp differences in support for leave across different areas of the country are to do with the distinctive values of people who live in low- and high-skilled areas.”

The evidence relating to regional disparities in income and wealth is clear with significant and growing inequality between London and the South East and the rest of the country. For most people outside London and the South East real incomes are still below their 2008 level so that the regional gap in wages and wealth has significantly widened over the past decade. It is unsurprising that worsening living standards in conjunction with poor educational and skill levels should have led many voters to deliver a rebuke to political elites by choosing the Leave option.

The referendum campaign was characterized by biases and downright lies on the part of those supporting leave. Such that the Electoral Commission concluded in September that 37% of voters did not think that the referendum was covered in a ‘fair and balanced way in the media and broadcasting’. This is a polite way of saying that voters were misinformed about the EU and more particularly about what were the options that might be available if the UK was to leave, and what would be their impact on the economy and on society. The effects on the economy are likely to be severe and rates of inflation have already risen as a result of the sharp decline in the sterling exchange rate caused by the referendum. With the uncertainty created by the referendum the economic situation will inevitably worsen with higher rates of inflation and with a deepening constitutional crisis.

 It is evident also that what had been broadly harmonious relations between immigrants and the host population have been worsened in large part as a result of claims made by the leading proponents of Brexit. Statements were made by proponents of Brexit which had no foundation in fact and were straightforward lies and were subsequently dumped immediately after the vote. Such as the claim that £350 million would be available every week for the NHS after Brexit – a claim that was shown to be false by the ONS during the campaign but was nevertheless repeated over and over again. It is unsurprising that many of the claims made by proponents of Brexit should have had traction with many voters given their relatively poor education and the years of anti EU propaganda put out by the main print media. Polls have subsequently reported that many of those who voted for Brexit have now regretted having done so.

What is one to make of the foregoing?

That the referendum was held at all is a reflection of a schism within the Tory party which was persistent and unresolved ever since the UK joined the EU in 1973. A schism that involved a small and vocal minority of the Tory party supported by the print media and especially the Mail and Sun newspapers. Within the parliamentary party a significant majority continue to be in favour of remaining in the EU.

That the claim by the present government that they have no option but to implement the will of the people and exit the EU has little or no foundation given the degree to which in the aggregate the vote failed to mirror the preferences of the electorate 13 million of whom did not bother to vote and those made ineligible by the Bill establishing the referendum..

That from polls conducted subsequent to the referendum it is clear that most people had no idea what they were voting for and only a vague idea of what they were voting against. What many of the leave votes expressed were general opposition to the government of Cameron and Osborne, who were characterized by Nadine Dorries (Tory MP) as ‘posh boys who don’t know the price of a pint of milk’.

That experience of recent immigration seems to have been a factor in leading many voters to select the leave option. In part this must have reflected the decision by the Cameron government to remove the special funding set up by Gordon Brown that was intended to provide additional resources to finance extra services in areas of high immigration. As a consequence communities were left to deal as best they could with pressure on schools, housing and health services and many vented their feelings by voting against the EU despite the fact that it was in no way responsible. Pressure on services derived from the austerity programme imposed by the Chancellor George Osborne.

That it was fully understood by government when it passed the legislation for a referendum that it was advisory and did not commit the nation to any specific policies by way of implementation.

That it follows that any decisions relating to implementing the referendum reside with parliament which is sovereign and not with government. As has been determined by the High Court in a recent decision.

That there is certainly nothing to prevent a second referendum once the terms of any Brexit strategy have been determined by government and after a parliamentary process to determine next steps. Indeed this would be an appropriate time to really measure the will of the people.

That any subsequent referendum should ensure that the electorate is appropriately defined by any legislation so as to be as inclusive as possible. It should also determine the processes whereby information is disseminated to the electorate. These changes are essential for avoiding the clear deficiencies of the Bill establishing the recent referendum, and to ensure that the electorate is provided with the information needed for an informed decision.

I have used the adjective ‘glorious’ to describe the June referendum in the same ironic way it is used in relation to the revolution of 1688 or racing at Goodwood. Perhaps if there is another referendum on the EU and one where the electorate is broad based and well informed then perhaps the term will be justified. It is clear that the June referendum excluded too many persons who should have been able to vote; far too many voters did not understand the issues and were often misled by politicians and others, and millions could not even be bothered to vote despite the fact that leaving the EU threatened their livelihoods and that of their children.

If the UK is to make decisions based on referenda then the least the government should do is to ensure that these as far as possible do represent the ‘will of the people’..Not least by requiring a super majority (such as 75% of those voting) as a basic condition of referenda relating to major issues such as our relationship with Europe. A precedent for a super majority is the requirement of a 75% majority of MPs to vote for a general election before the 5 year fixed-term ends introduced by the coalition government.

About the author

Desmond Cohen was previously an Economic Advisor to HM Treasury, and subsequently Reader in economics and Dean of the School of Social Sciences at University of Sussex. Many Visiting Professorships in Economics at overseas universities including Berkeley, ANU  and Vassar. His most recent posts include Director of the HIV/AIDS and Development Pgm of UNDP, and advisor to the Drug Policy Reform Programme of the Soros Foundation.

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