Most politicians – with the exceptions of the Lib Dems – have said that parliament should accept the results of the EU Referendum as the democratic will of the people.
This may be true for political or pragmatic reasons. Ethically, however, it’s far from obvious. If someone tells you Brexit is a moral necessity just because a vote has taken place, they are wrong. Obeying the vote requires a value judgement about the status of that vote, and the issue much more complex than simply asserting that a vote has taken place.
If we were to go around disputing the status of every vote, democracy would be impossible. Here I will present the case that the Brexit vote is uniquely precarious: direct democracy about an irreversible and highly important decision carried out in the context of asymmetric information. Specifically, polling data suggests many leave voters are expecting an outcome that not even the leave campaign itself think is possible.
There are good reasons to be wary of attempts to understand what voters ‘really’ wanted – analysis becomes a vessel for your own opinions. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that voters’ opinions can be shaped by the information they are receiving.
For these reasons, refusing to leave the EU would be an absolutely legitimate position for parliament.
In the national debate it seems to go almost unquestioned that simply going through a voting procedure automatically conveys unassailable democratic force to a decision. Not true: Russia, Zimbabwe, North Korea all have voting procedures, yet most people agree that they unsatisfactory in various ways. I’m not comparing the UK to those countries, but making the philosophical point that you stand in a booth and fill out a form and still not be ‘doing democracy’.
For a vote to carry democratic force – for it to convey the ‘will of the people’ – most people think you have to do more than just count pieces of marked paper. I complained about two criteria that I felt were lacking in the EU referendum before the vote took place – that the electorate be representative, and that voters should be well informed.
The electorate were not well informed, in fact they were actively misled about what leaving the EU would mean. This is the case in every election, here I will make the argument that the misinformation was both asymmetric and effective in changing voters’ views.
I’m also not claiming leave voters are stupid, or that they do whatever Rupert Murdoch says. I am not claiming that everyone who voted leave was misled. I am not claiming that voters would have voted remain with better access to information.
I am claiming that we do not know how voters would have behaved with better access to information, and that information in the EU referendum was unusually low quality.
This is a difficult empirical point to prove. We cannot observe how voters would have behaved in other circumstances. What we can do is build an empirical case that voters held beliefs that can reasonably be expected to influence voting behaviour, and that those beliefs are a result of systemic misinformation.
We can see from YouGov’s polls that many people believed that leaving the EU would make no difference to, or improve, the economy. In the last poll, which closed in the 19th June, 46% of respondents thought there would be no economic impact, while 9% thought they’d be better off. These views, unsurprisingly, correlate with the intention to vote leave. 18% of those intending to vote leave thought leaving would improve the economy, and 66% thought it would make no difference.
This is at stark variance with predictions. The Leave campaign’s economist Andrew Lilico own forecasts suggest that there would be a short term economic hit, but predicted that by 2030 the economy would have returned to normal. This prediction is more optimistic than almost any other, either from a private company, the Treasury or international organisations such as the OECD. If voters were aware that the most optimistic case was a short term recession, followed by a possible return to normal growth in 15 years time, rather than believing there would be no difference or an improvement, how would they have voted? We do not know.
This in turn bears on Leave’s promise to have extra money to spend on the NHS. A post-Brexit government can choose to spend more money on the NHS, they will not be doing so using ‘spare money’ created by Brexit – certainly not until 2030.
We are in the position of living in a future where Brexit now seems imminent, and the prediction of a short term slow down appear to be coming true, with Mark Carney confirming these effects both verbally and by providing £250Bn of tax payers money to support the economy.
In the same poll, 54% of respondents believed that Brexit would reduce immigration. Again, this correlates with intention to leave, with fully 85% of leave voters believing immigration would decrease. And again, this is at odds with the predictions of all sides. Leave’s economic model relies on immigration remaining roughly the same (Andrew Lilico again), and Leave campaigner Dan Hannan notably confirmed that immigration will remain broadly similar after Brexit. How would voters have behaved if they knew this? Again, we do not know.
I’m not claiming access to an objective reality about what will happen in the case of Brexit, instead I’m asserting that leave voters did not understand the position of the Leave campaign itself. Given that the Leave campaign is likely to have been over optimistic about what it can deliver, the reality of Brexit is likely to be even less satisfactory to leave voters.
We know that a typical leave voter thought that the economy would remain the same or improve while immigration would be reduced. But we do not know if these were factors that caused them to vote leave, or merely incidental. However, if we look at polls of issues that matter to voters, we see that immigration, the NHS, the EU and the economy are the top four issues. The average leave voter held unrealistic expectations about all of these, so it is reasonable to assume that some voters choose leave on the basis of these issues.
Where does these bad information come from? How can voters have come to believe a case for Brexit even more optimistic than the Leave campaign itself? We do see that newspaper coverage, which is traditionally on the right in the UK, is was strongly skewed to Brexit. Weighted for number for readers, newspaper articles about about 80% in favour of leave, even while the country as a whole is almost perfectly split. Meanwhile, the broadcast media are scrupulously balanced.
Article 50 has not yet been sent. The electorate now has a genuine opportunity to understand Brexit’s implications for the economy and immigration. If opinion polls show a significant shift in the light of this new information, that shift should be allowed to influence MP’s views; they should not feel bound by the referendum. The referendum did not convey an unassailable mandate based on the will of the people.
Edit: Reading Vernon Bogdanor I find my self slightly convinced by an idea similar to rule utilitarianism. Perhaps you can’t worry actual democracy in every vote, instead you have to set up the institution of voting and honour it regardless of the nuances of each referendum or election. Perhaps the damage to public trust is not worth the improvement in decision making.Google+