Stephen Kinnock: I want to go back to this issue of legitimacy and link it to what question could be on the ballot paper in a possible further referendum. In the recent European Parliament elections, the Brexit Party won convincingly on the basis of an explicit commitment to a no-deal Brexit. It is clear from other polling that you have mentioned that support for a no-deal Brexit across the electorate is quite strong and is running quite high. Do you think that a second referendum that did not offer a no-deal option would be a legitimate democratic process?
Professor Russell: I am not sure I want to tackle your question head on but I will allow the other panellists to get their heads together. This is something that we considered in our report on the mechanics of a second referendum. This is simple. We concluded that there were three options that might be put to the people in a referendum: remain, a deal and no deal. We then looked at, first, how viable it was to present those options and, secondly, how they might be combined pairwise or in threes. We expressed some concerns that the difficulty with leaving no deal off the ballot paper was that some people would say that this legitimate option had been left out. That is an argument on one side.
I think there are arguments on the other side as well. Thinking about this today, those arguments are quite strong. MPs are thinking about this question; you are obviously thinking about the question of no deal a great deal at the moment. If you move on to thinking about a referendum, it is a really serious question for you to consider whether no deal should be on the ballot paper at a referendum. There are three things to consider in thinking about that alongside the legitimacy question, which rather bears on the other side.
One is the question of clarity. I go back to the point I made earlier, about the very firm recommendation from the Independent Commission on Referendums and the comment from David Davis about not asking people to vote for a blank piece of paper and leaving the politicians to fill in the details afterwards, which has been shown to be somewhat wise after the event of the 2016 referendum, given the difficulties we have had. What no deal would mean on the other side of that event having happened, if you see no deal as an event, is very unclear. Most people agree that we do not really know what kind of negotiating environment we would be in and how those negotiations would go, et cetera. You have a clarity problem in explaining what the outcome actually means in the long term for the public.
There is clearly a difficulty that many MPs, partly for those reasons, have a lot of concern about a no-deal outcome. There is a question for MPs. If parliamentarians—of course, this includes the Lords as well—put an option on a ballot paper, it has to be an option that they think is a viable one to deliver on and that they are comfortable with, because anything that you put on a ballot paper might be voted for, of course.
The third consideration, which is a rather more techy one, which we might go into in future questions, is what it does to the question structure. Of course there is one two-option ballot that you could have, which is remain versus no deal. If a deal has disappeared completely from the landscape, I suppose that has to be considered viable. If there is a deal in play and you are looking at putting together a three-option referendum between remain, a deal and no deal, it does begin to get quite complicated. We might want to move on to that. I know it was mentioned briefly in the session with the Electoral Commission yesterday. There are various reasons why that is complicated and would be more contentious in Parliament, take longer to organise and be more difficult for the public as well.
Professor Curtice: As Meg has quite eloquently indicated, arguably there are potentially two separate questions here. One is whether we should have a three-option or multi-option referendum; the other is whether no deal should be on the ballot paper. If the new UK Government were to come to the conclusion that there was no deal that it could negotiate with the European Union, the obvious referendum to have would indeed be between no deal and remain, because those would apparently be the only policy options that were available before us. If, on the other hand, we do have a negotiated revision of the deal, then the question becomes whether we go for a multi-option referendum.
I fear the answer to you, Mr Kinnock, is that you will be damned if you do and damned if you do not. If you do, the leave side will complain you are splitting their resources because you are going to have two leave campaigns that are arguing against each other whereas all the resources on the remain side are behind one campaign. If you do not, some leave voters who dislike the deal—unless the Government can come up with a deal that is more popular with leave voters than the current one—will complain and simply say that we should just get out. I fear that there is no simple answer.
For what it is worth, in terms of such polling has been done on this, unsurprisingly, the idea of a referendum on a deal versus no deal is a bit less popular than the idea of a referendum on a deal versus remain. That, of course, is because, for remain voters, a referendum on a deal versus no deal is no choice at all.
Stephen Kinnock: What about the implications for turnout? I guess it is legitimate to assume that a further referendum that had a substantially lower turnout than the 2016 referendum would be substantially less legitimate than the 2016 referendum. I would be interested in your thoughts on the relationship between turnout and legitimacy in relative terms. It is probably also safe to assume that if no deal is not on the ballot paper, politicians such as Nigel Farage would lead a campaign to boycott a further referendum. There is a high chance that if no deal is not on the ballot paper, turnout could drop quite dramatically. I would be interested in your thoughts on that, in terms of the legitimacy question.
Professor Curtice: There is no doubt that when you look at polling on what people say they would do if they were faced with a choice between remain and the current Prime Minister’s deal, you get a disproportionate expression of “Don’t know” or ”I would not vote” amongst those people who are leave voters. Yes, there is a risk that, because the option is not on the ballot paper, they decide not to participate. You would just have to decide what you think would happen and whether or not you think, in the end, that is what they would do or whether, at the end of the day, given the chance to at least vote to leave, that impetus becomes more important. It is a tough call.
Equally, if you go for the three-option referendum, you would probably discover that no single option gets more than 50% of the vote and you are relying on second preferences. You would then get in an almighty argument about whether or not this is legitimate.
Again, I am sorry to pour cold water on a lot of these ideas, but I am reminded of the fact that we had a referendum in 1975; by 1983, we had an opposition party that was campaigning to get out of the European Union without a referendum. In terms of the extent to which even the referendum in 1975, which came up with a two-thirds majority, actually managed to resolve the issue, I am not sure it did. That is why we are still sitting here arguing about it 50 years down the track.
Stephen Kinnock: I have one final question. Professor Russell made some very interesting points there about clarity and the lack of clarity around what no deal actually means. Of course, there is actually a real lack of clarity about what a deal is as well, because all you would have is the withdrawal agreement and the outline of a political declaration on the future relationship, which is very far from being finalised and very unclear. It would be another leap in the dark; it would be perhaps a little less dark than 2016, but definitely the lights are on dimmer switch, turned down pretty low.
Professor Russell: If you look at the three options, it is pretty clear. You can get into discussions about remain and reform, of course, but if you look at the three options, remain is relatively clear, with the deal there are some concerns about clarity, and no deal is the least clear of the options.
Professor Curtice: There is no doubt to me that Alan’s ideal scenario is that we would hold a referendum when not only had we negotiated the withdrawal treaty but we had also negotiated the trade relationship. The problem is, of course, that the sequencing rules of the European Union do not give us that option. Again, politics trumps the ability of us to deliver what we might otherwise regard as the ideal outcome.
Stephen Kinnock: If we are looking at that legitimacy question through the prism of clarity, the only referendum that really has clarity about what leave means is a referendum at the end of negotiating the long-term future relationship. That is actually a referendum on re-joining the European Union.
Professor Curtice: Exactly. That is the problem. That is not the referendum that anybody wants. We want to be able to have a referendum before, because at that point we will not be able to execute remain because we will be reapplying. That is the problem. The politics and the structure of the negotiations make it impossible for us to deliver what we might manage to agree would be the ideal process so far as British domestic politics are concerned.