Sunday, June 26, 2016

A simple majority is not right for major constitutional decisions

The ePetition to call for a 2nd Referendum on the grounds that a simple majority is not appropriate is now past 3 million. That is twice the margin that separated Leave and Remain in the referendum on June 23rd. Parliament is obliged to consider debating the matter.

The petition reads:

"We the undersigned call upon HM Government to implement a rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based a turnout less than 75% there should be another referendum".

I would urge people to keep signing the petition, not necessarily in the hope of getting a second referendum but to keep pressing the point that a simple majority (i.e. 51/49 = a result) is a flawed way of making a constitutional change. Organisations usually call for a supermajority (60/40, 66/33, or 70/30) to  make important decisions about their constitution.

Of course, we in the UK do not have a written constitution, but that is another matter.

It is clearly wrong when pundits are saying "The British people have made their choice". This result is anything but decisive. It is interesting that Nigel Farage in May said : In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it.”

So if Farage had lost, he would be pressing hard for a second referendum. His followers now are just saying that anyone asking for a 2nd referendum are just "bad losers".

Name-calling aside, Parliament needs to lay down rules for future referendums. In particular, if they concern matters with grave importance, there should be a supermajority requirement.

This is not an unusual requirement. In the case of public sector strikes, the Government demands that a minimum of 40% of the eligible electorate must vote for the strike. The Leave vote was just 37% of the eligible electorate. Sure, a strike is not a referendum. On the other hand, a referendum has far more serious implications than a strike, so the bar should be set higher.

Another analogy is jury decisions. A jury is expected by default to  arrive at a 100% consensus in serious cases. The vote may be lowered to 10/12 (87%) if they cannot agree 100%. 

It is very clear that a simple majority where the differential can be as low as 49/51 is inappropriate for this referendum. Whether or not Parliament decides to call a second referendum depends on many factors, we should at least press MPs to design a better system for future referenda.

Update : It's not just me. Here's Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University saying the same.

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