Misplaced loyalty to the flawed Brexit referendum question

Before the UK Brexit referendum of June 23 2016 I warned that referenda can be silly and dangerous, see here in April 2016. I clarified that the Brexit referendum question was flawed in design. I did not look deeper into this, since, like so many others, I had been put on the wrong foot by the 2016 poll average that suggested a continuation of the status quo. After the surprise outcome, I advised the youngsters in the UK to focus attention on this design flaw, as this is the clearest issue and proper reason to argue that the outcome should be annulled, see here in June 2016. When Kenneth Arrow passed away in early 2017, this was an occasion to have a summary text published in the RES Newsletter, which was republished on the LSE Brexit blog. Now, with the 2017 UK general election, I have been looking a bit deeper at these UK election issues.

One result has been the use of the Lorenz curve and Gini coefficient to show the disproportionality in the UK between votes and seats. Almost all EU members have Proportional Representation (PR) with clear exceptions of the UK and France that have District Representation (DR). Apparently, this is a main reason for the influence of populism in the latter two countries. DR allows that politicians are elected with a minority of the vote, which causes a gap with the majority. Politicians like David Cameron can use a referendum to introduce an element of proportionality. Yet referendum questions are quickly flawed.

A main confusion

Another surprise for me was the existence of the Re-Leavers who make up some 23% of the electorate, and who are very likely also a major section in the House of Commons that supported the invoking of article 50.

Apparently many British voters are awfully respectful of democracy, and while they voted for Remain, they accept the referendum outcome, and let their voting behaviour now be guided by Leave. In other words: they no longer operate as voters who are supposed to express their first preference, but they operate as politicians who develop policy using such preferences.

Voters are better not confused about the following angles:

  • It is one thing to accept the Brexit referendum outcome as a fact. Please accept facts.
  • It is another thing to discuss the consequences of that fact.
  • There is always the distinction between your first preference and dealing with new developments.
  • Your first preference can change, but rather only because of arguments, and not just because of a majority view.

For me, it is easy to say this, in a country that is used to PR. In the UK case of DR it may well be that strategic voting requires voters to run with with herd. Nevertheless, the Re-Leavers cause quite a confusion in the voting record. Also for the general elections of 2017 we now can observe that we don’t know what people really want.

The YouGov data of June 12th – 13th 2017

Anthony Wells provided and discussed these data that show the impact of the Re-Leavers. Let me quote the main part, and for this quotation I also moved their copyright sign up.

These early June data are most relevant for judging the June 8 2017 UK general election. Apparently 26% of all adults in Great Britain (UK excl. Northern Ireland), but also 53% of the voters who voted Remain in 2016, reason as follows:

I did not support Britain leaving the EU, but now the British people have voted to leave the government has a duty to carry out their wishes and leave.

I consider this an illogical and rather undemocratic statement.

  • Logic would require the annulment of the referendum outcome, and not to take it seriously.
  • In representative government, it is Parliament that determines policy, not the people by some referendum.

Most of the EU has PR and thus the notion of representative government. The 2016 Remain voters want to remain in the EU, but, 53% apparently also reject the EU notion of representative government, and instead they appeal to the populism of referenda.

More on the design flaw of the Brexit referendum question

A few days ago, I rephrased one aspect as follows: With R for Remain, S for Soft (EEA) and H for Hard (WTO), there are 6 possible strict preferences, from R > S > H (Theresa May before the referendum) to H > S > R (Theresa May after the referendum). If S and H are collected in L (Leave) then there arises the claimed binary choice between R and L. Voters who are in the categories S > R > H or H > R > would face a hard question. If they expect that R might win, but also that their own preferred option might not win, should they still go out and vote ? They might decide not to turn out, or develop assumptions about what actually might become, given what what they think about future developments. Similarly for the versions of R. See the voting theory about single peaked preferences (and these are not single peaked but double peaked). Overall it is a fallacy that there is a binary choice. Lawyers can argue that one either invokes article 50 or doesn’t invoke it, yet the referendum isn’t such a legal case, for it is an issue of policy preferences.

In fact, above YouGov poll provides us a bit more information on this issue. Look at this section on their page 15:

Look at the column of the total (with 1651 people in the weighted sample). 35% are clearly for Remain, in their first rank. 47% are clearly against Remain, in their last rank. Thus the middle 8 + 9 ≈ 18% (rounding error) is rather confused, for they put Remain between one of the Leave options. How would they have to vote at a referendum that only allows R or L ? We find similar percentages for the subgroups on the right hand side.


The discussion in the UK would be served by greater awareness of these distinctions:

  • The difference between voting for your first preference (setting the target) and trying to second-guess politicians (as if you are in the driver seat).
  • A valid question and an invalid or flawed one, like the Brexit referendum question.
  • The crucial differences between Proportional Representation (PR) and District Representation (DR), linked to the distinction between representative democracy (mostly PR) and populism (mostly DR).
  • There is also something not discussed in the above, but that is the difference between the failing Trias Politica and improved democracy with an Economic Supreme Court.

(Updated July 11 2017)


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