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19/11/2018
Brexit - UK Politics

The political and constitutional factors underlying the utterly dysfunctional state of UK politics


The crisis in Westminster is entirely the making of David Cameron’s folly in committing to hold a referendum on EU membership so as to see off the UKIP challenge to the Tory right flank. That particular strategy was adopted by Cameron because of their crude “first past the post” system which still remains as a fossilised part of the UK constitutional order.

The UKIP challenge might have delivered swathes of seats to Labour and the Liberals. The only way to fend it off was to appease potential UKIP supporters by holding a referendum that Cameron did not want, risking a result which he regarded as catastrophic.

If the UK had an alternative vote system like Australia’s which resembles an Irish by-election with single seats elected on a “1,2,3” alternative vote basis, UKIP would not have threatened the Tory vote.

But that system would, of course, have threatened Tory seats in a different way - by allowing for the election of Liberal and Labour candidates in constituencies where the voters were split each way.

Defenders of the “first past the post” system have always claimed that it favours decisive results and avoids the possibility of “hung parliaments” –as if coalition is a bad thing per se.

But in truth it does no such thing. It mostly favours binary choices between party power blocs where major issues such as Brexit are internally resolved in a manner over which the voter has little or no influence or control.

And even then, “first past the post” gives groups such as the DUP and the SNP the balance of power from time to time in a parliament based where those parties do not even contest the vast majority of constituencies.

It requires voters to “vote tactically” – that is to abandon the candidate or manifesto they prefer and to vote for the least bad candidate as they see it.

Thus the outcome in Northern Ireland differs radically from Westminster elections to Assembly PR elections. The North’s elections for Westminster seats are so polarised as to give a large majority to the DUP when that party can manage about a third of the assembly votes under PR.

And the DUP voice at Westminster is rabidly pro-Brexit when the great majority of Northern Ireland’s voters voted to remain in the EU.

These are political and constitutional factors underlying the utterly dysfunctional state of UK politics this weekend.

The Fixed Term Parliament Act, insisted on by Nick Clegg as the price of coalition with Cameron is now seen as the folly it was. The Liberals fell for the offer of a PR referendum (which they simply could not win) and demanded the introduction of fixed terms for UK governments.

Under the Irish constitution, the Taoiseach, as head of the executive, is guaranteed the right to go to the country unless the President in his or her discretion refuses a dissolution to a Taoiseach who has lost the support of a majority in the Dail.

Clegg’s legislation took that right away from the UK’s Prime Minister and made a mid-term dissolution contingent on a vote of no confidence or else a resolution supported by 2/3rds of MPs.

This diminution of the PM’s rights has made Theresa May the political hostage of her own party and arguably the political hostage of less than a quarter of the total number of MPs.

So while she may be removed as Tory leader by a vote of “no confidence” triggered by 48 MPs, she cannot go over their heads to the people to seek support for her Brexit deal without her party’s permission.

It is an irony that the only unambiguously pro-EU party in Britain, the Liberals, left as their constitutional legacy a major political constraint on the Brexit process that plays into the hands of the Brexiteers. 

For my part, I see very little prospect that a replacement Prime Minister or indeed a defeated Theresa May could go back to Michel Barnier or to the Council of Ministers to obtain any substantial concessions. 

It seems to me that Britain is beginning to realise that Theresa May’s deal is “as good as it gets” as far as the rest of Europe is concerned. 

Already, opinion polls conducted by Sky News and others demonstrate that UK voters would, if consulted, prefer to remain in the EU rather than leave on a No Deal basis. 

This, in turn, raises the question as to whether the UK voters should be consulted on the issue by some form of referendum rather than a General Election which might or might not resolve the current impasse.  Is there any reason, for instance, to believe that Jacob Rees Mogg would lose his seat in a snap general election? 

Likewise, if the issue has really boiled down to the question as to whether the deal now negotiated, or remaining in the EU, or leaving on a no deal basis are the choices for UK voters, it is difficult to see how a simple, binary question on a ballot paper could resolve in a credible manner a choice between three options.

Tory Brexiteers would reject a referendum based on the question: “Accept this deal or remain in the EU”.  Many voters, on the other hand, would reject a simple binary ballot paper that asked them to opt between exiting the EU with no deal or remaining in the EU on the basis of the current deal. 

The idea of a “preferendum” presents itself for consideration.  Could one pose a multiplicity of options and ask voters to mark their preferred option or to vote “1, 2, 3” between the options in order of their preferences?

The very idea seems impracticable, if theoretically optimal – especially for an electorate the great majority of which (outside Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland) have no experience of preferential voting at all.

Better to re-ask the question: “Stay or Leave”. 

Looking at Northern Ireland, is there any reason to believe that a general election held now would produce a different result.  The great probability is that the DUP would win a clear majority of the seats and the remainder would be won by abstentionist Sinn Fein candidates.

One thing is clear to me.  Brexit would never have been passed by a majority of UK voters if they had fully understood the realities and complexities of the matter as now known.  

The sad fact is that UK voters have little chance of reconsidering their vote on the issue. 

Brexiteers argue hotly that the result of the referendum is final and conclusive.  They forget that on the evening of the referendum, as the votes were being counted and while it appeared that the Remainers would win, Nigel Farrage informed the nation that the then-likely result was not the end of the matter and that he would continue to campaign for Brexit if he lost the referendum. 

But now, the converse position - that Remainers have the right to fight for a “remain” outcome - is derided as grossly undemocratic. 

As we in Ireland know, there is nothing undemocratic about asking the electorate to change their mind – there is nothing less democratic than refusing them the right to do so.

 

 

 


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