You can’t run as an insurgent if you agree with the government, and you might have to

This piece from Bridget Phillipson MP makes a strong case that a hypothetical second referendum campaign would need to be much more unashamedly European and come in from a more marked left-wing direction. Relatedly, Aditya Chakrabortty says that:

I can’t see any way for remain to secure a convincing victory, apart from to present itself as not the incumbent but the insurgent, not the status quo but the radicals

Neither of them follow this logic through to the end, though. What both of them are saying is that the best way to win would be to present it as the quickest way to sack the government, to throw the bums out. Rather than “Stop Brexit by getting the Tories out”, this is “Get the Tories out by stopping Brexit”. This might well be true, but it is only an option if the government is supporting the other option on the ballot. I can’t think of a way in which the government would be enfeebled by winning a referendum. How does that work?

The referendum they want would be one in which the Government was supporting “Brexit”, defined in some way not specified, and Labour was supporting “Remain”. There is no particular reason to think it would turn out that way. What if the referendum turned out to be the government’s terms, or crash-out Brexit? Or something else? If we stipulate that there must be only two choices, that gives us:

Deal or No Deal
Revoke A50 or Deal
Revoke A50 or No Deal
Deal or EEA/EFTA/Something Else
Something Else or No Deal
Something Else or Revoke A50

It’s possible for the government to be on either side, so that gives us 12 possible combinations, all of which would require a different strategy. Given that the conditional probability of each option is therefore rather low, it’s arguable we are spending far too much effort arguing about it.

Also, and really nobody wants to talk about this because it doesn’t suit anyone to admit it, the soft-Brexit options all entail actually passing the withdrawal agreement first. The only option that doesn’t need this is outright revocation, or alternatively, blowing up everything.

15 Comments on "You can’t run as an insurgent if you agree with the government, and you might have to"


  1. The point about not wasting time on detail, when the probability distribution is so diffuse, is well made. Nice strategic-thinking heuristic. But why “conditional”? Conditioned on what? And what’s the next-best use of the bandwidth that you’ve saved by applying the heuristic?

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  2. Wouldn’t a ranked choice arrangement of more than 2 options make more sense?

    (I understand that this is probably more compex than can realistically be expected from the current UK political situation.)

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  3. Given that legislation has to be passed through Parliament for the referendum to happen; even if a ranked choice/multiple options made sense, I would have thought it was unlikely to happen. Every actual multiple option scenario presented splits the vote of one of both camps – so will be vetoed by that side.

    The multiple option scenario also presents a problem to whoever has to implement it – as it’ll force the government at the time down the path of legislating to implement something that may only have popular support of about 35% – meaning that 65% of the electorate instantly hate you.

    AV/ranked vote scenarios present something similar – in that the government can end up having to implement that no one really wanted after all.

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  4. The desire on the part of so many to be seen as the insurgent, the radical, the voice of The Common Man, is the reason we are in this pickle to begin with.

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  5. > AV/ranked vote scenarios present something similar – in that the government can end up having to implement that no one really wanted after all.

    But isn’t that the reality of politics – nobody ever get’s 100% of what they want – you need to compromise – from ‘Cabinet responsibility’ down to having to vote for a party or representative that isn’t you ( only MP’s have the luxury of voting for a perfect representative of their views ).

    I don’t like aspects of the EU – but voted remain *as a compromise* of the two options available!

    What’s happening at the moment is there is a vacuum of information about what people actually want and politicians or newspaper proprietors are trying to use this to foist there own views.

    Not sure what the answer is, given the level of debate, but I can’t see how a nationwide poll with a prioritized menu of options can make things any worse….

    At the moment, it feels like the Iraq war – most people not believing that Iraq is an imminent threat or it would help in anyway to invade – yet we got involved – with the majority of MP’s voting for it – with the disastrous consequences still happening today.

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    1. There is also a vacuum about what the options are, what the trade-offs are between different objectives. Twenty-five years of disinformation about the EU have left people very confused, and this applies to MPs as well.

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  6. The core question here is whether you think a plebiscite is a mistake because well the plebs are plebs – or you think the track record of the political class recently isn’t actually much to shout about.

    Note our political leaders come from a very small pool – with the ability to critically think not being that high on the selection criteria.

    Tony Blair still thinks he did the right thing in Iraq….

    For me the key problem is not that leaders try and lead – but they have stopped doing so.

    Instead they have adopted of the dark arts of communication and advertising – replacing leadership with deception & manipulation – and by thus avoiding direct debate on the real issues they never learn the nature of any falsely held assumptions.

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    1. I think the problem with referendums is that in all the previous British referendums, the issue under debate had been largely resolved and the proposed solution worked out in great detail, to the point of cutting draft legislation, before moving to the vote. The vote was more like royal assent than a parliamentary vote, an act of ceremonial public consent.

      This one reversed the process. Having voted, it was then necessary to work out what the vote meant in detail. “Just leave the European Union” is a meaningless statement without saying where you intend to go, in much the same way as you can’t “just leave the country” without choosing a port of departure and a destination, getting a passport, and buying a ticket. A referendum doesn’t provide anything like the richness of expression necessary for this. As a result, conflict between the plebiscitary and representative/deliberative wings of the democracy was inevitable.

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          1. There was no entity equivalent to the SNP active within the British system of government prior to the EU Referendum that could create the equivalent White Paper. There still isn’t.
            And the SNP still managed to create policy positions that were outside of the direct control of a newly independent government.
            I don’t think it’s a bug in the referendum, it’s a feature. The failure is elsewhere in the system.


      1. …. and more than 30 months later the deliberative part of the democratic system is just beginning to start the process of coming to a consensus about what the country wants Brexit to be. This is a tricky process because:-

        a – positions have hardened in the intervening period, with various groups claiming to know what people really wanted when they voted

        b – politicians are afraid to say that what was promised in the referendum campaign by Vote Leave was contingent on German car-makers twisting the arm of the EU to give the UK a very special deal indeed, and that hasn’t happened.

        The issue of “what Brexit means” wasn’t resolved before the referendum, and it wasn’t resolved before sending the Article 50 letter. With time running out, parliament has to decide whether the people wanted a “take back control” Brexit or an “exactly the same benefits” Brexit, with the added complication that there is widespread denial that this is the choice that has to be made.

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        1. Also, we never even got the chance to find out if German carmakers, yadda yadda, because the prime minister chose to run to the right of the Leave campaign and in doing so basically excluded anything remotely acceptable to them.

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          1. May’s party conference speech in 2016 and her Lancaster House speech certainly doubled-down on the idea of a “Best of All Worlds” Brexit (not accepting any role for the CJEU but still being part of a motor industry with cross-border production-lines and still being part of a pan-Europe services sector). Presumably she had in mind a possible General Election in which she hoped to benefit from the votes of some swing voters in some swing constituencies who might like that sort of talk. The reaction in Europe does seem to have been that it would be best to restate basic principles, like defending the GFA and the principles of the Single Market.

            The only lobbying seems to have been by the EFTA countries, against giving the UK any kind of special deal.


  7. I think any referendum would be May’s Deal v, Remain. The point of a referendum is to avoid No Deal and it is too ill-defined to be on the ballot anyway. Similarly, there is no Norway/Switzerland-type deal at the moment that could be voted on. So any fantasy multi-option votes are ruled out.

    Of course, if May were to lose a second referendum, she would be replaced as PM by a Tory leaver, who would presumably have to commit to pushing through a third referendum or simply leaving after a GE . The problem is that if May’s deal is rejected all that is left Norway/Switzerland, which one imagines wouldn’t appeal to a lot of Tory members, but might get a thumbs up from Citizens’ Fora.

    But I suspect there won’t be a second referedum so it will all be moot.

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