Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Eu referendum question: the reversion point and why it matters

A "reversion point" is a psephological term meaning an answer in a referendum that will reverse the status quo - ie voting "no" in a yes-no referendum. In all referendums where "yes" represents the status quo, voters who haven't made up their minds will tend to shy away from the reversion point and vote "yes" to retain the status quo.

This is why the 1975 referendum on membership of the European Community (EEC - a forerunner to the EU) was phrased: "Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?" Given that we knew very little about what was planned for the EU - although as I show in The Federalist Derivation MPs knew by 1950 that there was a supranational integration project - those who voted and who did not have a strong reason to vote "no" voted "yes".

Things aren't so clear-cut when the reversion point is represented by a "yes" vote. This was the case in the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum:

At present, the UK uses the "first past the post" system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the "alternative vote" system be used instead?

This was a referendum held at the insistence of the Liberal Democrats, who formed the junior partner in the coalition led by David Cameron elected in 2010, and it would have benefited the Liberal Democrats more than either of the other two major parties. Where it was significant, though, is that unlike the 1975 referendum, the AV poll was not an exercise in giving democratic legitimacy to a status quo achieved with no democratic mandate (again see The Federalist Derivation). If the result of the 2011 vote had been yes - a reversion - Parliament was committed to enacting legislation to make proportional representation possible. What's interesting that the reversion point - reversal of the status quo - was represented by a "yes" vote. In referendums it's not just a simple matter of assuming that undecided voters will vote "yes" - the status quo was represented by "no" and "no" won the day.

The referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union, scheduled for 2017 but possibly happening next year, will be of immense importance. Perhaps for this reason, the Prime Minister had suggested a question essentially similar to that of 1975: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?" Once more the reversion point was represented by a "no" vote, so those who could be persuaded that a compelling reason to leave the EU had not been made would have been more likely to vote "yes"; it's more a matter of psychology than of politics.

But the Electoral Commission has stepped in and the latest news reported in the Guardian is that Cameron has accepted their recommendation to change the question so that "yes" and "no" and the psychological minefields represented by those seemingly simple words do not appear. The question is now:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

And the answers are:

Remain a member of the European Union.

Leave the European Union.

This matters because a referendum result in which the interested parties are seen to be excessively meddling will not solve any of the major political, cultural and societal splits which are rending our country because of its membership of the EU. And interested parties include most members of the political cartel, which comprises the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, plus smaller parties they invite to the table on a temporary basis. The answers to which we will be invited to tick a box are not deceptively simple single words, but reflect a world of change, regardless of which one wins. Migration, taxation, pensions: all will be set on different tracks depending on which side wins.

And me? I'll settle for the reversion point: leave the EU. We have never before, not even in 1975, had an opportunity to vote on the supranational organization that the European integration project was envisaged to become from the very start. As William Buiter wrote in 2010, "the whole European integration experiment, from the Coal and Steel Community on, has been a political wolf dressed in economic sheep’s clothing".

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