We’re treating the whole electoral process as a partisan football, and it’s bad for democracy
Today the House of Commons will vote on, and probably reject, an early general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). It will do so for a range of reasons. A lot of Labour MPs fear the verdict of the electorate. Some MPs still want a second referendum on EU membership before any election. And others are arguing about the date and the format.
I accept that elections are the core of politics. Inevitably, they’re subject to politicking. But we should expect some basic seriousness about what needs to be in place for the public to have confidence in them. This is, obviously, true of all sides. But oddly, much of the worst ignorance and indifference is currently coming from those keenest to dismiss the legitimacy of the 2016 vote.
A referendum is not an on-off switch
Many still argue that a referendum should be held before an election (or perhaps on the same day). Some still pursue the chimera of a caretaker government. Others seem to think that Parliament can, as it did with two extension requests, legislate to impose one on the current government.
It’s painfully clear that this government would not play ball. The idea that a second referendum can happen without a government which will is absurd. This is not the Benn Act. The European Union Referendum Act 2015 was a much more complicated piece of legislation (67 pages long), related to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. There were also 132 pages of conduct regulations made by ministers under the Act. The Electoral Commission tested the question set out in the Referendum Act and did some proper research, at the government’s behest.
If you doubt that these things matter, look at the row between Scottish nationalists who want a Yes/No question and Scottish unionists who prefer Remain/Leave. Who is going to ensure any question in a second referendum is scrutinised properly with no government willing to refer it? Who is going to deal with the conduct regulations? Are they all going to be in statute? Will a new Act delegate another group of MPs to play government without civil service backing?
The Constitution Unit suggested 22 weeks as a ‘bare minimum’ timetable. I might add that both the 2014 and 2016 referendums won express election mandates before being held. I would argue a rerun would benefit from a similar mandate. But to suggest a rushed six-week timetable for a new vote, steered through in a panic and with none of the consultation, lead-in or public information in the last one will be seen as legitimate by whoever loses it is farcical.
We do not have a government willing to cooperate with a second referendum. It is abundantly clear that we are not going to get one in any reasonably foreseeable circumstances in this parliament. Unless Labour decides that someone apart from Jeremy Corbyn can lead one and unless whipless Conservatives suddenly decide they prefer a referendum to Johnson’s Deal, the whole thing is a parlour game. Worse, it could be a route to a botched and illegitimate referendum.
The franchise is not a plaything
Most mutterings about changing the franchise before the next general election are probably excuses not to vote for one, in the main. Nonetheless, more than one parliamentarian has suggested that any one-line Bill to allow a general election could be amended to extend votes to 16-year-olds. Commentators have speculated about doing the same for EU nationals. I dislike the idea of a one-line Bill to get around the FTPA in any event: I think it sets an unpalatable precedent. But this would be a wholly different level of bad behaviour.
Franchise extensions are reasonable things to support in principle. I’m mildly in favour of votes at 16 and I haven’t made up my mind about the nationality question. But the idea of trying to change either in less than two months is absurd. For a start, 16- and 17-year-olds are not currently on our registers as enfranchised voters. Some are registered as attainers (soon to be but not yet eligible to vote). But even with that caveat, you are talking about registering over a million people in weeks with no public information campaign.
EU nationals don’t raise any new registration issues. They should already be registered for local, devolved and European elections, though this has not been problem-free in the past. But again, you can’t deliver the sort of public information campaign you need in time. There are reasons the OECD recommends a lead-in of at least a year for changes to electoral fundamentals.
Democracy is not a process to be tampered with lightly
To their credit, the Liberal Democrats (co-sponsors of the one-line Bill approach) have made clear they wouldn’t support changing the franchise in this way. But too often, because they’re playing British politics for such high stakes, MPs risk forgetting the need for a sense of basic political self-restraint.
Democracies cannot thrive if politicians have no respect for the rules of engagement. That’s especially true for a country like the United Kingdom, where we have so few formal protections and rely so much on good behaviour. We, more than most, need our governments and our legislators to draw the political line for themselves. For the most part, I’ve been sympathetic to Parliament asserting its power against a government which treats it with contempt. But there’s a limit.
In the end, MPs who want a second referendum — or, indeed, anything but Johnson’s Brexit — are going to have to face the voters in a general election very soon. They will have to do so under the existing rules for elections. They should recognise that, engage seriously and make their choice. And they should stop salting the democratic earth just to put off the evil day for a few more weeks.
This post was originally published on Medium.com on 28 October 2019.