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The Expiry Date of a Referendum Result

January 16, 2018 11:50 AM
By Wera Hobhouse in Liiberal Democrat Voice

Wera Hobhouse (Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)There are two democratic principles that, taken together, demand a referendum on the deal. The first is that a democratic decision should be enforced, and the second is that no democratic decision has an indefinite mandate.

The first principle, taken alone, is being used by the Conservatives and Labour to oppose a referendum on the deal. This is the argument:

In 2015 the Conservatives won the general election promising a referendum. The 2015 parliament voted to hold this referendum. In 2016 a referendum was held. In 2017 the same parliament voted to trigger Article 50.

The process has constitutional legitimacy at every stage.

What about the second principle? No democratic decision has an indefinite mandate. It is on this argument that a referendum on the deal hinges.

Imagine for a moment that this principle did not exist. To take a simple example, the 2015 election result would still be valid so the current government would still be required to implement David Cameron's 2015 manifesto.

Of course we can all see this is not how our democracy works. We recognise that any democratic decision has an expiry date. In the case of general elections, the mandate from a previous election expires whenever the next general election is held.

So what is the expiry date for a referendum result? There must be one because if there were not we would cease to be a democracy. The problem is that we have developed as a parliamentary democracy and so we have not developed in law the principles we follow for referenda, nor the relationship between general elections and referenda.

Why is it that a previous general election mandate reaches its expiry date whenever there is another general election? There are two further democratic principles at play here:

  • a) When two decisions are made by the same process, the most recent is the valid one. From this principle should follow that only another referendum can update the 2016 referendum result.
  • b) An original decision should be given time to be implemented but that time period cannot be indefinite. This principle accounts for why we do not have a general election every day, but why we do have one at least once every five years. This is the time period that gives a government enough opportunity to implement its mandate. After that time period, sufficient new facts and considerations will have emerged for the people to have another say in a new general election.

The key question is therefore how much time the government should have to implement the mandate from the 2016 referendum before their mandate expires.

The answer is surely at the time when the government has had a chance to negotiate a deal. At this point the 2016 referendum result would have been implemented. People voted in 2016 on the basis of a judgement of the advantages and disadvantages of triggering Article 50 and making a new deal. In the process of the government making that deal, facts and considerations are emerging that people could not have predicted in 2016. As these facts emerge, democracy demands that the people should have a new say, with a new vote on the deal. The people must finish what the people have started.

* Wera Hobhouse is the Member of Parliament for Bath. She is Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Communities and Local Government, and is on the Brexit Select Committee.

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