Jeremy Corbyn would rip up the rulebook and make his second EU referendum a travesty of democracy

Jeremy Corbyn’s bizarre policy on Brexit is not only marred by his personal inconsistency on whether he was, or still is, for Leave or Remain – or, it now turns out, neither. His policy also plans to circumvent the legislation which ensures that referendums are fair: the Political Parties and Referendums Act 2000, known as PPERA (pronounced ‘puh-PEAR-a’).  

This was Jack Straw’s legislation which followed the devolution referendum in Wales, in which questions were raised about the fairness of the process. He rightly concluded that if there were ever going to be a referendum on joining the euro – which Labour was contemplating at the time – there needed to be a statutory framework to ensure a level playing field between the two sides of a referendum campaign. PPERA provides it, giving a role to the Electoral Commission in setting a fair question, requiring spending limits to be set on the two campaigns, providing for the designation of the two official campaigns.

PPERA also puts into law the equivalent customs and conventions which created fairness and which we take for granted in elections. This includes the restrictions placed on public authorities, which are forbidden from spending money or making announcements during the final weeks before a referendum or election. MPs successfully defeated David Cameron’s attempt to abolish this crucial safeguard in the legislation for the EU referendum. Without Section 125 of PPERA, there would have been nothing to prevent ministers employing the entire machinery of the Government in support of their choice.

The odd thing is that the PPERA framework for referendums still requires the government of the day to pass another law in order to hold a national referendum. The spending limits set for the EU referendum were also far from fair. Instead of just setting equal amounts for each side, the government forced through provisions that also allowed the political parties to spend in proportion to the votes they got at the prior election. Because all the main parties were for Remain, the Remain side was allowed to spend spend £19.3m against Leave’s £13.3m (and this does not include the £9m household leaflet the government had printed and distributed before the referendum restricted period came into force). So you can see that the government of the day can rig the referendum anyway– and it is clear from Mr Corbyn’s statements he intends far worse than Mr Cameron.

The Constitution Unit at UCL produced a series of posts in August 2018 about how long it takes to have a new referendum. First there has to be time to put through the fresh primary legislation, which is the legal basis for any new referendum and to specify details that are not in standing legislation, including the referendum question, the franchise, the date of the referendum and the conduct rules for the poll (although the latter two are often ultimately left to secondary legislation).

Then the Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the referendum question, a process that usually takes 12 weeks. After the legislation is through and the question agreed, the Electoral Commission and local officials need time to prepare for administering the poll and regulating campaigners. The Commission recommends that the legislation should be clear at least six months before it is due to be complied with. Finally, PPERA specifies that the regulated referendum period should be a minimum of 10 weeks, during which campaign regulation applies.

Labour’s policy would be to use their majority to put a coach and horses through the PPERA timetable. This on its own would be constitutional outrage.

But they would also, no doubt, want to circumvent the Electoral Commission’s obligation to give advice on the intelligibility of the question. Given that the UK voted Leave in 2016 (and the Electoral Commission has never suggested that the result was in any way invalid or unsafe), logically a second referendum would offer a choice between different versions of ‘Leave’, but this is not Labour’s intention at all.  

Labour’s manifesto proposes another renegotiation in just three months to conclude a new Withdrawal Agreement and Declaration based on some kind of permanent customs union/single market relationship – arguably even more ‘Brexit-in-name-only’ than Mrs May’s proposed deal; and in just six months, to hold the second referendum, on the question which sets aside the previous Leave decision, in favour of a choice between ‘Brexit In Name Only’ or Remain. Would Labour allow the Electoral Commission to give their advice on whether this is fair? To those who voted Leave, in 2016, a new referendum which sets aside the result of the 2016 question would be regarded as a travesty of democracy.  Their failure to honour the first referendum would undermine any confidence that the result a of a second referendum would be respected.

Nobody with any sense would expect a Corbyn government to be able to settle the Brexit divide in our country with such a derisory lack of respect for fair democratic process.

The post Jeremy Corbyn would rip up the rulebook and make his second EU referendum a travesty of democracy appeared first on BrexitCentral.

* This article was originally published here


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