The crushing, historic defeat of Theresa May’s flagship Brexit deal yesterday is one that will live long in the memory. The question on everyone’s lips today is, what happens next? The answer seems to be a collective shrug of the shoulders from politicians, journalists and, indeed, academics (at least those that know what’s good for them!). That’s not to say we don’t have a good idea of the possibilities – it’s just that they range from no deal, to no Brexit, with whole lot in between.
A large part of this uncertainty is down to the fact that parliamentarians are having to balance a whole range of different concerns with regard to the kind of Brexit 52% of the electorate voted for in 2016. Theresa May was onto something last night, “It is clear that the House does not support this deal, but tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support”. But the same might well be said of the public at large.
Brexit means Brexit?
Putting parliamentary arithmetic to one side a big part of the problem facing politicians is based in two competing perspectives of the electorate themselves. The classic, idealist view is the voter as a pure and rational actor, weighing the appropriate evidence and selecting the course of action they consider to be the most appropriate. There are those, however, that think this view is – to use technical political science jargon – codswallop.
In a book titled Democracy for Realists, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels called this position a ‘folk theory’. They showed that voters are far more likely to be swayed based on party loyalty, social identity and even, in one case, a shark attack. So, it’s not necessarily constructive to say that the people ‘voted to leave’, because voters on both sides are not a homogenous block. We should be suspicious of any claims made to a single ‘public’.
A good example of this is a paradox that has emerged when attempting to measure what it is the public want out of the Brexit process. Polling has shown that more people support remain than May’s deal, but they support no deal more than remain, and May’s deal more than no deal. So, no matter what MPs vote for, they risk a majority of the public being unhappy. Hey, nobody ever said representation was easy.
But what if we do know what the public wants?
The choice of a referendum that presented a (seemingly) simple choice between two (seemingly) simple options has, in short, created a whole set of ‘publics’ the parliamentarians need to adjudicate between and among. A second issue arises, however, if parliamentarians do know what sections of the public want, but it doesn’t marry with what they think the best course of action is.
Jeremy Corbyn, for example, has long drawn a rich source of legitimacy from Labour Party members. Remember that one vote of no confidence that has been lost – in convincing fashion – post-Brexit was by Jeremy Corbyn himself. Yet, he fought on, buttressed by the overwhelming support of his members.
A recent poll of Labour members, however, showed that 83% of them voted Remain in 2016 and 72% of them want Corbyn to support a referendum on Brexit. Should Corbyn think more fundamentally, then, about representing the views of this particular ‘public’? It might well have been a public on the minds of the 118 Tory rebels – similar polling showed that 59% of the Conservative rank and file opposed May’s deal.
Leave means leave
Finally, we have seen a broader debate among many parliamentarians (both leave and remain) with regards to how best to enact the Brexit. There are those that speak to the aforementioned ‘public’. The “52% of the population voted to leave, so we should find a way of honouring that vote” position. There are those that speak to their specific constituency. The “my constituency voted Remain/Leave (delete as appropriate) as such, I have a duty to my constituents” position. And, finally, there are those that speak to their particular principles. The “I’ve been campaigning for/against (delete as appropriate) Remain/Leave for the duration of my political career so have an ideological duty”, position.
These are three competing understandings of how an MP ought to represent the people. When you couple this, with the inherent complexity of the process of leaving the EU altogether it becomes clear why we have seen such deadlock and uncertainty in this case. Trying to find a satisfactory to way to adjudicate between the ‘public’, partisan loyalty and parliamentary arithmetic means that we all remain (ahem) in the dark about what happens next. Now, I don’t remember seeing that on the side of a bus.
Sam Power is an associate tutor in politics at the University of Sussex