In the wake of the announcement by the Electoral Commission that Vote Leave overspent during the EU referendum campaign, many Leavers have decided to counter with a tactic you could broadly call “I know you are but what am I”. It is a knee-jerk response which consists of saying “well, even if Vote Leave cheated – which I am not confirming they did – Remain cheated too”. Here is the essence of said argument, straight from the mouth of UKIP – sorry, I meant Labour, of course, Labour – MP, Kate Hoey:
“Even if they spent half a million pounds over, the government put in £9m of a leaflet that went right round every doorstep. If you’re really telling me that you think the decision of the British people would have been different if that amount of money had not been spent then I just think that’s ridiculous.”
Just to get it out of the way: Kate, if you don’t think putting money into a political campaign makes any difference whatsoever, why do you think people do it then? I’m certain that next time you have a fundraiser in your constituency, you’ll be sure to tell everyone not to give the Labour Party a penny since it makes no difference whatsoever anyhow.
Beyond Ms Hoey’s misunderstanding of how basic political funding works, there is a much more pressing issue here. Namely, that this “Remain cheated too” line of argument engaged in by Brexiteers is mortally bad. Take a deep breath, calm down, and try and be as unpartisan on the Brexit issue as you possibly can be for a moment. Having done that, now imagine you are completely neutral on the subject; that you have no opinion whatsoever on the topic of whether or not the UK should leave the EU, never mind how that should happen exactly. You hear that the winning side cheated, overspent. Then you hear that the losing side, well, they cheated too. Your logical instinct would be to go, “well this whole vote was clearly a sham all round. Perhaps it is a good idea to run it again.”
What I’m saying here, Leavers, is that arguing that Remain cheated is adding directly to the logic of holding another referendum. The dodgier you make the result of the 2016 referendum seem, even due to the influence of the side opposite, the more you invalidate that result.
It is politics 101 what you should be saying instead. You avoid the cheating question altogether and resort to sloganeering. “17.4 million people voted to leave the European Union in June of 2016, the most people who have ever voted for anything in the history of the country”. You repeat that ad nauseum. This should be easy for you guys – sloganeering is what you were all about in the not too distant past. Why you’ve abandoned it in your hour of need, I fail to understand.
Brexiteers, if you want to go on about how Remain cheated, be my guest. You are paving the way to another referendum on EU membership.
As previously mentioned, I don’t think the argument is ‘Remain cheated too’.
I think the argument is, ‘counting pennies is a technical rule that doesn’t, in the end, matter: both sides got their arguments out, and the underdogs won.’
Imagine it’s a trial, and the accused is acquitted. The CPS starts demanding that there be a retrial based on some technicality of the defence — they filed a motion late, or something. The defence counters by pointing to some technical errors that the prosecution made.
Do we then go, ‘Well, this trial was clearly an utter farce, we have to run it again’?
No, we don’t, because all the procedural shenanigans are peripheral to the main event: the evidence was put before a jury and the jury decided. The fact that both sides indulged in playing procedural games doesn’t mean that the aquittal is unsafe; rather, it just highlights how unimportant those procedural games are to the final result.
And that, I think, is the essence of the Leave argument here: not ‘Remain cheated too!’ but ‘this is a mere technical matter and doesn’t affect the final result’.
Obviously there are procedural issues which are important enough to declare a mistrial; the prosecution deliberately withholding a alibi witness, for example. But I don’t think, for most people, the finer points of campaign spending rules fall into this category. It would be different if, for example, the Leave campaign were to have been discovered to somehow prevent the Remain campaign from making its arguments (the equivalent of the missing witness).
Besides which, think of the precedent this would set! Any time there was a vote it would be in both sides’ interests to deliberately break the rules, so that if the result went the other way, they could leak to the press about their own wrongdoing, and thereby demand another bite at the cherry!
And of course the same incentive to deliberately break the rules in order to give yourself grounds to appeal would apply to the re-run — a literal neverendum!
Continuing the trial analogy, what if the Leave witnesses were found to have knowingly lied to the court to get the verdict they wanted? Surely that would be a greater miscarriage of justice and would warrant the verdict being overturned?
The heart of the matter comes down to two points:
1. Whether the case should ever have been brought to court in the first place.
2. Now the court knows perjury took place during the presentation to the jury should the verdict be thrown out.
Sure, but that’s nothing to do with procedural technicalities like campaign finance regulations, is the point.
And as for your other question, well, if the witnesses were discovered to have lied, then the conviction probably would be unsafe. But accusations of lying in the referendum are not quite so clear-cut as that and turn heavily on implication. For example, the Leave campaign has been accused of lying by saying that after Leaving the NHS would get an extra £350 million a week, when of course they were very careful never to actually say that — though they may have implied it pretty heavily. So was that a ‘lie’? Or simply a normal spin of the kind that happens in every political campaign? And don’t forget there were plenty of things the Remain campaign said that were just as dodgy, like the ‘punishment budget’.
Fundamentally the way these things work if that we trust the electorate to sift through the campaigns and decide what they think is important.
If you don’t trust the electorate to do that… well, why would you ever allow them to vote on anything? You should just have a panel of appointed experts decide what to do and inform the population of their decision.
You could call it a ‘political bureau’. Maybe.
Paul W says
You’re quite right.
Government by technocracy – taking the difficult, messy business of making political choices away from ignorant, irrational electorates and leaving it to the people who know best to decide.
Remind you of something?
I do sometimes wonder if there’s some kind of fundamental difference between countries with use juries, and countries which don’t; whereby the former have a more independent-minded (some might say ornery) citizenry while the latter are generally more disposed to submit themselves to technocratic rule and meekly accept what they are told by experts.
Paul W says
“You are paving the way to another referendum on EU membership.”
Remember how we used to snigger when small countries like Ireland and Denmark were made (bullied?) into voting again in order to produce the ‘right’ result for the convenience of the European Union (and their political classes)? Or had their referendum, like the Greeks, completely cast aside. It could never happen here!
Well, yes it could. And everything I have heard, seen and read in the past two years tells me the great British public is very sensitive to this possibility. It offends against their democrat sensibilities.
I would judge the public’s reaction would be something like this: “You asked us to vote on this issue. You said: ‘The Government will implement what you decide.’ Well, you have your answer. Now just get on with it!”
To hold another referendum would risk fuelling public anger on the part of some voters, cause alienation and disengagement from the democratic process on the part of other voters – while not necessarily producing the ‘required’ result. Indeed, British bloody-mindedness might well ensure that it didn’t!