Posted by Thersites on  UTC 2016-06-24 09:58

The legitimacy of tiny majorities

This blog is, of course, delighted that Leave has won the EU  Referendum. Leave 52% compared with Remain 48% is definitely a win.

However, the legitimacy of the 'win' is another matter. It is, after all, really only a win of 2%: it looks like 4% but of course it represents the transfer of only 2% of votes from one side to the other. The 'win' is the responsibility of around 575,000 people out of about 32.5 million voters.

So, whilst we take great pleasure in the 'victory' – we right-wing thugs have not had a lot of them recently – honesty demands that we write what we would have written had the result been reversed, with Remain gaining the 2% advantage: so what?

Expensive coin tossing

On his blog John Redwood called the result correctly, but puzzled over the closeness of the result.

Now the polls have closed I will express a view of this referendum. I have always found it strange that the polls have generally been so close, and that most of the pollsters and pundits have united to tell us it is so close they cannot predict the outcome. 50/50 should be an unlikely outcome, not the norm or mean. From what I have seen and heard I am anticipating a win for Leave.

The reason that referendums tend towards 50:50 results is in their nature. When the referendum question is relatively simple, for example, 'Should we use the Alernative Vote system?', or 'Should we spend £10 million on a new council building', the response will reflect the difference in genuinely held opinions. The turnout, high or low, will reflect the interest of voters in the question.

In contrast, when the question is complex, 'Should we leave the EU', the choice taken over a large number of people becomes close to a simple distribution and the whole process the equivalent of tossing a coin. When the Swiss people were recently asked, 'Should the costs of the state broadcaster come directly from tax?', the result was a few million coin tosses ending in a tiny, decimal-place margin for 'Yes'.

When there are hundreds of subtle arguments for each side, any of which could be held by reasonable people and none of which is decisive, the voters choices just sum towards a normal.

This effect is hardly seen in parliamentary and local elections, where voters rely on a number of factors that are not related to particular issues: party allegiance – sometimes quite tribal – the personality of candidates, their level of recognition and their previous record. Voters elect a representative to deal with all these complexities.

Voters cannot do this in referendums: they are confronted with a single, more or less complex issue that they have to resolve on their own. This is why it is important to do what the campaigns attempted to do in the EU Referendum, namely to associate the issue with respected and trusted personalities. People are happy to cast their vote on the principle 'if it's good enough for XYZ then it is good enough for me'. Arguments from nameless economists and mandarins have no effect. If XYZ wants it, then that is enough.

I would interpret the slender majority which the Leave campaign achieved as reflecting an endorsement of the personalities involved: it was Liz Hurley wearing nothing but a Union Jack cushion that did it for me.

This is why we have always asserted that a referendum is the wrong way to decide on EU membership – it should have been a matter for a political, parliamentary process. But since the first-past-the-post voting system kept the consensus of the major parties intact over decades perhaps it was the only way to break the log-jam: by tossing a coin and hoping for the best.

This time, as far as this blog is concerned, the gamble worked – but we were lucky, that's all.

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