The June 2016 Spanish elections: stabilizing party system change?

Luis Ramiro

The June 26th 2016, Spanish legislative elections were won by the incumbent People’s Party (Partido Popular: PP), in office since 2011 (see Table 1). The social democrat Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español: PSOE) was the second largest party but at a considerable distance from the winner. The left-wing coalition United We Can (Unidos Podemos: UP), formed by the radical left United Left (Izquierda Unida: IU) and the populist radical left Podemos (We Can) – to which we can add three regional electoral alliances in which these two parties took part jointly with left-wing peripheral nationalist parties in Catalonia (En Comú Podem), Galicia (En Marea) and Comunidad Valenciana (A la Valenciana) – got the third place, only less than 2% behind the PSOE.

The other post-2008 crisis new nation-wide party, the centre-right Citizens (Ciudadanos) finished fourth. Among the very significant peripheral nationalist parties, the results confirmed patterns already apparent previously: the weakening of the radical left Basque nationalist Bildu formerly associated in different ways and degrees to the ETA terrorist group; the stable weight of the moderate centre-right Basque nationalism of the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco: PNV); and the change in the balance within the Catalan nationalism, with the centre-right Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya: CDC) behind the centre-left Catalan Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya: ERC). However, the June elections were supposed to contribute to the clarification of several political issues of the greatest importance but, as will be explained, they left almost all these key questions without a clear answer.

Table 1. 2015 and 2016 Spanish general elections results (main parties): share of votes and number of MPs (in brackets)

  December 2015 June 2016
PP 28.7 (123) 33 (137)
PSOE 22 (90) 22.7 (85)
Citizens 13.9 (40) 13.1 (32)
Podemos/regional alliances 20.7 (69) 21 (71)
IU 3.7 (2)
ERC 2.4 (9) 2.6 (9)
CDC 2.2 (8) 2 (8)
PNV 1.2 (6) 1.2 (5)
Bildu 0.9 (2) 0.8 (2)

Source: Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerio del Interior).

The June 2016 elections were called after the December 2015 elections produced a hung parliament and the parties were unable to reach an agreement to form a government. During the months that followed the previous poll, during which the negotiations were expected to take place, the parties soon reached a stalemate that, amidst mutual vetoes, proved to be durable and permanent. The incumbent PP, aware of the difficulties of rallying a majority around it, somewhat surprisingly declined to even try to negotiate an agreement. The PSOE reached an agreement with the center-right Ciudadanos that required the support of the populist radical left Podemos. Yet, Podemos was not willing to support an agreement in which Ciudadanos took part. The PSOE did not accept the alternative agreement proposed by Podemos because it required the support of peripheral nationalist parties and the acceptance of independence referendums for some regions (as the Catalan allies of Podemos, En Comú Podem, strongly defended); and Ciudadanos explicitly rejected any agreement that included Podemos. The first key political issues that the June 2016 elections were expected to clarify were, therefore, whether the new elections would produce a result that would made government formation any easier, and the ensuing implications in terms of potential punishment and rewards for parties’ behaviour during the failed post-election government formation negotiations.

From this point of view, the June election results were far from conclusive. In a country where coalition governments have only (although very often) occurred at regional and local government levels, the allocation of seats pointed again towards a new hung parliament in which government formation would be far from straightforward. The PP improved its result compared to December 2015, both in terms of the share of the votes and number of MPs, despite its passive role during the government formation negotiations. The new centre-right party, Ciudadanos, lost ground. The PSOE slightly improved its share of the votes but saw its number of MPs reduced again. The poor Ciudadanos and PSOE results made the previous attempts by these two parties to form a minority government a very unlikely endeavour. UP maintained its number of MPs gained separately by IU and Podemos in December 2015, but their share of the votes fell well below the sum of what these two parties and their regional alliances had obtained then.

In this context, the clear winner of the elections, the PP, was forced to search for a very difficult agreement involving Ciudadanos and PSOE. In this way, compared to December the PP strengthened its position, though not greatly, and Ciudadanos and the PSOE were forced to a more secondary and subordinate role. UP can only repeat the strategy of appealing to a ‘progressive’ alliance with the PSOE that was unsuccessful after the December election and now faces the same, unresolved arithmetic and political problems, but with the two left-wing parties in an even weaker position. The PP’s passive role after the December elections appeared to be rewarded by the voters as a result of the unsuccessful maneuvers of the PSOE and Ciudadanos to form a minority government.

The second key political issue at stake in the June 2016 election was linked to the party system change that has been taking place in Spain since the start of the economic crisis. This has been clearly and dramatically visible since the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections and, wholly articulated by the December 2015 elections results, has involved the severe weakening of the previously hegemonic position of the two larger parties (PSOE and PP), the weakening of the traditional or established radical left (IU), the rise of a centre-right party previously active only in Catalonia to a new role of nation-wide medium-sized party (Ciudadanos), and the forceful growth of a new populist radical left party (Podemos) that has been able to challenge the balance of power within the Spanish left. The June 2016 elections confirmed this new party system format with four big players. This was probably because the new elections took place only after six months after the previous ones but also consolidated the new party politics dynamics of post-2008 Spain.

These party political dynamics were the third key aspect emerging from the June 2016 elections. Besides the most prominent issue of government formation, two very relevant party competition issues were at stake. First, the competition in the centre-right political space between a new party, Ciudadanos, and the incumbent PP finally favored the latter. After the powerful showing of Ciudadanos in the December 2015 election the June one meant a significant strengthening of the incumbent PP and a weakening of the new party. Second, after the sky-rocketing results of the populist radical left Podemos in almost every election since 2014, the polls before the June 2016 elections indicated that it was going to overcome the PSOE as the main left-wing party. The Podemos-IU coalition (UP), jointly with their regional alliances, was apparently ahead of PSOE. However, as already happened in the December 2015 elections when Podemos did not reach its original extremely ambitious goal of winning, this time the expectations were also un-fulfilled. The coalition did not persuade or mobilize enough previous IU and Podemos voters and, as a consequence, its share of votes was well below what IU and Podemos had gained separately in December. UP did not win the elections and did not even overcome the PSOE as the largest party on the left. After a campaign in which the worst scenarios for the PSOE (a further decrease in its share of votes, becoming only the third largest party, and falling behind UP in popular support) were considered most likely, they were finally averted.

Finally, a fourth key political issue at stake in the June 2016 Spanish elections was of a more general and broader nature. It refers to the lessons that these elections leave us in terms of the post-2008 economic crisis elections in Europe. The elections after the 2008 crisis have very often resulted in: the electoral punishment of incumbents, the appearance of new parties, the rise of new populist contenders, and, in sum, significant party system changes. Spain certainly was a good candidate to show every one of these elements given that it was one of the hardest hit countries in the 2008 Great Recession. In Spain the very severe economic crisis, including hardly bearable unemployment levels, was soon followed by a political crisis, expressed through increased dissatisfaction and negative opinions of mainstream parties by citizens. The political crisis included recurrent cases of political corruption affecting above all the centre-right PP.

In a certain sense, Spanish politics lived through a perfect storm, and the expected consequences of such a crisis soon were fully visible. The incumbent PSOE was punished for its austerity policies in the first Great Recession election in 2011, successively the incumbent PP was punished in the 2015 elections also due to the continuation of austerity policies, a new centre-right party aiming at political regeneration, Ciudadanos, appeared to increase its public support rapidly, and a new populist radical left party, Podemos, achieved astonishing electoral successes in the 2015 and 2016 general elections. The mainstream parties saw their support severely weakened and the two new entrants on the right and left of the ideological spectrum introduced a party system change of seismic dimensions.

However, interestingly enough the electoral and political earthquake did not reach ‘Greek’ dimensions in the Spanish case. Some noteworthy elements should be mentioned in relation to this. The centre-right PP and centre-left PSOE maintained their positions as the two largest nationwide parties (although the latter by a very small margin), and the new actors were not able to win an election or to replace them. The PP was able to win the 2015 and 2016 elections, improving its results in the latter, despite the implementation of painful austerity policies and the bail out of the financial sector. In this sense, Spain joined the not-very-numerous group of West European countries where the incumbent was able to win the elections despite the electoral impact of the economic crisis.

Spain also showed that the joint effect of economic and political crises causes critical electoral and party system changes, as the historic decrease in support for the PP and PSOE shows. However, Podemos’ hopes of repeating the Greek Syriza experience in Spain and winning office (or being close to it) – or at least overcoming the PSOE as the largest left-wing party – were possibly unwarranted. In the December 2015 elections, although still tainted by the austerity implemented in its 2008-2011 term, the PSOE maintained its status as the second (and largest left-wing) party, and in the June 2016 elections, confronted by an even more threatening left-wing coalition headed by IU and Podemos, it was able to maintain its position. The challenger parties, and above all Podemos, could not repeat the success of Syriza in Greece despite the PSOE’s discredit in the absence of some of the Greek contextual conditions. These included a centre-left party that was not only delegitimized by the austerity policies that it implemented but also by its alliances with what some voters considered unacceptable government partners.

Finally, the Spanish June 2016 elections also showed an interesting feature in relation to EU politics and policies. Contrary to what has happened in some European countries in which the crisis has produced the rise of populist and challenger parties with strong anti-EU views, in the Spanish case the new actors still navigate within the limits of a broad pro-European integration consensus. Even Podemos and UP only display what could be at most considered as soft Euroscepticism. The de-legitimization of national elites and EU actors has not translated into a rejection of the European integration project in Spain.

Luis Ramiro is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester where he specializes in party politics.

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The Greens in the European Parliament: an overview

Nathalie Brack and Camille Kelbel

Over the recent period, European Parliament (EP) political groups, their behaviour, coalition formations and cohesiveness have raised lot of public attention as well as scholarly interest. Admittedly, the EP groups’ cohesion has increased over time as the main ones have grown and as the powers of the Parliament have increased. Most observers, however, tend to focus on the larger EP groups, which dominate the chamber politically. As a result, we know comparatively little about smaller groups, including the Greens. Despite diverging views of the various parties on several issues – including on the process of European integration itself – and a somewhat wobbly alliance with the regionalists, the Green group has managed to become one of the most cohesive ones, in the sense that its MEPs increasingly tend to align and vote together in the assembly (we concentrate here on the period up to the 2014 EP elections). Let us examine why this is the case.

Graph 1: EP Groups Cohesiveness in Roll Call Votes

Graph1

Source: Cicchi, 2011: 141
SOC.: Party of European Socialists, then Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)
EPP: European People’s Party-Christian Democrats & Conservatives, (EPP-ED), then EPP alone
ELDR: European Liberal, Democrat and Reform Party (ELD, ELDR), then Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE, after 2004)
LEFT: Radical Left (COM, LU, EUL/NGL) and Italian Communists & allies (EUL)
GREENS: Greens & allies (RBW[84], G, G/EFA)
ANTI: Anti-Europeans (EN, I-EN, EDD, IND/DEM after 2004, then EFD)
NA: Non-attached members

A first stream of explanation that naturally comes to our mind is the characteristics of the political group. Although it manages to be more influential on some policies (for example, data protection, environment policy) than its size would suggest, as a small group it is clearly not able to play a similar role as larger groups, such as the European People’s Party (EPP) or Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) which still dominate EP politics. The group is not in a position to strongly influence EP legislative outcomes on most issues as the parliament tends to be dominated by a ‘2+1 coalition’ that excludes it. Neither does it have many ‘sticks and carrots’ to reward or punish its members in case of defection as it does not control the main EP positions and offices. Besides its limited size, the group is constrained by its high diversity: it contains members from two European political parties, the European Green Party (EGP) and the European Free Alliance (EFA), that negotiate a political agreement on a yearly-basis, and embodies MEPs from no less than 15 member states and 21 national parties.

In our recent chapter on the topic, we find two main elements explaining why MEPs from the Greens-EFA group nevertheless often come to vote together: strategy and organisation. First, the Greens have developed a specific strategy aiming at maintaining the group’s unity by focusing on non-contentious issues among national delegations. This seems to be in line with the idea of a ‘mellowing’ of fundamental Green values and issues (Bomberg, 2002) rather than the development of a pan-European Green ideology as such. Our interviews suggest that the cohesion of the Greens is related to the group’s ability to leave aside more problematic matters and focus on consensual issues such as: ecology, the integrated approach of environment in other policy fields, peace and more diffuse policies related to ‘good governance’ concerns (such as data protection, transparency). At least in part thanks to this strategy, the Greens have been the first party at European level to run on a common platform for EP elections.

Second, the group’s organization is key to ensuring its cohesion. We argue that the Greens’ cohesiveness revealed by the roll call votes is at least partially explained by structural discipline mechanisms. This discipline does not echo the group’s general characteristics but rather its organizational specificities and level of institutionalisation. Although the Greens/EFA group cannot be considered one of the major groups, its organisation is very similar and plays a key role in its cohesiveness. The group has two deputy secretary generals who work at maintaining contacts with MEPs, policy experts, its co-Presidents and external actors. The group’s cohesion appears to be among their priorities. It also holds regular meetings as well as thematic working groups to define the common line. And all key political decisions are taken by the Bureau where ‘a common language’ is defined, especially when the position of the group is not self-evident. Furthermore, the Greens have adopted a co-presidency system and the leadership also plays a key role in ensuring the group’s political unity. The analysis of the frequency of contact shows that the Greens/EFA MEPs indicate a higher contact frequency with their group leaders than with national Ministers, members of their national political party or members of their national party’s executive. Moreover, our research has found that Greens/EFA MEPs also indicate a higher frequency of contacts with their group leader than MEPs from any other political group.

The patterns in terms of voting recommendations reinforce this idea. Group leaders dispense voting recommendations on specific policy issues. Greens/EFA MEPs indicate that they received voting recommendations from the group leadership more frequently than from other sources (the national government, national party leadership, national party delegation of MEPs, or EP committee leadership). The frequency of voting recommendations from the group leadership is also higher according to Greens/EFA MEPs than to their colleagues from other political groups.

The role of the national delegation – that is, the gathering and organization of MEPs from the same national party – could also be a key determinant for a group’s cohesion. Although the Greens/EFA group is subject to the influence of national delegations (and has often been dominated by the two large delegations, the Germans and French), this influence is arguably lower than in other groups in the sense that national delegations do not seem to constitute an obstacle to cohesion within the Greens/EFA group. If national party positions often differ from the EP group’s position, the culture of deliberation and compromises often helps to close the gap. Second, accounting for the delegations, the organization of the group reflects the balance of power between the national delegations. As in other groups, the leadership of the EP party is composed of the leaders of the larger national delegations. This eventually entails less policy conflicts for the MEPs from these major national parties, which make up the bulk of the group. These leaders thus retain control over a large proportion of the group’s MEPs. The co-presidency appears as a specific means of national delegation management. Given that the Greens/EFA group is almost invariably dominated by the French and the German delegations, its positions are largely traceable to the positions of these national delegations, which are also the more loyal.

In a nutshell, the Greens have become the most cohesive group in the EP and the organizational structure of the group plays a significant role in this respect. Through the function of its staff as brokers of interest, the importance given to co-leadership, the interactions between the group and the national delegations, as well as the strategy of the group to avoid controversial issues, the Greens/EFA group manages to be united on a wide range of policy areas. Yet, other explanatory variables deserve further research. Internally, analysing roll call initiative strategies would shed further light on the leadership-MEPs relations and mutual influence, as a means to ensure discipline.

Enlargement should also be further studied as an external factor of (un)cohesion. The main challenge for the Greens/EFA group is precisely the development and success of Green parties in Eastern and Southern Europe. The group has benefited less than any other EP group from the two last enlargement rounds. Despite a strategy clearly aiming at their implantation there, the Greens have not been successful in gaining seats in the 2014 EP elections in those countries. Paradoxically, if the relative weakness of Green parties from Eastern and Southern Europe is an important challenge, it also constitutes an asset. It has helped maintain a certain level of homogeneity within the group, contributing to its cohesion, thereby allowing the group to be more influential than its numerical size would suggest.

Nathalie Brack (nbrack@ulb.ac.be) is FNRS Researcher at the Cevipol (Université libre de Bruxelles) and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe. Her research interests include Euroscepticism, EU institutions, radical right, political opposition and parliamentary studies. She recently co-edited a special issue of the International Political Science Review on the mainstreaming of Euroscepticism (with Nick Startin, 2015).

Camille Kelbel (camille.kelbel@ulb.ac.be) is a PhD candidate at the ULB, taking part in the ‘PartiRep’ Interuniversity Attraction Pole. Prior to joining the ULB, Camille Kelbel was an academic assistant at the College of Europe, Bruges. Her PhD project focuses on candidate selection for European elections. More generally, her research interests lie in EU politics, political parties and elections.

It’s not just the economy, stupid: The UK referendum on EU membership, 2016

Paul Webb

‘…the worst form of majoritarian rule is when a minority actually rules, in the absence of an effective system of checks and balances’ (Bill Kissane ‘Is the Irish referendum a majoritarian device?’, in W. Marxer Direct Democracy and Minorities, Springer Verlag 2012, p.153.)

So ends the most bitter and polarising experience of postwar British electoral democracy. The economics of Brexit were heatedly and endlessly debated in the UK’s referendum campaign on EU membership, but ultimately they was trumped by voters’ considerations about national integrity and identity. A majority of 17.4m people voted to leave, while 16.1m voted to remain. For Brexiters ultimately these motives outweighed any concerns about the economic downside. To voters such as these, these are non-negotiable matters of identity – which is partly why their implications will resonate in complex ways beyond the event of the referendum itself. It is now inevitable that the issues which were the subject of so much febrile claim and counter-claim during the prolonged referendum campaign will continue to impact on the agenda of British politics and to forge realignments within and across the old lines of party politics.

The context and the campaign

Under pressure from the Europhobic wing of his own Conservative Party, Prime Minister David Cameron promised ahead of the 2015 general election that, should his party win a parliamentary majority, the government would seek to negotiate more favourable terms for British membership of the EU, before holding a referendum on whether the UK should remain in or leave the EU. On winning that majority (quite possibly to his surprise), he announced that a referendum would be held by the end of 2017 and embarked on negotiations with EU partners.

These negotiations resulted in a number of concessions and assurances being made to the UK. There were limits to in-work benefits for new EU immigrants , exclusion of the UK from ‘ever closer union’; more power for national parliaments to colletively veto proposed EU laws; and easier deportation of EU nationals for public security reasons. In February 2016, Cameron announced that the Government was content to recommend that the UK should remain in the EU on this basis, and that the referendum would be held on 23 June. He also announced that Conservative MPs – including government ministers – would be free to campaign on either side of the debate.

The campaign was focused around two officially recognised cross-party campaign groups – Britain Stronger in Europe for the ‘Remain’ side and Vote Leave for ‘Leave’. Each official campaign was entitled to spend up to £7m, free mailshots, TV broadcasts and £600,000 of public funding. In addition, an unofficial Leave.EU campaign, and a further offshoot of this called Grassroots Out, were active. While these unofficial operations were closely associated with UKIP and its maverick leader Nigel Farage, Vote Leave was largely the vehicle of Conservative Brexiteers with tensions between the two never far below the surface.

The campaign revolved around three major issues: the economy, immigration and the political independence of the UK from the EU. Evidence from an opinion poll conducted on the day of the vote suggests that the first of these was of overwhelming importance for those who wished the UK to remain in the EU, while those who opted to Leave were strongly motivated by the latter two concerns. Thus, while 40% of Remainers nominated the impact on jobs, investment and the economy generally as the number one reason for voting, and a further 13% felt that it would be better for their family circumstances, the respective figures for Leavers were only 5% for each of these options. By contrast, some 45% of Leavers nominated Britain’s right to act independently of other countries, and 26% believed it would improve the country’s ability to deal effectively with immigration as the most important factor, compared to figures of just 21% and 1% respectively for Remainers. Other issues also emerged in the course of the debate, especially the likely impact of a vote for Brexit on the integrity of the UK, but these did not attract the same degree of attention at the time – although this rapidly changed after 23 June. Overall, though, it is clear from this evidence that this voters’ choices in the referendum were not just about the economy, stupid.

There were various external interventions during the campaigns, especially by business representatives and independent researchers. Surveys of large UK businesses generally showed a strong preference for the UK to remain in the EU, while small and medium-sized UK firms (many of which depend less directly on overseas trade) were more equivocal. The UK Treasury warned of severe negative economic consequences of leaving the EU, a view that was backed up in various ways by independent bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (which estimated potential losses in tax revenues of tens of billions of pounds), and the IMF. As leading Brexit campaigners recognised that the UK would probably have to leave not just the EU but also the European Economic Area in order to control the free movement of people they became increasingly inclined to argue that a post-Brexit UK should trade with the EU under World Trade Organisation rules (which is to say, with import tariffs), which in turn sparked further warnings that such a turn would damage the British economy; for instance, the Centre for Economics and Business Research warned that half to thre-quarters of a million jobs could be lost if this happened.

The general tone of the debate became increasingly vitriolic as it progressed, with both sides accusing each other of making exaggerated claims, of ‘scaremongering’  or of downright mendacity. The nadir was reached with the shocking assassination of the pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox in her constituency on 16 June. Her assailant shouted ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ when arraigned in court.

The results

Table 1: United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016
Choice Votes  %
Leave the European Union 17,410,742 51.89
Remain a member of the EU 16,141,241 48.11
Valid votes 33,551,983 99.92
Invalid or blank votes 25,359 0.08
Total votes 33,577,342 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 46,501,241 72.2%

In demographic terms, the Remain and Brexit camps have been well defined for some time. Support for Brexit resembles that for UKIP in various ways, with particular strengths among older people, lower social class and less well educated voters. In YouGov’s final referendum poll conducted on the day of the vote itself, Leave seemed to enjoy commanding leads among voters aged over 50, and those whose highest educational qualification was GCSE or lower. Remain was the clear preference of those aged 18-49 and those educated to A-Level or degree standard. However, younger voters were far less likely to turnout at the referendum than older voters.

The polarisation of the UK is now sharply apparent in geographical terms. The vote for Brexit was strongest in a swathe of areas running down the east of England, especially in parts of Lincolnshire, Essex and the East Midlands, while London, Scotland and Northern Ireland remain the outposts of pro-EU sentiment. With Wales also voting for Leave, the electoral picture shows a divided Union.

Reactions and ramifications

The consequences for UK and Europe can only be speculated on so soon after the referendum, but it did not take long for the impact on party politics to become apparent. David Cameron resigned immediately, thus sparking a Conservative Party leadership contest. Boris Johnson emerged as an early favourite, with Stephen Crabb  Home Secretary Theresa May, Energy minister Andrea Leadsom and former minister Liam Fox declaring their candidacies. To widespread surprise, Johnson’s key ally in the referendum campaign, Michael Gove, announced that he could not support Johnson and declared his own candidacy instead. Johnson then decided not to stand for the leadership.

Even more striking was the impact on Labour: the referendum outcome ignited a new spasm of factionalism as a clamour of complaint and recrimination about Jeremy Corbyn’s lacklustre performance in the campaign developed. Within 48 hours of the referendum result being declared the majority of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet had resigned or been sacked, and shortly afterwards 172 Labour MPs (more than 80% of those taking part) supported a No Confidence motion against him. However, he refused to resign as Leader, arguing that he retained the overwhelming support of the party membership. At the time of writing, it seems inevitable that he will be formally challenged in a new leadership contest, with ex-Shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle apparently willing to be nominated. The possibility of a second victory for Corbyn within a year (given his continuing support amongst members) holds out the prospect of an eventual schism in the party. There is a very real prospect that Labour will fare badly in future elections, notwithstanding the Tories’ own problems, as the threat of enduring realignment of many of its traditional core voters to UKIP now looms very large.

While the parties struggled to come to terms with the outcome of the referendum, so did the electorate at large. The days following the referendum witnessed demonstrations against Brexit, outpourings of social media angst and recrimination, a marked growth in incidents of xenophobic abuse of foreigners of both EU and non-EU origin, petitions demanding a second referendum, and calls to lobby MPs not to support any Brexit vote in Parliament.

Beyond the UK (or what will eventually be left of it) the ramifications will be felt with perhaps even greater resonance: populists in France, Italy and the Netherlands swiftly demanded their own national referendums on EU membership. Leading figures from Merkel to Hollande and Juncker made it clear that the UK could not expect a special deal whereby it could cherry pick the parts of the EU that it liked and reject those it didn’t. In particular, there would be no prospect of British access to the Single Market without the free movement of people. It was also made clear that they wanted the UK to invoke Article 50 as soon as possible, and would not be negotiating behind the scenes until it did. Closer to home, relations between the two Irelands, one in the EU and one outside it, will bring further complexity to that island’s convoluted and troubled politics. Predictably, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP pointed to Scotland’s overwhelming support for Remain in the referendum and claimed that the material circumstances had now changed to such an extent that a second referendum on Scottish independence was ‘highly likely’; new opinion polls revealed a surge in support for independence. She travelled to Brussels and immediately started lobbying for ways in which Scotland could retain its links with the EU after Brexit even in the face of Spanish opposition fearing Catalan independence.

Constitutional reflections

Was the referendum a legitimate way of making a major constitutional change such as withdrawal from the EU? Using Arendt Lijphart’s well known ideal types, in a classic majoritarian democracy such as Westminster, Parliament is sovereign, which means that the majority there has the right to determine laws in a more or less undiluted manner, unchecked by other actors such as constitutional courts, or sub-national jurisdictions as in a federal system. This is an archaic view in some ways since it has evolved over centuries of practice in the UK, but it has accommodated itself to democracy since the 19th century to become a representative democracy based on the virtual model of representation: MPs are supposed to be chosen for their wisdom and experience to make decisions on behalf of their electors with a view to the national interest, and they are then duly held to account for their actions at ensuing elections. The alternative is a consensus model of democracy in which as many people and groups as possible get to influence the making (or vetoing) of decisions. This is based on a written constitution, constitutional courts and judicial review, proportional representation, multiparty politics and various other checks and balances designed to  protect minorities and prevent the accretion of power by a single political, social or territorial block. Constitutional revision is regarded as so fundamental to the stability and wellbeing of the polity that the procedure for changing it is typically rather complex and involves the need to overcome high barriers to change.

Seen in this light, what the UK has done with the EU referendum is to hand over decision making power on an extraordinarily complicated and important constitutional issue to the electorate with no provision for establishing a consensus. No special thresholds or super-majorities were put in place to render constitutional change difficult, no checks or balances were introduced, and no special measures to protect minority rights or interests. In effect, the elected representatives who were elected for their wisdom and expertise absolved themselves of their usual responsibilities, so we were left with neither a true majoritarian nor an authentic consensus style democracy. Indeed, one might reflect that this is not even a case of genuine majority rule, given that only 37.4% of the registered electorate voted for Brexit. Rather, it bears the signs of an incoherent, simplistic and ill thought-through approach to matters of major constitutional importance, which renders the whole exercise quite illegitimate in the eyes of some critics.

Paul Webb (p.webb@sussex.ac.uk) is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, and co-editor of the journal ‘Party Politics’.