David Cameron and the problem of setting real political choices

David Cameron’s referendums were regarded as reflections of ‘the will of the people’.  But is that true?  Here Peter Emerson of the de Borda Insitute questions that assumption then proposes a better methodology.

2011 Referendum on the Electoral System.

Cameron’s first problem?   “Those damned Lib-Dems and the voting system!”  Hence the first ‘which’, to silence dissent in the coalition cabinet.

Many people wanted proportional representation, pr, either pr-list as in Denmark, the Irish pr-single transferable vote, pr-stv, or whatever.  Others wanted first-past-the-post, fptp, the alternative vote, av, (which is stv in single-seat constituencies), or again whatever.  The choice was huge.

Cameron’s first preference was fptp and his second av.  So that was the first ‘which’: “fptp or av, which d’you want?”  For supporters of pr, however, it was like asking a vegetarian, “Beef or lamb?” 

With zero support for pr (because it wasn’t on the ballot paper), the outcome was hopelessly inaccurate.  Now maybe fptp was the most popular but, on the basis of just a two-option poll, it was impossible to say. 

For Cameron, however, it was perfect: he chose the question, and the question determined the answer, a massive 68 to 32%.  Magic.  The people have spoken; well, ‘X’ed; and that’s the end of that argument. 

So why not another referendum? 

Scotland 2014

His second problem?   “The bloody snp and independence!”

There were three options: (a) the status quo, (b) maximum devolution or ‘devo-max’ as it was called, and (c) independence. 

Thinking that (a) would easily beat (c) in a two-option contest, just as fptp had wiped out av, Cameron insisted on a binary ballot: “(a) or (c), which d’you want?”

In the campaign itself, however, option (c) gained strength.  So a vow was made – double, double, toil and trouble – and (a) was morphed into (b). 

On the ballot paper, however, the ‘which’ was still only (a) or (c).  So the results, 55 and 45%, were also hopelessly inaccurate.  Furthermore, because of that vow, the winner was (b)… but no-one had voted for it!

Cameron, however, got what he wanted!  We return to the ‘whiches’ coven’.

The eu Referendum

Believing as it does in majority voting, the Tory Party (along with others in the field) is a beast of two huge wings on a tiny body; so the creature is often in a flap, especially over Europe. 

Then, stage right, another scary monster, ukip, augmented Cameron’s third problem.  “These cursed Europhobes!”  Ah, the third ‘which’: “remain or leave, which d’you want?”

But ‘leave’ won, and Cameron, politically, is now dead.  The people have spoken, but nobody knows ‘the will of the people’, what the 52% actually want!  The outcome, yet again, is hopelessly inaccurate.

Democratic Theory

Now, consider a hypothetical example.  To determine the average age by a majority vote, the question would probably be, “Are you young or old?” 

So, no matter what the outcome, it would be wrong!  If, however, the question were multi-optional, “Are you in your twenties, thirties, forties, etc.?” the answer could be deemed accurate.

Likewise with collective opinion, every voter should be positive.  No-one should be voting ‘no’, ‘out’ or ‘leave’; instead, everyone should be in favour of something: the uk in the eu, in the eea, independent of both, or whatever.

Experience Abroad

When in 1992 New Zealand debated its electoral system, an independent commission drew up a five-option referendum: fptp plus four alternatives, pr-stv and three other systems, as it were, in the middle. 

So (nearly) every voter could vote positively, and New Zealand now enjoys pr.

A ‘Which’s’ Brew

If a question is binary, only one form of voting is appropriate: a (simple or weighted) majority vote.  Very few questions should be binary, however, especially in any pluralist democracy. 

With lots of options, however, popularity can be measured in many ways: the option with the most 1st preferences, with the least last preferences, with the best average, or whatever. 

And the best average is not win-or-lose; it is indeed the average, so it involves every voter; and it’s very accurate.


  • Contentious and/or complex problems should not be reduced (and distorted) to dichotomies.
  • Such problems should first be subject to an independent commission, tasked to draw up a (short) list of about four options.
  • Voters should be enabled to cast preferences on these options.


Both in referendums and in parliaments, politics should be based on multi-option ballots, with choices as in a restaurant to cater for most tastes. 

Then, if outcomes were determined by the highest average preference scores, we would no longer suffer from a democratic structure which allows one faction, and sometimes just one individual – Bashar al-Assad, Robert Mugabe – to rule over others. 

With the prospects of Trump, Le Pen and other extremists, established democracies also need a more inclusive politics, desparately! 

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