The story of Brexit can be told in votes.
First, the 2016 referendum, when Britain voted to leave the European Union. Next, the snap election in 2017, causing the governing Conservative Party to lose its majority and forcing it into a coalition. Then, Parliament’s rejection of the government’s negotiated plan in three separate votes.
Which brings us to the most recent set of votes. Parliament held two rounds of “indicative votes” to assess support for its options to proceed. On March 29, and again on April 1, Parliament held non-binding votes on plans for ending its relationship with the EU. Both times, it used a ballot allowing members to vote “yes” or “no” on each plan, similar to how an election might operate under approval voting.
Why hasn’t Parliament come to a consensus? While many Members of Parliament (MPs) are participating in process and supporting multiple options, large numbers voted “no” on every option or abstained from voting altogether. This is a highly contentious issue, and unlike in popular elections, legislative votes are public expressions, not private choices. Such pressure can make it difficult for proposals to gain a parliamentary majority. In Parliament’s polarized environment, each side of the debate voted only for its preferred options, with almost no crossover voting between the Remain and Leave camps (among the MPs who voted at all).
Under these conditions, a binary “yes” or “no” choice can be a helpful way to gauge each proposal’s support, but cannot guarantee consensus through a majority winner. The best means of achieving these outcomes would be a process to winnow down options, either through multiple rounds of voting, with the least popular option being eliminated each round, or the use of a ranked voting method.
Britain enters the next chapter of Brexit with no clear direction. If Parliament wants this to be the final chapter, it should hold binding votes using a method that will produce majority support, consensus, and resolution.