Consultation as an alternative to a Second Referendum? Why it’s not the answer!

We live in extraordinary political times – so fluid that this article may be obsolete faster than anything else ever written by the Institute.

However – right now – 7th December, there is an emerging awareness that our representative democracy has blundered into an impasse. A destructive stalemate where usually-closed minds are casting around for innovative solutions they would never normally contemplate. They need something – anything … anything …to settle a divisive issue. Most desperate are those who promised to abide by a Referendum result but are unhappy with Mrs May’s deal – and that includes both Remainers as well as Leavers. The People’s vote is attractive to many, but carries risks for all sides.


So suddenly we hear voices suggesting that maybe we ought to assert the primacy of Parliament and it should organise a Grand Parliamentary Consultation?

That way, it can avoid another Referendum.

After all, consultation is not a vote. But it does allow all the arguments to be heard and assessed openly and transparently. On BBC Question Time, Stella Creasy MP has suggested a Citizens’ Assembly such as was used successfully to break the logjam on the emotive abortion issue in the Republic of Ireland, leading to a successful referendum for change. On Andrew Neil’s This Week programme, Liz Kendall repeated the suggestion. Others have talked about local consultations in every constituency to advise MPs on which way to cast their votes. Enthusiasts for public involvement claim that ‘everyone can have a say’. Public participation without the crude outcome of a Yes/No vote. The country’s divisions, they claim, can start to be healed through the therapeutic process of dialogue…

Sceptical?  Maybe with good reasons:

  1. Consultation requires decision-makers to have an open mind. The proposals are meant to be at a formative. Neither realistically apply in this case. The odd MP might be willing to be persuaded but many of them – like the rest of us – have long since made up their minds. And the Government’s mind? Whichever Party is in power, it may well be influenced by its electoral calculations. Gunning One is a problem;
  2. Gunning Two requires sufficient information about the proposal. But it is the information war that bedevilled the 2016 Referendum.From ‘fake news’ to ‘project fear’ one side protests at the distortions of the other. A good consultation, in self-corrective mode, seeks to eliminate such differences and tries to secure a debate that’s based upon as much consensual information as possible. In this case – not a chance!
  3. Although the Gunning Principle of time may technically be accommodated, the true sense of the requirement is that there is enough opportunity for people to assess the arguments and then contribute. Opting for a sample-based dialogue method would leave too many feeling they were excluded. Enabling everyone to participate could generate more data than anyone could analyse and absorb in a hurry…
  4. Giving conscientious consideration to the output of the consultation would require a super-human act of political forbearance. Consultation rarely provides a decisive answer so someone has to carefully weigh up the evidence of people’s views and arguments. Not sure EU membership has ever been a matter of making fine judgements – more the brute force of values-based considerations;
  5. More important maybe than the Gunning principles is that wheeling out a consultation right now might discredit the process. In The Politics of Consultation, we argue that politicians should not misuse the consultation process because they find decision-making difficult. For many people, the 2016 vote brought the idea of Referendums into disrepute. Might the use of consultation in this toxic environment damage the consultation concept in much the same way?

Consultation is a great technique for assisting the decision-making process in lots of situations. But it’s not appropriate everywhere. If a Citizens’ Jury were, improbably, to come down decisively in favour of one argument or another, it would prompt endless scrutiny of its membership. Who were they? Who chose them? What were they told? By Whom? And on and on. Closure? Not likely!

In hindsight, it might well have been better to hold a consultation in 2016 rather than a Referendum. In a consultation one can say ‘Yes …but’, ‘Yes …if’, ‘No… at this price’ or ‘No at any price’ and all shades in between.  Referendums allow no such nuances, but that is the path that Parliament took, and no doubt now regrets.

Can it now turn to consultation to rescue it from this folly? Probably not.

And yet? … And yet? … Who knows?

In the current climate, all the other options might prove even worse.

Best of a bad job? Least worst option? Let’s hope not!

About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 400 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 300 different Topic papers and over 40 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

Read more about Rhion

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