The Regulatory Policy Institute Research Group

What does the UK want?

The governance system of the UK has suffered Brexit paralysis for 30 months in the face of a parent-to-child question “What do you want?” It has been asked many times over in the capitals of Europe, without any apparent, great success in eliciting a clear response. It is time to end the statis by testing out the preferences of MPs.

With a little bit of help from basic social science the initial exercise could be simple and very quick. The aim is limited — to discover more about preference orderings — not to invent a voting mechanism that will be determinative in relation to major decisions. It is the classic aim of regulatory impact assessment: to inform decisions, and to do no more than that.

When an issue is binary (Remain/Leave), a preference can be revealed by asking the subject to choose between the two options. When there are multiple options, preferences are discovered by asking for a multiplicity of binary choices to be made. A more comprehensive preference ordering is then built up from these binary comparisons.

That’s hard to do if there are myriad options available. But suppose there are only four, broad-brush options that require immediate assessment: A, B, C and D. There are then only six binary rankings/choices required: A vs B, A vs C, A vs D, B vs C, B vs D and C vs D. That entails entering a cross in six out of 12, paired boxes.

Such a questionnaire could fit on a sheet of A4, with plenty of white space, and is a lot less complex than a Californian ballot paper. The full dataset for the UK House of Commons can be coded in a 650 (approx.) x 6 spreadsheet, most cells having 0 or 1 entries. That is a small-scale data exercise.

Some of the returns may, of course, violate the axioms of rational choice theory (e.g. by showing ‘cyclicity’ or ‘non-transitivity’), but most human decision-making does that anyway (don’t panic: it just means that the theory fails and that should disturb no-one other than those invested in it). The data will be what they will be.

The four broad-brush Brexit options I would suggest are: (A) Remain in the EU, (B) ‘Norway’ (Leave the EU, but remain in the EEA), (c) a Stand-alone WA (‘stand-alone’ because it is the only framework Agreement sought), and (D) No Framework Agreement (‘No Deal’, but allowing for the possibility of specific agreements).

The stand-alone qualification is important because, for example, ‘Norway’ can be combined with a WA that covers matters not encompassed or not adequately addressed by the EEA Agreement itself, the most obvious of which are trade in agri-foods, trade in fish, and customs arrangements. Aspects of one approach can potentially be used to support or complement another, broad-brush approach.
The individual polling is not, however, a stand-alone exercise. The intent would be to form a view of opinions in the House of Commons as a whole. Knowledge of this intent may tempt respondents to play games with their individual responses.

MP X may prefer A to B to C, but, if B is thought to be the closest ‘competitor’ to A, he/she may be tempted to rank C above B in the binary choice between those two (less preferred) options, in hope of increasing the prospects for A at the collective level. We are all well familiar with this type of game playing from observing the Brexit process so far.

One defence against this is to make the dataset publicly available so that constituents, spreadsheet nuts, researchers, journalists et al can interrogate first the data and then the individual MP. In a representative democracy, MPs owe us their judgments for sure (Burke), but they also owe us some level of explanation for those judgments.

The prize in all this is an improved first mapping of individual and collective preferences, deliverable very quickly. There is a vote in the Commons next Tuesday. If the WA is voted down, an exercise like this could potentially be completed by the end of the week. If Government and Parliament won’t do it, a polling organisation or think tank could.

Will it work and be helpful? We don’t know. It is definitional that the outcomes of discovery processes are unknown: they don’t come with guarantees. We are already in ‘uncharted territory’, but, trained as a geographer, Mrs May should know that it might be a Good Thing to start charting it.

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