To Break the Brexit Impasse, You Need a Leap of Imagination

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Parliament’s endless indicative votes on Brexit are becoming painful to watch. Legislators don’t really want to pick an option, with some simply playing for time to ensure a no-deal exit.

If they actually wanted to decide something, there is one thing they could use to break the impasse: qualitative voting.

“In comparison with the British parliament, a sphinx is an open book,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker complained in a speech on Monday. “We need to get the sphinx to talk.”

But the sphinx of Westminster has been far from silent. It has debated several options: a long list, voted on last week, and a shortlist, tested on Monday. The reason no winner has emerged is that legislators are trying to skirt a phenomenon known as the Condorcet paradox, first described by the mathematician Nicolas de Condorcet in the 18th century. 

Simply put, because democratic, collective decisions depend on the order in which the alternatives are considered, they may leave the majority unhappy. Parliament’s current procedure, where individual options are put to the vote separately, leaves legislators’ second and third preferences ignored, and produces some decidedly odd results. Tactical voting patterns emerge. A large number of MPs backed all four options on Monday, although at least two of them were mutually exclusive, or rejected all four even though nothing else is on the menu.

Condorcet’s ideal solution was to find an option that would win in a run-off against any other one. But holding such a series of votes would, in the case of Brexit, be over-complicated and risk alienating voters.

I wouldn’t be the first to propose a solution based on a different voting procedure. Others have argued for what’s known in the U.S. as ranked choice voting or preferential, alternative or instant run-off voting. They are on the right path. I’d argue, however, for a particular form of ranked choice which, I think, fits the Brexit situation best.

Preferential voting methods are most often used to pick candidates rather than ideas or scenarios. London’s mayoral elections use this system, where voters make a first and a second choice. If no candidate wins an outright majority of first choices, the top two candidates are pitted against each other in a run-off in which the votes that went to the unsuccessful candidates are redistributed according to the second choices. U.K. voters, however, rejected plans to use this system for parliamentary elections in a 2011 referendum.

Another preferential voting system used in the U.K. is the so-called “exhaustive ballot,” the system the Conservative party uses to pick its leader. Under these rules, repeated votes are held and the candidate with the least support is eliminated in each round.

What’s fine for electing officeholders, however, doesn’t quite work as a way to resolve complex conflicts like Brexit. The idea here isn’t just to determine a winner, but to capture the intensity with which every legislator supports or rejects every option. 

The method best suited to such a situation is cumulative voting, or qualitative voting as it’s called in some academic literature. Here, MPs would get a finite number of points to distribute among the options they favor. The one receiving the most would be the winner.

Since the votes would only be indicative, it wouldn’t matter that the system breaks the principle of one person, one vote. It is more important to break the Condorcet paradox and force MPs to express a clear and constructive preference.

By allocating a number of points, the system would reflect finer differences in opinion, make tactical voting more difficult, and allow MPs to express a view. Conservatives could express their relative opposition to various forms of softer Brexit, while Labour MPs could express the interests of their leave-voting constituents.

The one preferred outcome could then be tested against all the others — and a way forward decided. With only a few more days to go before Britain risks crashing out of the EU, and the government unable to push through its own deal, flexibility and imagination are essential. The EU is only likely to grant another extension to the divorce negotiations once the British sphinx is making choices rather than turning them all down.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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