Over the past month we have seen two votes resulting in small majorities. The first, of course, was the EU Referendum, with the result of 52% Leave and 48% Remain. The other was the vote by the board of French utility EDF to give the go-ahead for the vastly expensive pair of nuclear power stations at Hinkley Point in Somerset; the vote was 10-7 in favour, but two board members resigned over the issue before the vote (one weeks before, the other at the last moment), so the result might have been 10-9.
That such results are decisive is a simple and straightforward view of democracy – the majority rules. Benefits of this simple process are clear rules, decisions made (as opposed to postponed), and a mandate for progress. When the majority is large – say two thirds or more – there is much to be said for going with the majority. However, when the majority is small – 2% changing their minds in the referendum, or one person out of nineteen altering their position with EDF – the basis for acting on the decision becomes much more questionable.
This situation is particularly difficult when the vote is a yes/no, go/no go decision. Deciding to leave the EU or build a huge power station is not something one can easily revisit in the light of events (though not impossible, of course). Changes to the law can be rewritten or revisited, but this kind of momentous binary decision needs to be tackled more carefully. For this reason, some (sensible) countries set higher bars for great constitutional changes – perhaps a 2/3rds majority in both houses or a combination of parliamentary and popular approval.
Think for a moment. A vote won by small majority may offer an answer to the question, but is it the best answer? Presumably those on the losing side have their reasons for opposing – are they to be ignored, or is the small majority a sign that the voters have yet to really find a position that reflects most of their views?
Some novel systems of governance specifically cater for this kind of situation. Sociocracy, for example, is a process whereby decisions are ‘made by consent’. One guide to Sociocracy puts it like this:
Consent is not consensus — it does not mean that everyone agrees. It means that nobody is aware of a risk that we cannot afford to take.
What this means in practice is a process of discussion, often with the help of a facilitator, to explore the risks of any decision to a point where they are agreed to be acceptable to all concerned. It moves the basis of a decision from yes/no to what/when, and with all the risks considered. This is not to say that risks are removed – that isn’t possible in the real world – but rather that they are considered and accepted as part of the way ahead.
One consequence of this move is that smaller and more step-wide decisions are often made. The world changes and moves on, some risks disappear, others become larger. So the trend is to make incremental decisions and refine the data on risks and rewards as we go along. Suppose that the EU Referendum, rather than on Leave/Remain, was about telling the Government to fully explore the benefits of leaving so that a proper proposal could be presented? This would probably have gained a larger majority anyway, and would be a step on the journey rather than trying to make an ill-considered leap into the unknown.
The latest moves on Brexit bear out the fact that these risks are relatively unexplored, let alone agreed. Arch-Brexiteers Bernard Jenkin and Jacob Rees-Mogg have written this week that Leaving is straightforward. Many others, including former Irish premier John Bruton and legal expert David Allen Green, disagree. The insistence by some Leave campaigners that ‘The People Have Spoken’ and that there can be no revisiting the decision indicates that they are well aware of the vulnerability of this outcome to further rational debate.
Tiny majorities are not a good basis for huge decisions – whichever way the vote goes. The size of the mandate is better viewed in terms of the size of the margin, as an indicator to move forward with greater or less certainty. A small margin is a small mandate; to explore and continue discussions in a direction, not to make a giant leap without any further consideration of the options, risks and return. It is above all a vote to keep talking, not to act with unwarranted certainty.
Dr Mark McKergow is an international speaker, consultant and author specialising in helping organisation to make progress in tough situations. He is co-author of four books including the best-selling The Solutions Focus (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2007) and is a visiting research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire. His websites are http://sfwork.com and http://hostleadership.com.