First point: a referendum is not a general election. It’s a direct popular vote and it’s meant to be for ever, not just for 5 years.
In a referendum, all votes count, and, in principle, so do all citizens with the right to vote – not just the greatest number of votes given for an MP in a given constituency, as with an election.
Therefore it’s no objection to say that if non-turnout had been counted in previous elections, they would all have been invalid or questionable.
So, as I see it at this stage, everything false about the alleged mandate for Brexit boils down to this question:
Exactly when is it permissible to ignore non-turnout in a referendum?
It is permissible when the referendum is:
- Advisory – no threshold has been set but with Parliament having a say.
- Binding – Parliament not having a say but with a threshold set, based on a percentage of all eligible voters (not just of votes cast).
However, it is not permissible to ignore non-turnout when the referendum is:
3. Advisory but (a) Parliament has no say and (b) no threshold has been set.
This is the situation we have. In this situation we have both (a) and (b).
If we had only (b), with Parliament given a say, it would be the same as (1) and would be permissible.
If we had only (a), with Parliament not given a say but with a threshold set, it would be the same as (2) and would be permissible.
But instead we have both (a) and (b).
So when Parliament is not given a say and no threshold has been set, it is illegitimate to ignore non-turnout.
Therefore it is legitimate to count the 28% that did not turn out to vote.
Therefore the true vote to Leave is the 37% of eligible voters, not the 52% of votes cast.
The government has been getting away with this because it has been performing a pick-and-mix operation:
It is choosing to take a result from an advisory referendum but not following the rules of an advisory referendum. And it is choosing to follow the rules of a binding referendum but not taking the result that would be yielded under the rules of a binding referendum.
So it is picking the result it likes and the rules it likes, but not the result it doesn’t like and the not rules it doesn’t like.
That is a trick. It is a type of cheating. It is a legerdemain or sleight of hand.