Timing the next vote on the Assembly

John Osmond, IWA Director

This week’s survey from the Institute of Welsh Politics at Aberystwyth University, showing that most people now favour moving ahead to establish a legislative Parliament for Wales, confirms a trend that has been under way for the best part of ten years.
Until the 1997 referendum, and during most of the previous decade, around 40 per cent had been opposed to an Assembly, and only around 20 per cent had been in favour of a Parliament. By now, however, these positions have been reversed. Since the early 2000s around 40 per cent have favoured a law-making Parliament and by today those opposed to change have fallen to just 15 per cent – see Table 1.

What has accounted for this shift? A major reason must be the creation of the Assembly itself, albeit by the slimmest of majorities in the 1997 referendum. Once it was under way the Assembly became the new status quo and most people, conservative as ever, have come to see it as part of the landscape, with a plurality supporting it having more powers in order to operate more effectively.

The argument now moves on to when it will be the most opportune time to hold the referendum on moving to Part IV of the 2006 Act to give the present Assembly legislative powers without going cap in hand to Westminster to ask for them via Legislative Competence Orders. Judging the timing is one job of the Convention under the chairmanship of Sir Emyr Jones Parry that has been established as a result of the One Wales coalition agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru.

The One Wales agreement specifies that the referendum should be held “as soon as practicable, at or before the end of the Assembly term”, in May 2011. Since the Convention will not complete its work before the end of 2009 this leaves very little room for manoeuvre, especially given the complication of the timing of the Westminster General Election, which is most likely to take place in the Spring or early Summer of 2010.

This will leave the Autumn 2010 or Spring 2011, at the same time as the next Assembly election, as the only feasible options for holding the referendum if the terms of the One Wales agreement are to be met.

It seems, however, that the Electoral Commission has ruled out the prospect of holding the referendum at the time of the next Assembly election. This is how Glyn Mathias, the former Electoral Commissioner for Wales put it, writing in the Summer 2008 issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda:

“There might be a temptation to combine the referendum with the elections to the Assembly in May 2011, but the Electoral Commission has made it clear that they would oppose such a combination. The issues at stake in an election for seats in the Assembly would be far more wide-ranging than the issue at stake in a referendum. To combine elections with a referendum could leave the electorate very confused.”

However, it may be worth considering some counter arguments. Is the electorate are so ill-equipped to differentiate between two very distinct matters when voting? Combining two plebiscites in this way are common in other democratic jurisdictions, not least in American Presidential elections when voters also choose senators and congressmen, and often local office holders as well. It is noteworthy that Schedule 6 to the 2006 Wales Act expressly allows for the referendum to be held on the same day as the 2011 Assembly election, in the following terms

“An Order in Council under section 103(1) may make provision for and in connection with the combination of the poll at the referendum which it causes to be held with that at an election or at another referendum (or both).”

Other reasons that might be advanced for holding the two votes on the same day would be:

1. It could maximise democratic engagement with the issue of more powers for the Assembly.

2. The case for more powers would become an integral part of the Assembly election campaign – with candidates obliged to lay out their positions and argue their case. This would lead to greater public awareness of the issues.

3. It would maximise turnout for the referendum – thereby underpinning the democratic legitimacy of the result.

4. It would also maximise turnout for the Assembly election – with the Yes and No campaigns amplifying the messages sent out by the parties.

5. Having the two votes on the same day would save money.

It will be interesting to see whether the Convention will take issue with the Electoral Commission on this question of the timing of the referendum.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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