Finessing the Referendum

John Osmond relays some advice for the Welsh Government on managing the vote on timing the next Assembly plebiscite.

Amongst all his other preoccupations this week – not least putting the finishing touches to his Cabinet which he announces on Thursday – our new First Minister Carwyn Jones will be wondering how to manage a decision on when to hold the referendum on more powers for the Assembly. Make no mistake, clear leadership on this question will have to be displayed as soon as the Assembly returns in January following the Christmas break. If the Welsh Government don’t take the initiative, then either the Liberal Democrats or Conservatives will, by forcing a vote. Pondering his next move Carwyn will be considering some advice he has received from the Chairman of the All Wales Convention Sir Emyr Jones Parry.

Sir Emyr revealed some of his thinking at the IWA’ Life Under the Tories conference in Cardiff at the end of last week. The dilemma for the Welsh Government – and this includes both its Labour and Plaid partners – is that they have to come to some kind of a decision on the referendum early next year, well ahead of the forthcoming Westminster general election. However, this threatens to ensnare the referendum in the Westminster campaign. In the general election politicians will be knocking lumps out of each other rather than emphasising the harmony and collaboration that is needed to get a Yes vote on more powers for the Assembly.

This is partly what has been motivating Welsh Secretary Peter Hain in his effort in recent months to kick a referendum into the long grass, and certainly  until after the general election. It was Hain who was behind the Labour Party statement issued just ahead of the Assembly’s initial debate on the Convention report on 24 November. This declared that the party was prioritising the general election and would only get round to considering a referendum once it was over.

Which is where Sir Emyr Jones Parry’s advice comes in. He’s suggested to both Carwyn Jones and Plaid’s leader Ieuan Wyn Jones that, by all means have a vote on the ‘principle’ of a referendum in January, but don’t formally move to a vote on demanding one until the next government is in power. As he put it at last Friday’s conference, “There isn’t much point in dropping the referendum demand on the present Parliament.  Much better to drop it on the next Parliament. I’d want to drop it when I knew the circumstances of the next Parliament. There would still be time to have the referendum in late Autumn 2010.”

This course of action would be a classic compromise. It would reiterate the intention of the One Wales coalition agreement between Labour and Plaid on holding a referendum, but stave off firing the starting pistol for the campaign until May or June. In the process it would help Carwyn Jones’s efforts in achieving unity within the Labour Party arounding fighting a referendum. It would also allay fears held by Ieuan Wyn Jones that a campaigning vacuum between February and May would give the No campaigners an opportunity to steal a march.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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