Campaigners should get their retaliation in first

Geraint Talfan Davies looks forward to months of tangled political campaigning in Wales

Spare a thought for Welsh politicians. By the beginning of May 2011 they are going to be exhausted, broke and not a little confused after months of varying and probably reluctant cross party alliances, and none.

The first four months of the year will entail non-stop campaigning, first in a referendum on 3 March on further law-making powers for the National Assembly, and then on 5 May another referendum on whether or not to introduce the Alternative Vote system for electing the Westminster Parliament. This will be on the very same day as elections to the National Assembly – one straight party fight, and two cross-party challenges that will divide the parties in different ways.

All four parties will officially support more powers for the Assembly, although there will undoubtedly be Labour and Tory splinter groups saying ‘no’. True Wales – a ‘no’ grouping – will campaign under a name that ought to give the Advertising Standards Authority some concern. Labour will argue that the new powers are needed to fend off UK coalition plans, a line of argument that will push some Tories over the edge into opposition, while LibDems will deal with their embarrassment more quietly. A pull of hiraeth will mean that Neil Kinnock will probably toy with a ’79 style intervention, unless loyalty to Ed Miliband prevails.

With only eight weeks to go, both sides are aware of how difficult it is to mobilise a political campaign in Wales, whatever the issue, but especially on one which is of no possible interest to the tabloid press. Do not forget The Sun’s comprehensive coverage of the results of the 2007 Assembly elections – well, as comprehensive as you can get in 13 words, yes, 13 words. And that was in a story devoted to the Scottish result. The Welsh debate is going to be barely visible in the UK 24 hours news agenda. Catching the story there is going to be as difficult as catching a fish in a dead sea.

In the AV referendum, although some cross-party alliances may surface at a UK level, in Wales the concurrent Assembly elections will force parties to keep their distance from each other. Through an April campaign, Labour and Plaid, in coalition in Cardiff, will fight each other as well as the Conservatives and LibDems, whose partnership in the UK Government coalition will blunt their oppositional edge in Wales.

The Welsh public will be expected to make sense of two football matches played on the same pitch at the same time by four teams who may turn up in different shirts in either half. If this were happening at a UK level the political sports correspondents would be adding some artificial frenzy to the confusion and demanding the abolition of the FA. However, since the confusion will be confined to Wales and Scotland, they will probably leave it to the sketch writers.

Whatever the results of these votes, you can rest assured that the losing side or sides will be crying foul: the winning margin’s too narrow, or the turnout’s too low; the voters could not understand the question; the media didn’t pay enough attention; we were not allowed to get our ideas across; there was not enough information, there was too much of it, or it was biased. In fact, we are in a situation where it would be easier for campaigners to register their objections with the Electoral Commission well in advance. It would allow us all to ‘move on’ more quickly after the event. So herewith I offer some helpful suggestions.

No-one is happy with the date of the March referendum. It is perfectly possible that campaigners will be canvassing through February in the dark – clocks do not go forward until 27 March – though perhaps lightened by a deep covering of snow. Could differential turnout be affected by the presence or absence of gritter lorries in Cardiff, Gwynedd or Neath Port Talbot? In the past few weeks Cardiff gritters have rehearsed a stay indoors routine, and the staff of the Royal Mail have done likewise, presumably to measure how far they could disrupt the postal vote in the weeks before 3 March. Neither ploy seemed to worry the man who whizzed past our house in suburban Cardiff on cross-country skis, but I doubt if many will ski to the polls.

A quick thaw or just your increasingly average winter torrent may, of course, deliver floods, and it is difficult to envisage many determined democrats rowing to the polling booths to register their partiality for or dislike of Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. So might there be a possibility that the match will have to be postponed because of the weather, like Welsh rugby internationals in the days before covered stadia or underground heating? Does Cheryl Gillan have an alternative date in mind?

One option for the Secretary of State for Wales would be to postpone the Welsh referendum until the day of the Assembly elections and the AV referendum, to save money and maximise confusion. Since confusion in Wales and Scotland has not troubled her Deputy Prime Minister, who clearly does not think that tangled campaigns have any impact on voters once they have entered the polling booth, why should she worry? And I thought these were serious issues.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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