True Wales opts out of taking a lead role

John Osmond unpacks the reasons why the No campaign has decided to refuse funding from the Electoral Commission

By refusing to take the role of lead organisation in the referendum campaign the organisation True Wales was effectively closing down a lot of the debate. At its launch in Newbridge Rugby Club last night the campaign claimed it ‘s decision was aimed at saving taxpayer’s money. But the effect is likely to frustrate the Yes side’s efforts in contacting voters and so depress the turn-out. Under the Electoral Commission’s rules, unless there are designated lead Yes and No campaigns, neither side can be funded to distribute leaflets to every Welsh household or have access to television broadcasts.

The decision was a raw political calculation. At their launch No campaigners conceded they would be limiting their spending in the campaign to £10,000. Simply printing 1.3 million leaflets sufficient to reach every Welsh household would cost in the region of £24,000. This sum is within the sights of the Yes campaign, but not the No campaign. That must be a major reason why True Wales decided against registering as the lead campaign.

The Electoral Commission has a responsibility to ensure that the public are presented with information about the choice it has to make on 3 March. So long as properly constituted campaigns on either side were reaching the electorate to at least a minimum extent it could be argued that a debate of sorts was being conducted.

The only precedent of where we are that I can think of takes you back to 1975 and the referendum on Britain’s entry into what was then known as the Common Market. Of course, there was no Electoral Commission in those days and no legal framework within which the debate could be held.  The Yes and No campaigns split the Wilson Labour government of the day. What happened was that the government paid for leaflets produced by the Yes and No campaigns to be delivered to every household. I can’t recall whether the government paid for the leaflets to be printed, but it certainly paid the postage, which is the major expense. It is calculated that the cost of reaching the 1.3 million Welsh households is in the region of £100,000.

The Electoral Commission has produced an ‘information’ leaflet of its own and will be distributing this to every household in Wales, starting at the end of January. The ten-page leaflet is already published on its website. It contains some straightforward facts about what the referendum is about and who is entitled to vote, but does not attempt to describe the arguments. Instead, under a heading ‘What are the arguments?’ it simply states, “Campaigners in the referendum will explain why they think you should vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’. They will communicate through TV, the radio, newspapers and websites.” However, as a result of True Wales’ decision they are now highly unlikely to be doing so through widely distributed leaflets or in television campaign broadcasts.

Earlier today the Electoral Commission put out the following statement explaining the current status of the Yes and No campaigns:

“Two applicants have applied to the Electoral Commission to become ‘lead campaigners’ for the referendum on the law-making powers for the National Assembly set to take place on 3 March, the independent elections watchdog has announced. The Commission must now decide whether to designate lead campaigners for both sides of the debate, or for neither.

“Anyone spending more than £10,000 campaigning at the referendum must register with the Electoral Commission as a ‘registered campaigner’. Several campaigners – representing both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ sides of the debate – have so far registered with the Commission. A list of the campaigners currently registered with the Electoral Commission for the can be found on the Electoral Commission website.

“Registered campaigners could also apply to be designated by the Commission as ‘lead campaigners’ for the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns, and had until midnight on Wednesday 19 January to do so. A designated ‘lead campaigner’  has access to higher spending limits, a grant of public money, referendum broadcasts and free delivery of campaign material to voters.

“One group – ‘Yes for Wales’ – submitted an application to become the lead ‘Yes’ campaigner. One individual – David Alwyn ap Huw Humphreys – submitted an application to become the lead ‘No’ campaigner.

“The Political Parties, Elections & Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000 requires the Commission to determine whether each application to become a lead campaigner ‘adequately represents’ those campaigning for the relevant referendum outcome.

“If there are applicants for both sides that do adequately represent those campaigning for a particular outcome, the Commission must designate those applicants as lead campaigners. However, the Commission must designate  lead campaigners for both sides of the debate, or not at all. The Commission must decide whether it can appoint lead campaigners for both sides of the debate by 2 February 2011.

“The Commission has a duty to promote public awareness in Wales about the referendum. The Commission will be sending an information booklet to every household in Wales, explaining the subject of the referendum to voters, as well as how to take part on 3 March. This will be supported by an advertising campaign across television, radio, print and the internet starting next week.

“The Commission will start sending out the information booklet from next week. A copy of the booklet is available on the Commission’s website.”

It seems extremely unlikely that the eccentric David Alwyn ap Huw Humphreys, a retired nurse from Glan Conwy who blogs under the name ‘Miserable Old Fart will be designated a lead campaigner by the Electoral Commission.

So the result of no organisation being designated as a lead Yes or No campaign is that both sides will forfeit the chance of sending out a post-free mailshot to every household, free access to broadcasts, and funding from the Electoral Commission of up to £70,000. There are strict rules on how this money can be used. The Commission’s media briefing says, “Lead campaigners may use the grant to pay for set up costs and the infrastructure of their campaign, such as office furniture and computer equipment. They may not use the grant to meet the cost of campaign materials.”

True Wales claims its decision not to take a lead role was in order to save the taxpayer money. But it may be calculating that it will also have the effect of depressing turn-out in the referendum to such an extent that a question mark might be placed over its legitimacy. There are no rules here, but if there is a narrow Yes vote on a turn out of, say, less than 20 per cent there would bound to be claims that the result lacked credibility.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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