Welsh Referendum campaigns, and the question of turn out

Alan Trench assesses the problems on both sides of the Assembly referendum

The state of both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns in the referendum on primary legislative powers in Wales has been a cause of concern for some time.  On the ‘Yes’ side, the problem has been the length of time it has taken to put together a campaign organisation and launch it.  Finding common ground took most of the autumn, but a chairman – Roger Lewis of the Welsh Rugby Union – was named before Christmas, and the campaign ‘Yes for Wales’ formally launched just after the New Year.  (The ‘Yes for Wales’ website is here, for those interested.)

The No campaign’s problems are different.  There’s been an organisation advancing that position for some time, in the form of True Wales.  The problem has been just how well organised and credible it is.  While its statements are regularly quoted in the Western Mail and by the BBC, it’s not clear how much interest it’s drawn from the public.  It may not have succeeded in going around the country stirring up apathy, but as Richard Wyn Jones observed privately a little while ago the No campaign’s main audience seem to have been Yes campaigners.  Those problems are such that Carwyn Jones has now observed that there may not be a properly organised No campaign accepted as such by the Electoral Commission, which would have serious effects for the Yes campaign as well (not just not receiving public money).

The No campaign have two huge problems, and it’s no surprise that they’re in difficulties as a result.  The first is that they can’t argue the case they’d like to, for abolition of the National Assembly and Welsh Assembly Government.  The only option in the referendum is the primary legislative powers set out in Part 4 of and Schedule 7 to the 2006 Act, versus the status quo.  They have to argue in favour of something they don’t like very much, to oppose something they like even less.  That’s very tricky to do, especially with all the problems that clearly attend the working of the present system.

The second problem is that this is, in a constitutional sense, an unnecessary referendum.  It is being held because the Government of Wales Act 2006 requires it.  If the introduction of something like Part 4 were now being contemplated afresh, a referendum would serve very little purpose, as it’s so abundantly clear that, when the people of Wales engage with the issue, they support it.  The YouGov Wales panel surveys have shown strong support for greater powers since they started in October 2009 (results of the most recent one are here), as have the various surveys about constitutional preferences from the Institute of Welsh Politics at Aberystwyth, latterly with the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.  In the public’s view (and bearing in mind the limited interest many people have in constitutional matters) , the debate has simply moved on.

That’s important when it comes to the referendum, and the likely low turn-out.  Yes campaigners are keen to urge people to vote and secure a high turn-out, to strengthen the mandate for a National Assembly with stronger legislative powers.  No campaigners can be expected to use a low turn-out to argue that ‘no-one’ wants such an Assembly.  They’re all the more likely to do so if their own weakness means there is no official No campaign, which appears to underlie the First Minister’s worry.  But given that public views are where they are, this is a pretty weak position.  In some countries (Switzerland, in particular), there’s much clearer evidence that low turn-out follows public acceptance that something is inevitable and desirable, and little attempt to argue that the resulting mandate is weaker as a consequence.  A low turn-out in Wales will only be an argument for a weak mandate for primary legislative powers if the result is close.

This piece originally appeared on Alan Trench’s blog, Devolution Matters.

Alan Trench is an honorary senior research fellow at the Constitution Unit, University College London, and is also associated with the School of Social and Political Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

One thought on “Welsh Referendum campaigns, and the question of turn out

  1. A low turnout is inevitable, but what do you expect when the changes do not justify a referendum in the first place? Coupled with this a weak Welsh media and no ‘no’ campaign and it’s a certainty. However, perceptions about a mandate are in my opinion, irrelevant. It’s all about making best use of the more direct powers and getting the people of Wales to take more pride in their democracy. The referendum was put there to keep anti-devolution Labour MPs happy, but may well propel Wales way beyond their worst nightmares.
    Sod the turnout. Let’s just get a ‘yes’ vote and get on with the job in hand.

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