John Osmond listens to a self-confessed political anorak’s guide to the outcome and impact of the 3 March vote
According to Richard Wyn Jones, Director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, this is an unnecessary referendum. What, he asks, is the fundamental character of the issue to be decided between Part 3 and 4 of the 2006 Wales Act? After all, both allow the National Assembly legislative powers, the only difference being that Part 4, which comes into force if there’s a Yes vote, provides a more direct route to powers than Part 3.
Speaking at a seminar in the Senedd yesterday, he said there was no way this could be regarded as a fundamental constitutional question. “This is a narrow choice between two forms of legislative powers,” he said. If last year’s report of the Constitutional Committee of the House of Lords’ recommendations on the conduct of referendums were any guide, we shouldn’t be having one at all. Nonetheless, we are where we are, and the outcome of the referendum – whether yes or no – will have profound consequences for Wales.
So what will be the impact of a Yes vote? Quite a lot, Wyn Jones thought, including the following:
- It would boost the legitimacy and confidence of the National Assembly.
- Combined with the Westminster Government’s proposed reduction of Welsh MPs from 40 to 30 it would mark a decisive shift in the centre of gravity of Welsh politics from London to Cardiff.
- It would make further change inevitable – a change in the way the Assembly is funded, via reform of the Barnett formula that determines the Assembly’s block grant, and strengthening the case for a distinctive Welsh jurisdiction to match those already operating in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
- It would give an electoral boost to Plaid Cymru in the May Assembly elections, thereby changing the dynamics of the coalition negotiations that are likely to follow.
Conversely, what would be the impact of a No vote? At least the following:
- It would be a blow to the legitimacy and confidence of the Assembly.
- It would undermine future requests for powers to be devolved.
- It would boost those who oppose devolution generally.
- Coupled with the reduction in the number of Welsh MPs, Welsh politics would be become irrelevant and sidelined at Westminster.
- Even so, more change would still be inevitable though at a slower pace – the arguments over funding the Assembly and the need for a distinctive Welsh jurisdiction would not go away.
- The status quo would remain unstable and there would be a rapid re-emergence of the constitutional debate, though in new forms.
Given that such a lot hangs on the result, what does Wales’ leading psephologist (that is, elections expert) think the result will be? His major offering on this score yesterday was the following table, listing a series of 24 polls that have asked the question since June 2007. These show a steadily growing lead for the Yes side. Over the last six months they have stablised at around 20 per cent. Wyn Jones thought that the fact that polls were by different companies using different methodologies, but all producing broadly the same result, was significant.
Wales Referendum Polls
|POLL||% YES||% NO||% Don’t Know||% ‘YES’ LEAD|
|BBC/ICM, June 2007||47||44||9||3|
|BBC/ICM, Feb 2008||49||42||9||7|
|NAW/NOP, Nov-Dec 2008||46||32||22||14|
|All Wales Convention/ NOP, Nov-Dec 2008||49||35||13||14|
|BBC/ICM, Feb 2009||52||39||9||13|
|IWP-WGC/YouGov, July 2009||44||36||21||8|
|All Wales Convention/ NOP, July 2009||47||37||12||10|
|IWP-WGC/YouGov, October 2009||42||37||21||5|
|ITV-Wales/YouGov, Nov 2009||51||30||20||21|
|ITV-Wales/YouGov, Jan 2010||49||32||20||17|
|BBC/ICM, Feb 2010||56||35||10||21|
|ITV-Wales/YouGov, March 2010||53||31||16||22|
|NAW/YouGov, March 2010||50||34||17||16|
|IWP-WGC/YouGov, May 2010||51||32||18||18|
|ITV-Wales/YouGov, June 2010||55||28||17||27|
|ITV-Wales/YouGov, July 2010||48||34||19||14|
|ITV-Wales/YouGov, Aug 2010||48||32||21||16|
|ITV-Wales/YouGov, Sept 2010||49||30||20||19|
|ITV-Wales/YouGov, Oct 2010||52||29||20||23|
|ITV-Wales/YouGov, Nov 2010||48||30||22||18|
|BBC/ICM, Nov 2010||57||24||18||33|
|Western Mail/Beaufort, Nov 2010||60||28||13||32|
|ITV-Wales/YouGov, Dec 2010||46||25||29||21|
|ITV-Wales/YouGov Jan 2011||49||26||26||23|
A crucial factor will be turn-out. Last November the BBC’s ICM poll predicted a 38 per cent turnout, while the latest ITV Yougov poll predicts 52 per cent. Wyn Jones said that because Yougov uses Internet polling, its turnout prediction was not to be trusted. He preferred to rely on the ICM prediction which he suggested might prove to be too high.
While a low turn-out would be likely to favour the Yes campaign – with Yes supporters more motivated to vote – there were other factors to take into account:
- Referendums are inherently conservative devices that tend to favour the status quo.
- Referendums are also a second order vote, which means that other factors are likely to come into play, such as the relative popularity of the incumbent government, quite apart from the immediate question on the ballot paper.
- For the Yes side framing positive arguments is extremely difficult, since the essential issue is about the Assembly’s legislative processes which turns voters off.
- The No campaign lacks any party political discipline and so can say (and do) anything it likes – accordingly it is utilising an approach that is nihistically anti-politics.
So, taking all these factors into account, what is Wyn Jones’ conclusion? “While is highly unlikely that the No side can overcome such a large poll lead in such a short time the answer must be that the referendum is winnable but not guaranteed,” he said yesterday.
I seem to remember that was the All-Wales Convention came to a similar conclusion when it reported back in November 2009. It is interesting to note that the opinion poll lead for the Yes side took off to its present 20 per cent level at precisely that point (see Table). Was there a connection between the appearance of the Convention’s report and that swing to the Yes side?
Richard Wyn Jones thought there was. He said that the Convention’s own polling revealed that 26 per cent of those questioned thought the referendum was about independence for Wales. “The extent to which the media coverage of the Convention’s explanations and conclusions persuaded this group that this was not the case, then it can be argued it had an influential impact on the debate,” he said.