Dynamics of the referendum campaign

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.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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