Yes Campaign stifled by Parliament’s rules

John Osmond finds the legislation setting out how the Assembly referendum campaign should be fought is having unintended consequences

The full implications of True Wales’ decision against applying to the Electoral Commission to be the designated as the Lead No campaign in the Assembly referendum is only now becoming clear.

The rules in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, applied by the Electoral Commission, mean that if there isn’t a designated Lead No campaign there cannot be a designated Lead Yes campaign either. The immediate result is that neither can access public funds for the postage to send out a leaflet to every Welsh household or have access to television broadcasts.

But it goes deeper than that. As the accompanying table shows, if there had been Yes and No lead campaigns they would have been entitled to spend up to a limit of £600,000. As it is Yes for Wales, in effect the leading Yes campaign, can now only spend up to a limit of £100,000. This means that even if it could afford it – and it probably could since its fund raising is going well – Yes for Wales is being prevented by the rules from distributing a leaflet by post to every household in Wales.

Spending limit for different campaigners

Referendum campaigner Spending limit
Lead campaigners £600,000
Registered campaigners £100,000
Campaigners not registered with the Electoral Commission

£10,000

Labour Party £600,000
Conservative Party £480,000
Plaid Cymru £480,000
Liberal Democrats £360,000

Source: Electoral Commission’s Media Handbook for the referendum on law-making powers for the National Assembly, December 2010.

This is because, if it decided to do so the cost would absorb at least 94 per cent of what it can legally spend in the campaign – around £24,000 to print 1.3 million leaflets and an estimated £70,000 to cover the postage.

There are, of course, a number of Registered yes campaigns, apart from Yes for Wales. They include the trade union Unison and the constitutional campaigning group Cymru Yfory/Tomorrow’s Wales, chaired by the Archbishop of Wales. Technically these could spend £100,000 each but in practice could not afford to do so. Moreover, the rules prevent any cross-subsidy which would have the effect of a Registered campaigner breaching its funding limit. So, for instance, Yes For Wales could not fund Cymru Yfory to send a leaflet out for them in a way that would take it above its £100,000 limit.

Bizarrely, the political parties have much higher spending limits than Registered campaigners, calibrated according to the size of their vote at the last Assembly election. But none of them are spending much on the campaign, preferring instead to build up their war chests for the forthcoming May Assembly election.

And even if they wanted to, the parties are prevented by the rules from donating to a Registered campaigner such as Yes for Wales. On the other hand, if Yes for Wales had been a Lead campaigner the political parties could have donated to it, so long as any contributions did not result in them exceeding their own spending limits.

If the main Yes and No sides had been registered as Lead campaign groups the benefits would have been:

  • A higher spending limit than other registered campaigns – £600,000 rather than £100,000.
  • To be able to send a mailshot by freepost – undoubtedly the major benefit.
  • Referendum campaign broadcasts.
  • Free use of certain public rooms to hold public meetings.
  • A grant of up to £70,000 administered by the Commission to pay for set-up costs, and items such as furniture and computer equipment, but not campaign materials.

When True Wales announced they would not be seeking lead campaign status a few weeks ago it was widely assumed their objective was to deprive the Yes campaign of these benefits, and especially the freepost mailshot. No campaigners would not be have been able to take up the latter as they simply could not find the money to print the necessary leaflets. One estimate has put the amount they have raised in the campaign so far at no more than £5,000.

But, because of the rules on spending limits, True Wales’ decision not to register as the Lead campaign, is preventing Yes campaigners using their own money to get their message across. Is this what the legislation intended?

Is this fair? The main effect will be to stifle the debate with one inevitable result being a depressed turn-out on 3 March. Was this intended by the 2000 Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act?

The experience of this campaign is telling us that after the dust has settled, following the vote, we will need to revisit the 2000 Act. It surely cannot be allowed in future referendums for one side’s expenditure limits to decided by another’s refusal to take part in terms of failing to register itself as the Lead campaign.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

2 thoughts on “Yes Campaign stifled by Parliament’s rules

  1. John,

    I warned 8 months ago at a conference in Cardiff about this implicit VETO in the Act which is truly anti the referendum debate, an absolutely integral part of the referendum device. Lord Neill was convinced mainly by the Welsh experience in 1997 that some minimal funding is needed if the referendum debate is to be useful and fair. I agree and have long disliked the wording in the Act. Perhaps we need to look at the US legislation where campaigns opt in or out of State funding.

    This isn’t the only nonsense in the Act. The Scottish Devolution referendum was a simple multi-option referendum, a feature largely ignored by the voters. But if held now under PPERA, the Commission would have to fund campaigns for all three “possible outcomes on the ballot paper”, I presume the fourth outcome, a taxpower without a Parliament would have been regarded as not a “possible outcome”. However even three campaigns would have been complicating enough as the broadcasters would have to follow suit by representing all of them. And just as in Wales now any one of the three would have the funding VETO.

    This must change.

  2. What sort of impact a one-off piece of campaign literature through the post might have is debatable but in the Welsh context it should have been a minimum requirement.

    I don’t believe the London papers have even covered the fact that there are no official lead campaigns in this referendum. (Rob Williams has written about it in his blog for The Independent and that’s about it.)

    We’ve heard plenty of pious talk that it’s insulting to suggest that the electorate can’t cope with referendums and elections on the same day/over the same period but when the All Wales Convention took evidence in 2009 it found that a significant proportion of people thought ‘full law-making powers’ meant independence. If people don’t understand the terminology used how on earth can they be expected to make informed decisions?

    And talking of terminology the BBC hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory. The first item I saw on Wales Today with Betsan Powys and David Cornock trying to explain what the referendum is all about had me confused! A presenter on the Politics Show Welsh opt-out incorrectly described MPs’ role as scrutiny of legislation and had be put right by the ‘yes’ campaign spokesperson. Apparently Andrew Neil has made similar errors in his forays into Welsh politics.

    I missed the debate from Aberystwyth which was broadcast at 10.30 pm on Monday but I note that the ‘second debate’ will be on 28 February. So that’s it – two half-hour debates.

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