Elisabeth Laird analyses what we can learn from mentions of the European Union in the National Assembly in the run-up to the 2016 referendum
An ever self-aware political institution, the National Assembly continually strives to improve its calibre of performance in advocating and legislating for the Welsh people. In 2016, the Assembly and its Members were handed a mammoth task – running a national political campaign and a referendum campaign on membership of the European Union at the same time. As a devolved institution, its focus in early 2016 remained rightly on the national election, but also it had the responsibility and opportunity to demonstrate its ability to perform to a high standard and increase public legitimacy by fulfilling its primary role of representing the interests of Wales and its people. I believe that the best way for this to be done is by providing citizens with truthful information and rational arguments that appeal to facts, not feelings. So if a Welsh citizen wanted to inform themselves of Welsh-European affairs in the year up to the EU referendum and turned to the National Assembly for information, what would they see?
One of the most comprehensive ways to understand political issues in Wales is by observing plenary, where AMs come together to debate the pressing topics of the day. I undertook an analysis to look at how often EU affairs were mentioned and the degree to which the statements were biased, accounting four variables: time, party, frequency, and bias of statement. The first measure with which to assess plenary discussion of EU affairs is frequency over time. This shows how often AMs referred to the EU and how this breaks down by parties:
The first takeaway from this graph is that the Labour Party mentions the EU significantly more than any other party. This is as to be expected, as Labour held 30 of the 60 seats, in comparison to the Conservatives with 14 seats, Plaid Cymru with 11 seats, and the Liberal Democrats with five seats. Thus, Labour members naturally receive more speaking time and the ability to cover a greater number of issues. Up until March 2016, the three other parties clutter together, typically with fewer than ten mentions of the EU a month. Interestingly, although the Liberal Democrats were almost three times smaller a party than the Conservatives, they spoke on EU matters just as frequently as the Conservatives, whose comparatively low average would not suggest they were the party of opposition. All parties seem to follow the same ebb and flow in discussion, with a fall in popularity towards the end of the 2015 calendar year and a gain in momentum up to the election. Since the fifth Assembly began just over a month before the election, there is then a dramatic increase of mentions of the EU, with Labour jumping up to 91 mentions in June 2016 and the Conservatives once again punching below their weight. The main conclusions to be drawn from this graph are that the EU was mentioned fairly infrequently by all but the Labour Party until the month of the referendum. This would imply that the EU, be it EU-Welsh affairs or EU membership was not a heavily debated topic in the Assembly and that opposition parties treated it fairly similarly.
The next graph measures weighted statements about the EU over time. When marking down each time a statement on the EU was made, I also assigned it to a scale, similar to the rankings used by De Vreese and Schuck. The scale is as follows: strongly in favour of the EU (2), somewhat in favour (1), neutral (0), somewhat against (-1), strongly against (-2). A statement such as ‘we strongly believe that leaving the EU would leave Wales worse off’ (Jane Hutt, 16.03.2016) would receive a 2, whereas the statement ‘it follows that in any unbiased accurate analysis of facts, devoid of party politics, Wales would be better off out of this European superstate’ (David J. Rowlands, 22.06. 2016), would receive a -2. Unbiased factual matters, like ‘we are working with the EU Commission to look at innovative solutions that could attract European funding’ (Edwina Hart, 07.07.2015), are marked 0.
This graph removes the frequency factor, leaving all parties on a level playing field with regard to the amount of speaking time each has. Instead, this graph shows the pure bias each party showed towards the EU when mentioned. Labour, Plaid Cymru, and the Liberal Democrats are unfailingly positive towards the EU, with Plaid Cymru most frequently having the highest average. Thus, while Plaid Cymru spoke on the EU less often, it was most positive when it did. UKIP, while only having seats for a month in this time period, unsurprisingly produced a highly negative result. The biggest outlier is the Conservative Party. Like the UK Conservatives were internally divided, this shows a division in opinions amongst AMs. Also, there are only six values for the Conservatives—three positive and three negative—showing that half of the months they did not say any biased statements at all. In sum, Labour, Plaid Cymru, and the Liberal Democrats were all staunchly pro-EU, while UKIP was strongly against and the Conservatives were across the board.
A third graph shows the number of unweighted statements over time.
These figures average the number of times AMs in each party provided an unbiased fact or question regarding EU-Welsh affairs within the given time period. This is important because these are the chances for Welsh voters interested in learning unbiased facts about the EU in relation to Wales to gain information. Again, Labour comes out dominant, which can partially be accounted for because they are the Assembly’s largest party. Nonetheless, the Labour Party is the largest source for unbiased fact on the EU in the Assembly and its average of statements increased over time. All other parties followed the trends set by Labour, with spikes in October, January, and June. Unlike in previous graphs, the parties tend to follow their size, with Conservatives making the second greatest contributions, followed by Plaid Cymru and then the Liberal Democrats. Again, there was a surge towards the referendum date, and fewer mentions of the EU prior suggest it was not regarded constantly as a pertinent topic. Overall, this shows that each party participated evenly in making unbiased statements on the EU.
Overall, while all parties did raise matters regarding EU membership, they did so to varying degrees and effectiveness. The parties that wanted to remain in the EU needed to repeat a positive message on the EU often, and while they did often make statements on the EU, they were not always positive. The one party in favour of leaving only had the chance to speak in plenary for two months prior to the vote, and it certainly did share negative messages regarding membership, though these statements could rarely be considered useful for people trying to make a choice based on fact or reason. Therefore, all parties had room to better perform in achieving their goals of arguing for or against the EU and providing facts for the Welsh voters to make an educated choice on membership.
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