The B of the Bang

It was Linford Christie who said that a sprinter had to be ready to start running not on the Bang, but on the B of the Bang. But things don't quite work that way in Wales. The starting pistol has been fired, but our Bang is going to be a rather more protracted affair.

     

Motion: To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

resolves, in accordance with section 104(1) of the Government of Wales Act 2006, that a recommendation should be made to her Majesty in Council to make an Order in Council under section 103(1) of the Act.

As we can now see, the motion to request a referendum on primary lawmaking powers does not make any mention of the date, the wording of the question, or anything else. I have already said that I think this is ludicrous, because there is nothing in the Act itself that limits the request the Assembly can make. The reason that there is no mention of the date is therefore only because the Welsh Government still wants to "keep the options open". We need to ask why that might be.

To be blunt, I would say that the Welsh Government (and I include my own party as part of that) is playing political games with the two opposition parties in the Assembly, since we know they would have no hesitation in making the vote on the referendum motion unanimous if a date in October 2010 had been part of it. Why sacrifice the enormous symbolic victory of a unanimous vote in order to play games?

Yes, it does seem that the LibDems will join Labour and Plaid in voting for it. Reluctantly and with reservations perhaps, but they simply cannot vote no (or abstain) on an issue that they have been so unequivocal about for so long. It would be political suicide for them.
 

     

So we've reached the B, and as it will be a few months yet until we get to the G we should celebrate this milestone. It has taken a lot of effort to get this far, and it is a major victory for all of us who want to see the referendum. Some of us have wanted to see it from the moment the compromised and flawed GoWA was passed in 2006, others have needed a lot more persuasion. For me, in more posts on this blog than I care to count, the big battle has always been to persuade a very sharply divided Labour Party that it was in Labour's own interests for the Assembly to get these limited lawmaking powers. Labour's AMs were largely in favour, but many of their MPs were against it. The majority of those MPs have now been brought round. The prospect of losing the Westminster election this May has been the decisive factor in that change of attitude, since Labour know they cannot afford to let a Tory Secretary of State for Wales have the same veto over any new areas of legislation as their own Secretaries of State have been able to exercise.

We may not like it, but the simple political reality is that parties will only do things when they are convinced that it is in their own interests to do so ... or at least that doing something will not harm their interests. No matter what arguments we put forward in terms of the constitutional settlement for Wales, or in terms of democracy, accountability and transparency of government, we could not have reached this point until Labour (since they are the biggest party in the Assembly) had come round.
 

     

So now it's time to move on and focus on the next stage. We know that we're going to get a referendum, but we have work out when it will be.

It will come as no surprise that exactly the same considerations will apply. On the one hand we will have arguments based on principle, but on the other hand the date will be decided according to what is in the best interests of the Labour Party. I want to look at both in turn:
 

In principle

The only real issue here is whether it is right to hold the referendum on the same day as the Assembly elections in May or not. I think there are good arguments both ways.

In favour: Holding the vote on the same day is almost certain to increase participation. Although a majority Yes vote on any turnout will be legitimate, we need to face the fact that this is a referendum on a relatively minor technical point, and that most people in Wales will be far more concerned with what the parties are going to do if they form the next Welsh Government than the procedures necessary to pass the laws that will enable them to do it. There is a very real possibility that overall turnout will not reach 40%

Against: Holding two separate votes will keep the two issues completely separate. It will enable those in each of the Yes and No campaigns to campaign together, even though the policies they would pursue if the Assembly did (or indeed did not) have primary lawmaking powers would be different.
 

In practice

Politicians are politicians, and we should all know by now that politicians are capable of highlighting their points of principle, even though they may have more immediate pragmatic reasons for adopting a particular position. In this case, the key issue is the way that each party's own supporters are likely to vote in the referendum, and we have a good idea of how things are likely to break down from this YouGov poll published in October last year:

YouGov/Aber Poll
Assembly voting intentions (FPTP)

Lab ... 32% ... split 43% - 40%
Con ... 25% ... split 33% - 54%
Plaid ... 24% ... split 74% - 13%
LD ... 12% ... split 36% - 44%

This gives Yes percentages of:

Lab ... 43% of 32% = 13.8%
Con ... 33% of 25% = 8.3%
Plaid ... 74% of 24% = 17.7%
LD ... 36% of 12% = 4.3%

It should be noted that these figures are based on Assembly voting intentions. The figures are slightly different for Westminster voting intentions, as I examined in this post. For each party, the situation is slightly different:
 

Plaid Cymru

From our point of view, we are in the happy position of being able to carry a very significant proportion of our voters with us on the referendum (on Westminster voting intentions we carry even more). All our politicians want a Yes vote, and a very big majority of our supporters want the same thing. That means that it will be very easy for us to campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum at the same time as campaigning for the Assembly elections. There will be no mixed messages.

But equally there will be no harm to us if the two campaigns are completely separate. We have no axe to grind either way.
 

Liberal Democrats

In one sense the LibDems are in the same happy position. All of their politicians will be united in campaigning for a Yes vote, so there will be no mixed messages from them either.

However the LibDems are in the rather strange position of having supporters who are generally against primary lawmaking powers. This is a conundrum that I think even they would find difficult to explain. I have always been perplexed by precisely what it is that makes someone vote LibDem ... but it seems to me that the two biggest planks of their political identity are electoral reform and a federal United Kingdom in which the majority of powers are devolved from Westminster to Wales, Scotland, NI and the regions of England, leaving only matters such as defence foreign affairs and monetary policy in the hands of the UK government.

The LibDems' dilemma is that if they major on what their politicians and activists believe, they risk alienating the majority of their support and would therefore loose seats. That, to my mind, is the primary practical reason why they do not want the referendum on the same day as the Assembly elections.
 

Conservatives

We all know that a majority of Conservative supporters are against primary lawmaking powers for the Assembly. What is perhaps surprising is that the margin of difference is so small. As I noted before Peter Hain is under the delusion that all Tory supporters will vote No, but this is very far from being the case.

If the referendum is held on the date of the Assembly elections the Tories will find themselves in a very awkward position. Even though nearly all their AMs are likely to press for a Yes vote, all parties rely on their other elected politicians to pull their weight in any campaign. Their MPs are all very solidly in the No camp. It is this prospect of a split in their ranks that most concerns the Tories, and with some justification. They know there is no way that they can keep a loose canon like David Davies quiet on the issue. For people like him the Assembly is a side show compared to Westminster, and he would in fact relish the chance to widen any split between pro and anti devolution Tories.
 

Labour

At first glance it might seem that the situation for Labour is the same as that for the Tories, because the poll shows that Labour supporters are fairly evenly split between Yes and No ... though marginally in favour of a Yes. But it isn't quite like that.

The big thing that has changed since the poll was taken is that Labour have fought their battles out behind closed doors over the Christmas/New Year break and have now reached an agreement. Make no mistake, we would not be having this trigger vote next week unless the two Labour groups had put their differences to one side. Now of course there will be a few Labour MPs and Councillors who cannot accept this, and Labour's leadership will of course have asked themselves how to minimize any damage that could be done to the party if this became open warfare.

If the referendum was to be held on a different date to the Assembly elections, there would be nothing to stop the Labour refuseniks campaigning for a No vote in the same way that Kinnock and Crew did before. They know that such actions would not damage the party all that much, because they can patch things up in order to fight the Assembly elections on a united platform after the dust has settled. They know full well that the media would give a them a lot more publicity than their numbers warrant because the media like highlighting differences ... and what politician in a minority position would not want to raise their media profile?

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So let me ask you, if you were in the Labour leadership, what would you do? Simple, if you hold the referendum on the same day as the Assembly election, you minimize the chance of dissenting voices within your own party being heard, since the small number of refuseniks are not likely to send out a message that weakens their own chance of holding onto Labour seats. In fact, Labour would also benefit in two other ways: first they know that the Tories will be hit harder by splits that they cannot avoid, and second it will help their bank balance. Labour are going to spend a lot of money trying to hold onto their seats in Westminster this May, they will then be faced with spending money in Wales for the Assembly elections next May, so the very last thing they want or need is to spend money on a separate referendum at a date between the two.

At first glance it might seem that finance is a factor that will affect all parties equally, but not so. We in Plaid are in the happy position of being able to concentrate resources on the four seats we expect to win at Westminster and save the bulk of our money for the Assembly elections, and the Tories have got rich backers coming out of their ears. That means Labour will be hit disproportionately harder, and that gives them a financial incentive to hold the referendum on the same day as the Assembly elections.

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But the most important factor in Labour's decision about the date will be the way they intend to campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum. Labour know that it will be difficult for them to win their supporters over on the grounds of constitutional principle alone, not least because those are the very grounds on which they were previously divided. They also think that the rights and wrongs of the devolution settlement will be lost on most of their supporters. Labour are only really happy when things are reduced to their most basic level and the battle cry that comes easiest to them—as we hear repeated by Peter Hain on every occasion he opens his mouth—is "It's either us or the Tories."

Labour will calculate that they can deliver a Yes vote in the referendum more easily by making it another "us or the Tories" issue. They think that the benefits of getting the "other half" of their supporters to vote Yes because it will spite the Tories will outweigh any lost votes from Tory supporters that would have been inclined to vote Yes. The sad fact is that if their supporters can be won by arguments like that, the electoral maths is on their side. But I think that is an insult to their intelligence ... which is why fewer people vote Labour at every election.
 

     

So how do I react to this? With mixed feelings. I want to see a Yes vote more than anybody, but I want to see a Yes vote primarily for the sake of Wales and its future ... not for the sake of Labour's electoral advantage. I'm not sure how easy it will be to get that message across if the campaign is fought that way. I would find it easier to campaign for a Yes vote alongside those in the Tory and Lib Dem parties who want to put right the dog's breakfast of a devolution settlement that Labour landed us with because it is not right in principle that we should have executive power devolved to ministers in Wales, without also having a legislature with actual legislative powers that can hold those ministers to account by changing the way things are done rather than just changing the minister who makes the decisions.

I would love to see a united Yes campaign fought on the fundamental constitutional issue that we in Wales are no less capable of passing laws for matters that affect only Wales than the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland are. It is always better to fight for what matters in a way that unites people across the political spectrum, rather than by playing one party against the other. But I suspect Labour have other ideas.
 

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4 comments:

A Change of Personnel said...

you summed it up well, this is only going ahead because Labour see some benefit in it for themselves, not that it could benefit Wales and of course some Tory baiting before a General Election is good for their members morale.

But i can't understand why Plaid Cymru are going ahead with the referendum on Labour's terms (Tory baiting) because a cross Party vote next week would be in Plaid's best interests surely, more historic than mere symbolism to the other parties.

Penddu said...

I am firmly of the belief that the referendum should not be held the same day as the Assembly elections, in order to allow one single clear debate. If the referendum is held at the same time as the referndum there will be a lot of mixed messages. I also have grave doubts about the ability of Labour to deliver its dwindling band of supporters into the Yes camp, and we will need the Conservative votes.

Anonymous said...

Possibly, with all these Ifs and Buts, Plaid is being strung along and its UK election campaign energy diverted into a constitutional issue. As you say, if this is all about Tory-baiting, cuo bono? Is it fair to say that the No side is politically sexier than the Yessers: Hain, Carwyn Who, etc?

When I think about it, why would your average voter bother to turn out and mark X? The Assembly is really boring and much too consensual. Most AMs are sub-par county councillors. Want to be but not a happy Nashie.

MH said...

CoP, thanks. Agree fully.

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Pen, perhaps it got lost in the length of the post but—even though I doesn't matter to me (or Plaid) whether the referendum is in October, March or May—it is better not to hold it on a day that doesn't suit other parties.

If we want a unified campaign, we have to respect our partners' wishes.

Peter Black wrote a good piece about it on Freedom Central today, which I replied to (if it gets past their mods) saying the same thing.

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Anon, Parties, as well as women, can multitask ;-)

The referendum is important, and it was worth expending the effort in order to make sure we got it. But that hasn't diverted Plaid's attention from the Westminster elections.

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