The wrong end of the stick

The Western Mail carried this story yesterday:

     True Wales’ complaint about official funding for pot plants
     but nothing for pamphlets

Several things about it seemed rather strange, so I contacted the Electoral Commission to clarify some points. First, the document in question is this, dated 11 March 2010:

     Key Principles for Referendums

It sets out key principles for all referendums, it is not specific to our referendum on primary lawmaking powers for the National Assembly.

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The second thing that struck me as odd in the story was this:

Meanwhile the Electoral Commission is considering the wording of the question that will be put to voters in Wales when the referendum is called.

This isn't quite true. The EC will only advise on the wording of a referendum question when it has actually been put to them. As yet, the Secretary of State for Wales has not submitted the question to them ... and indeed he himself has said that he intends to do nothing before the Westminster election. I had half hoped that he might at least have got someone on the staff of the Wales Office working on it, and perhaps he has. But the EC have confirmed that no question has been put to them as yet. As I mentioned before in this post, the EC will require two weeks notice of an intended question and then eight weeks to consider it, a process that involves testing its understandability with focus groups.

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Then things got even stranger with this statement by Rachel Banner of True Wales:

We understand that four individuals are to be appointed to act as commissioners specifically for the referendum.

We believe it would be wrong if all four were essentially people from the political parties who back a Yes vote. We think the right thing to do would be to appoint two commissioners from each side of the argument.

This is something that True Wales has got completely wrong. At present the EC has six commissioners, but as a result of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 four additional commissioners are shortly to be appointed, nominated by political parties. All ten are general commissioners with responsibilities for all aspects of the EC's work as outlined here, not this referendum in particular.

It's impossible for me to know for sure whether True Wales have simply misunderstood this or whether they are deliberately misrepresenting the facts. I was told that the EC had explained this to them, and I believe that if they were in any doubt they could easily have checked the facts for themselves. But they and their supporters have an unfortunate track record of getting things wrong, so I'm inclined to believe they just want to made a few headlines, and hope that the false impression created by them remains in people's minds even after the real facts are made clear.

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As to the rest, John Dixon has made some good points on Borthlas. True Wales have every right to apply to be considered as the designated organization to lead the No campaign. The procedure is that once the referendum period begins, all groups that intend to spend money on campaigning one way or the other can apply to be "permitted participants" and will become subject to the rules, in particular the spending rules, set out in the PPERA. There will be many of these, including political parties and other groups.

Any of these groups can also apply to be the "designated organization" for either the Yes on No campaigns in the first 28 days of the referendum period. The EC will then have 14 days to consider their applications and may, if appropriate, designate one such organization on each side. They may also give these two organizations money, but it must be an equal amount. After those 14 days, there must be a minimum of 28 days before the actual referendum is held. Therefore the minimum referendum period will be 10 weeks, but this is only a minimum and the final period up to the vote itself may well be longer.

I'm in no position to know what the EC will decide but, as I said before, I think they'll almost certainly follow the precedent set by the referendum for an elected North East England Regional Assembly in 2004. In that campaign each side got £100,000. This time round, given inflation and the slightly larger size of Wales compared with NE England I think the figure will be between £120,000 and £150,000. Personally, I'd go for the higher figure in order to give the No campaign no grounds on which to complain.

However it is quite clear from the story in the Western Mail that True Wales want to jump the gun to become the designated No organization. It won't get them anywhere. The EC are scrupulously neutral and transparent, and won't even consider it until all applications have been submitted. They will then publish the reasons for their decision in an equally transparent way.

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4 comments:

Hendre said...

Following the 'Julie from Llandudo' poster I e-mailed the Electoral Commission regarding what sanctions, if any, existed for publishing misleading electoral literature. It replied:

"I have noted the content of your email and your concerns, however unfortunately the Electoral Commission is not responsible for the conduct of political parties, or their election campaigns."

From a very quick reading of the key principles of referendums I get the impression that the content of referendum literature will similarly be outside the remit of the EC.

MH said...

I don't think we would want any organization to control what a political party or group says, Hendre. Except where it goes so far as to break the law, such as inciting hatred against others.

If literature that was "misleading" or "lies" were to be regulated, then half of all political leaflets and manifestos wouldn't see the light of day. There are some rules, and those might sometimes seem petty in comparison with the whoppers that certain parties or groups might tell every day, but once we start down that route we'd soon find ourselves in a position where no political literature could say anything.

So, as far as an organization like True Wales is concerned, we should not seek to officially stop them when they focus on issues that are outside the scope of the referendum such as abolition of the Assembly or tax setting powers or independence. Let them say it, but just point out that they're going off at a tangent and the referendum is actually about something else.

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Like other groups, True Wales would almost certainly have the right to be a "permitted participant". However, if True Wales do continue to wander off into the long grass, the track record they've amassed will make it that much less likely that the EC will be able to choose them as the "designated No organization", if another No organization emerges that aims to focus on what the referendum will actually be about.

Exactly the same would be true of the Yes campaign. An organization like Cymru Yfory would probably not be able to become the designated Yes organization either, because it is committed to much wider reform of the constitutional position of Wales than would be addressed in this referendum. I can't imagine CY would want to abandon everything else they stand for in order to become the Yes campaign for this referendum ... it would be much better to set up a separate Yes group with one specific aim only.

But this brings up a very interesting possibility. What if those who want a Yes vote don't do it that way? What if we decide to campaign as separate political parties, trades unions, business groups, civic groups etc. under a common banner of cooperation, but without setting up a separate organization. Such a group would have no need to seek public money ... it would just get on and do the job itself. But without a designated Yes organization for the EC to give public money to, they would not then be able to give public money to a designated No organization since they must treat both sides equally.

Welsh Ramblings said...

Finally, True Wales' legitimacy as a 'no' campaign is being questioned. It has been lazily assumed up until now that they will become the 'no' campaign, simply because they're the only ones active. But i've already questioned on my blog whether they are fit to do so, because in both their public and internet campaigning they have now repeatedly misled people. They aren't fit for purpose and a credible group should be formed that supports the current Assembly and LCO system. True Wales doesn't fit the bill because it is, depending on who you believe, a pro-abolition movement or a movement that supports localising and decentralising the existing arrangement, fundamentally altering it.

Anyway, it's good that their credentials and suitability are now being questioned, and they're clearly rattled.

Similarly, Cymru Yfory/Tomorrow's Wales should not be designated as the 'Yes' campaign, and my understanding is they aren't attempting to.

Hendre said...

MH I agree with your general points about control of literature but going back to Julie from Llandudno for a moment, the territorial extent of policies post devolution is such a basic piece of information for electors it’s hardly a subjective matter.

I’ve just double-checked the Conservative website and the ‘Julie page’ is still there boasting, amongst other things, of a council tax freeze (We will freeze council tax for two years, in partnership with local councils. This could be worth up to £200 a year for families that benefit.) I’m afraid Julie (and others) will be disappointed to find out that this doesn’t apply to Wales.

Re the last paragraph in your reply, that is indeed an interesting idea!

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