When it is right, and wrong, for polls to clash

When the ConDem coalition announced its preferred date for the next Westminster election to coincide with the elections for our Assembly and the Scottish Parliament in May 2015, most people put it down to an oversight. But because Nick Clegg has now announced that the ConDems' preferred date for the referendum on AV is to be on the very same day as these same elections in May 2011, I would be surprised if anyone could see either clash as anything other than deliberate.

What drives it is simple. Compared with Plaid and the SNP, the LibDems in particular do very much worse in Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections than they do for UK-wide votes.

Welsh Assembly

2007 Constituency ...Plaid 22.4% ... LibDem 14.8% (7.6% behind)
2007 List ... Plaid 21.0% ... LibDem 11.7% (9.3% behind)
2003 Constituency ... Plaid 21.2% ... LibDem 14.1% (7.2% behind)
2003 List ... Plaid 19.7% ... LibDem 11.8% (7.9% behind)

UK Parliament

2010 ... Plaid 11.3% ... LibDem 20.1% (8.8% in front)
2005 ... Plaid 12.6% ... LibDem 18.4% (5.8% in front)

Scottish Parliament

2007 Constituency ... SNP 32.9% ... LibDem 16.2% (16.7% behind)
2007 List ... SNP 31.0% ... LibDem 11.3% (19.7% behind)
2003 Constituency ... SNP 23.8% ... LibDem 15.3% (8.5% behind)
2003 List ... SNP 20.9% ... LibDem 11.8% (9.1% behind)

UK Parliament

2010 ... SNP 19.9% ... LibDem 18.9% (1.0% behind)
2005 ... SNP 17.6% ... LibDem 22.6% (4.0% in front)

In Westminster elections the LibDems are comfortably ahead of Plaid and more or less level with the SNP. But in elections for Cardiff Bay and Holyrood they get several percentage points lower and are well behind both Plaid and the SNP.

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Things are slightly different with respect to the Tories, because their absolute share of the vote remains more or less the same in elections to Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Westminster. But the differential between them and the two nationalist parties in elections to the Assembly and Scottish Parliament is still significant:

Welsh Assembly

2007 Constituency ...Plaid 22.4% ... Con 22.4% (level)
2007 List ... Plaid 21.0% ... Con 21.4% (0.4% in front)
2003 Constituency ... Plaid 21.2% ... Con 20.0% (1.2% behind)
2003 List ... Plaid 19.7% ... Con 19.1% (0.6% behind)

UK Parliament

2010 ... Plaid 11.3% ... Con 26.1% (14.8% in front)
2005 ... Plaid 12.6% ... Con 21.4% (8.8% in front)

Scottish Parliament

2007 Constituency ... SNP 32.9% ... Con 16.6% (16.3% behind)
2007 List ... SNP 31.0% ... 13.9% (17.1% behind)
2003 Constituency ... SNP 23.8% ... Con 16.6% (7.2% behind)
2003 List ... SNP 20.9% ... Con 15.5% (5.4% behind)

UK Parliament

2010 ... SNP 19.9% ... Con 16.7% (3.2% behind)
2005 ... SNP 17.6% ... Con 15.8% (1.8% behind)

These figures show that there is a very significant political advantage to be gained—mostly by the LibDems, but also by the Conservatives—by holding UK-wide votes on the same day as elections to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament.

•  Both parties know that holding Holyrood and Westminster elections on the same day in 2015 will make it more difficult for voters to distinguish between national and UK issues.

•  They know that people will tend to vote for just one party on both ballot papers, rather than vote for different parties on each ballot paper.

•  And they know that UK issues will dominate the media discussion, meaning that they will benefit at the expense of Plaid and the SNP rather than the other way round.

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The issue is not exactly the same with the AV referendum and 2011 Holyrood elections being held on the same day, but is nonetheless similar. Again, the LibDems will be the main beneficiaries. The UK media will tend to focus on their views in the public debate on the AV referendum because they are the main protagonists for electoral reform on the English stage. This exposure will give them an advantage in the Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections.

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I want to make it clear that I am not against holding the principle of holding different polls on the same day. The issue at stake here is that public discussion and debates about a vote that affects the whole of the UK is, without any doubt, going to drown out any parallel discussion of Welsh and Scottish issues.

So personally, I am not opposed to holding the referendum on primary lawmaking powers on the same day as the Assembly elections, because both issues only affect Wales. However, for the sake of democracy I must respect the fact that others in other political parties have been adamantly opposed to holding the referendum on primary lawmaking powers on the same day as the Assembly election in 2011. These include the Tories and the LibDems in the Assembly at the time the request for the referendum was made in February (although it remains to be seen whether they will now change their minds because of their alliance at Westminster) and Peter Hain (although it is sometimes unclear whether and when he is speaking just on his own behalf, for Labour in Westminster or for Labour as a whole).

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From a purely pragmatic point of view I believe holding our referendum on the same day as the Assembly elections will help ensure a Yes vote, for exactly the same reasons as I gave above: the candidates of three parties in the Assembly elections (Plaid, the LibDems and Labour) will all be campaigning for a Yes vote in the referendum, and it is very likely that most Tory candidates for the Assembly elections will be campaigning for a Yes as well. Very few people will vote for a candidate or party on one set of ballot papers, but then vote against the very position which that candidate or party has advocated on the other ballot paper.

Equally, even though most Tory MPs and maybe a third of Labour MPs are against the Assembly getting primary lawmaking powers, their opinions will tend to be sidelined because the focus will be on electing AMs rather than MPs. If they raise their voices to contradict candidates from their own parties who are standing for election, they will simply lessen the chances of them being elected.

So yes, from a purely pragmatic point of view I would be all in favour of holding our referendum on the same day as Assembly elections. It would improve turnout, and it would cost less ... both of which are good things. But the principle of respect means that it is the wrong thing to do if other parties are so strongly against it.

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1 comments:

Anonymous said...

Labour and LibDems decided to change the timing of the local elections in Wales to be a year after the assembly (as Plaid had done 'too well' in the 1999 local elections).

Holding Westminster and Assembly elections on the same date is a dog's dinner. You'll have to have equal representation from SNP and Plaid on every platform as they'll encompass three parliament/assemblies (+ NI) and in many departments very different manifesto pledges and debates i.e. health, education and transport.

It's a non-starter considering the fuss there was this time about the unequal publicity given to the 'non-UK' parties by the BBC, ITV and Sky.

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