Assembly elections on 2 June 2011

A vote was taken in the Commons yesterday to hold the AV referendum on 5 May 2011. Because the Bill is at committee stage it would still be technically possible to change it in a later vote on the whole bill, but for all practical purposes this vote has confirmed the date of the AV referendum. The voting figures of 335 to 207 show that any subsequent rebellion would be unlikely to get the date changed anyway.

As I'm sure everyone reading this will know, this is the same day as the elections to the Welsh and North of Ireland Assemblies and Scottish Parliament are due to be held. There has been quite some protest about the clash, but the ConDem government at Westminster has simply gone ahead anyway. It's not often that I agree with Chris Bryant (although the work he does with regard to teenage pregnancies is an honourable exception) but this is one occasion where I fully agree with what he said:

Mr Bryant, shadow justice minister, said there had been an "extraordinary" lack of consultation with devolved assemblies about the proposed poll date and its impact on devolved elections.

There was a "firm view" among these assemblies that the date was a bad idea and it showed a lack of respect to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, he suggested.

"It would just seem to be common human decency to be able to consult," he told MPs, adding this "betrayed the rather London-centric view of the government."

BBC, 25 October 2010

This is matter has been on the table for some time. Back in May, in one of the first bilateral meetings between the Welsh Government and the new Welsh Secretary, the subject was raised ... but Cheryl Gillan did nothing to relay those concerns to the Westminster government, saying that she did not do so because the request wasn't made in writing. We can read about it in this report in the Western Mail in July:

     Wales ‘strongly opposed’ to election date clash

This is the position of the One Wales Government on the issue:

An Assembly Government spokeswoman said: “We do not believe that the UK Alternative Vote referendum should be held on the same day as the people of Wales choose their AMs for the next four years. There should be no distraction from the National Assembly election. That is why we have agreed with other parties in the Assembly that our own referendum should not be held on the same day as the Assembly elections. Indeed, we have raised with the Secretary of State the possibility of deferring the Assembly election so that there is a longer gap between the referendum poll and the Assembly poll.

“The First Minister therefore intends to make clear to both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales at the earliest opportunity that we are strongly opposed to the AV referendum being held on the same day as the Assembly election.”

And there was even dissent from some Tory MPs:

Tory MP Bernard Jenkin told the BBC that most of his Conservative colleagues would support the principle of a referendum as it was part of the coalition agreement.

But he added: “I am astonished to hear that they are thinking of putting this referendum on the same date as the elections in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly because that’s going to lead to differential turnouts in the referendum in different parts of the country. In Scotland and Wales they will be thinking about who runs Scotland, who runs Wales, they won’t be focusing on the main question of the referendum.

“It’s clearly an attempt to stoke the turnout in areas of the country which already have different voting systems which is why I presume there will be less resistance to change to the UK system.”

My own view is that I'm not against the idea of holding different polls on the same day in principle, but I am against this particular clash. Rather than repeat myself, I set out my reasons in this post in May:

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

But what's done is done. The AV referendum is going to be on 5 May 2011 despite our objections. But all is not lost. There is a simple mechanism in Section 4 of the Government of Wales Act by which the date of the Assembly elections can be put back (or indeed forward) by up to a month.

This provision mirrors a very similar provision in Scotland, but in Scotland's case they are able to make that decision for themselves. In our case the decision is not up to us, but up to Secretary of State Cheryl Gillan. What's more, she can do it with or without the consent of the Welsh government ... she is merely under an obligation to consult with the Welsh Ministers.

So the question for the Welsh government is simple. If the protests made by Labour MPs in the Commons are more than just complaining for the sake of "having a go at" the Tories, our First Minister must now make a formal request to Cheryl Gillan to have the date of the Assembly elections moved to 2 June 2011.

The ball will then be in her court. But if she wants to hold on to the last remaining shreds of the ConDem government's much vaunted "respect agenda" for devolved government in Wales, she'd better say yes.

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Owen said...

Isn't there a danger of electoral fatigue in Wales?

Part 4 Referendum, AV Referendum and Assembly Election all in the space of 4 months.

I'm not expecting a barrage of information or coverage of the Part 4 Referendum considering the ever present problems of the Welsh media.

However the AV Referendum is likely to get a great deal of UK-wide coverage and coming right at the start of the Assembly election campaign could draw the whole process out inadvertently.

I have faith in the Welsh electorate's ability to tell the difference between all of these referenda and elections but I can easily see how some might get confused or simply turn-off mentally.

I can picture the vox-pops of old ladies in the valleys already.

Welsh Agenda said...

You say that currently the Assembly cannot delay the election, but will have to ask the Secretary of State to do it. Would that still be the case if there is a Yes vote in March? or will that power remain with Westminster?

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