The AV referendum will be lost

Five reasons why the AV referendum will be lost

Yes to Fairer Votes launched their formal campaign for the AV referendum on 2 April.  Electoral reformers fondly suppose that if only the public were offered a better alternative to first past the post, people would be bound to vote Yes.  This piece does not go into the respective merits of AV and first past the post.  It simply forecasts that AV will be defeated, for the following reasons:

  • The public know nothing about electoral systems, and care even less.  The Constitution Unit did detailed research on public attitudes to different voting systems for the Independent Commission on the Voting System, and we found we were plumbing deep wells of ignorance.  The Yes campaign have a huge mountain of ignorance and indifference to overcome.  The government have given them very little time.
  • Even if the Yes campaign manage to engage people’s interest, they will find it hard to explain the difference between AV and FPTP.  AV is not a proportional system.  The overall result will not be that different from FPTP.  In the 2010 election it is estimated that the Conservatives might have gained 30 seats less, the Lib Dems 20 seats more, and Labour about the same.
  • The public will be confused by the arguments in the referendum, some technical, some contested, some misleading.  Research shows that when the public find political issues difficult or confusing, they look to political leaders that they trust to give them a lead on how to vote.  But the AV referendum offers no easy cues.  The Conservatives will campaign against, the Lib Dems for, and Labour are divided.
  • Clear signals from political leaders will be masked by the elections also being held on 5 May.  There are devolved assembly elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and local government elections in 80% of England.  The political parties will put their time and energies into campaigning in the elections, and not the referendum.
  • This is what happened in Canada, where they held referendums on electoral reform at the same time as provincial elections in Ontario (2007) and British Columbia (2009).  The political parties were silent about the referendum issues, and electoral reform was defeated in both cases.  The same is likely to happen in the UK.

The Welsh referendum result: Wales said Yes

The results from the referendum on the National Assembly’s legislative powers on 3 March produced a very clear mandate for the Assembly to have primary law-making powers: the vote is 517,132 votes in favour, and 297,380 votes against (or 63.5 per cent to 36.5 per cent).  There’s news coverage from the BBC here and the official results from the Electoral Commission are here.  Of the local authority areas used for counting, only Monmouthshire voted No – and that by just 320 votes.  While the Yes vote appears to have been weaker in eastern parts of the country, it varied relatively little across the country (and much less than it did in 1997).  There’s a good discussion by Roger Scully of the result on the BBC News website, available here.

Turn out was 35.2 per cent; not high, but higher than in some other referendums, and higher than some predictions.  Given the limited public visibility of the campaign (compounded by True Wales’s decision not to apply to become a designated campaign organisation), the inherent obscurity of the issue and the confusing nature of the question, that has to be regarded as a comparatively strong showing.  Rachel Banner of True Wales has accepted that it’s a clear mandate for an Assembly with legislative powers.  This result suggests strongly that legislative devolution is indeed the settled will of the people of Wales.  Perhaps the shadows created by the defeat in 1979 and narrowest of victories in 1997 will now pass into history.

Ironically, the result comes just as the Boundary Commission for Wales announces how it plans to review the Westminster constituency boundaries, so as to reduce the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 30 (the same quota as for England or Scotland).  One of the problems that hobbled No campaigners was the prospect of reduced representation at Westminster whatever happened.  If Wales had voted No, it would have faced the double whammy of that combined with limited devolved legislative powers – a sure way to minimise Wales’s overall influence over government.

The referendum result has triggered a flurry of activity on other fronts.  First, there is the question of bringing the new powers into force.  The First Minister announced on Tuesday that an order regarding that would be laid later in the week for debate on 29 March, and providing for the new powers to come into effect on 5 May (polling day in the Assembly elections, of course).   His statement is here.  That means the new Assembly will have primary law-making powers as soon as it meets.  At the same time, work is underway on formalities like letters patent and a Welsh seal for signifying Royal assent to Assembly Acts.

Second, the debate about the Assembly’s finances has revived.  The referendum put this on hold – Welsh politicians didn’t particularly want to talk about it during the campaign, and the UK Government had signalled that it would only take action if there was a Yes vote.  But now confusion reigns.  Some politicians – including Nick Clegg and Cheryl Gillan, both speaking at their parties’ conferences in Cardiff at the weekend – have stuck to the Coalition’s commitment in the Programme for Government about a further commission to look at the issue, despite the work of the Holtham Commission.  Other UK politicians have moved beyond this and talked about implementing Holtham, though with greater interest in tax powers than a ‘fair’ (needs-related) grant.  Carwyn Jones, on the other hand, is keener on a ‘fair grant’ than tax-varying powers.  There’s also the question of whether a further referendum on that would be needed.

All this makes for exciting times in Wales’s developing constitution, in the short interval between the referendum and the start of the Assembly election campaigns.