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Penddu on that other referendum…in Wales

February 24th, 2011

Yes – No – Quick Quick -Slow

It is part of Britain’s unwritten constitution that referendums are held whenever there is a constitutional issue at stake that crosses party lines. So this begs the question why the Welsh Powers referendum being held on March 3rd is being held at all.

This referendum is not on a major constitutional change as Wales has had primary law-making powers since 2007, and the issue at stake is only a technical one as to how further powers are drawn down.

To explain: when the original Welsh Assembly was established in 1999, it had no primary law-making powers. Legislative powers were then granted to the Assembly in the Government of Wales Act in 2006, which listed a series of specific areas where the Assembly could now legislate. The Assembly could also request transfer of further powers from Westminster on a case-by-case basis using a mechanism of Legislative Competency Orders (LCOs), and this process has resulted in a gradual transfer of further powers. However the process has proven to be very convoluted and time-consuming and has very few friends outside of the legal community.

The Government of Wales Act 2006 also stated that this piecemeal approach could be replaced by a single transfer of all powers in the 20 devolved areas following a successful referendum vote, so the real question in this referendum is simply whether to transfer powers quickly or slowly. The powers already exist and will continue to grow whatever the outcome, and this is causing both sides some problems with their campaigning message.

The Yes side has the unanimous support of all Assembly Members, with the backing of all 4 major political parties in Wales, the trade unions, the Church in Wales, and various other groups. It has a large number of volunteers and is well-financed, but has struggled to deliver a coherent positive case for change.

it is difficult to inspire people with a technical argument, and so its campaign has largely focussed on appealing to Welsh national sentiment and the simple line that laws that affect only Wales should be made in Wales

The No side has much narrower support, backed by UKIP, BNP and a campaign group of disaffected labour activists called True Wales which seems to consist of two spokesmen from Gwent and an inflatable pig. However they have been very vocal and have been quite successful in spreading negative messages – notably ‘slippery slope to independence’ and ‘anti-political establishment’. Their messages are not very credible and do not stand up to scrutiny, but they have nevertheless achieved some traction with undecided voters.

So how will the people vote? All of the recent opinion polls show Yes leading No by a margin of 2-1 but I expect this lead to close up as the undecided voters tend to stick with the status quo, and I predict a result of 55%/45% in favour of Yes.

At the last referendum in 1997, there was a clear East-West split with the Yes vote concentrated in West Wales and the Valleys, and the No Vote in Cardiff and East Wales. I expect a similar pattern this time except that Cardiff and a few other areas will now vote Yes. But the biggest issue on the day is likely to be turnout, which will probably be below 40% and will encourage the losing side to challenge the result. But I guess it was always going to be difficult to inspire voters with such a technical issue which results in almost the same outcome irrespective of the vote.

Penddu is a long-standing PB regular