Tuesday 18 May 2010

Coming back to bite us

When the announcement was made that the term of the current parliament will end with an election being held on the same date as the 2015 Assembly Election, there were some mixed reactions. Some saw conspiracy - a deliberate attempt to ensure that the election for the Assembly was fought on UK issues rather than on Welsh issues.

Others, myself included, saw merely cock-up – they simply hadn't realised up in London that the Welsh and Scottish elections were scheduled for the same date. It looks like we were all wrong. My interpretation of the Western Mail's story yesterday is that there is actually a third 'C' coming into play - it seems to be down more to contempt. They just don't see the Welsh and Scottish elections as being that important.

We already knew that the Tories regard Nick Bourne as having no more status in their party than the leader of a Tory group on a county council; and Gillan confirmed yesterday that they see the elections for our National Assembly as being no different in essence to local government elections in England. And it looks increasingly likely that the referendum will be delayed by the new administration - possibly until the same date as the 2011 Assembly elections.

Such decisions completely undermine the position taken by both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems in Wales that holding a referendum on the same day as the Assembly election would undermine the legitimacy of that election by confusing two issues. Both even threatened to sabotage the vote in the Assembly unless they got their own way just a few months ago. No doubt we'll see members of both parties trying to spin their way out of that, but it'll be interesting to watch.

There is a wider point though – and I think it's one that my own party needs to take account of as well. In an age of coalition politics, declaring anything to be 'completely unacceptable' unless we are prepared to make it a red-line issue looks like an unwise thing for any politician to be doing. It's the sort of phrase which is likely to come back and bite us at some future date.

We will instead have to start arguing not why 'A' is entirely right and 'B' is completely wrong, but why 'A' is better than 'B'. I don't think that's a bad thing – forcing politicians to debate the detailed reasoning for their positions rather than resorting to hyperbole and insult is something which I think will help people to re-engage with politics. And it could even help to outline the real difference in approaches between parties more effectively than the current style of politics.


glynbeddau said...

The simple solution would be to reduce the parliamentary term to 4 years and then fix them so the next election would be in 2014. This means that there would be no clash with the Assembly elections in 2015. Otherwise this would occur every 20years.

John Dixon said...

Finding a solution to the practical problem in order to avoid a clash is the easy part. Finding a solution to the government's lack of will to understand the practical problem is a great deal harder...

Adam Higgitt said...

I must confess that my first reaction on learning of the clash was that the government would merely legislate to move the Assembly election, and that all the huffing and puffing was a little premature and preposterous.

Perhaps they still will, but cannot yet commit to it. In any event, it cannot be desirable to hold them on the same day.

All that said, I would suggest that combining the Assembly and Parliamentary elections - undesirable as it is - is in a different league of incompatibility to holding the Assembly elections and the referendum on the same day. It is surely crucial that some decent space is put between these two such that people can reflect on a) who they want to represent them and; b) which institution should make primary law in those specified areas in proper isolation. They are such different questions that blending them together could be distorting of either or both outcomes.

Sadly, the fact that political parties - of all shades - can publicly argue about when to hold a referendum tells me one thing; we need a referendum commission like they have in a number of other countries to decide this and other important aspects of the poll. The parties (and again I include all of them) should not be allowed to try and manipulate the date for their own ends. What's more, if either government - as in this case - is recommending a "yes" or "no" vote and hence is effectively a participant, it should not have any say in determining the date, either.

John Dixon said...


At a logical level, I understand the point you make about different leagues of incompatibility, although I'm not entirely convinced that such a logical view was at the root of the Con/ Lib Dem opposition to holding the referendum on the same date as the Assembly elections. I think their reasoning was more to do with the perceived disadvantage to them as parties in having to fight an election against other parties at the same time as co-operating with them on a referendum.

(And equally, I accept that some of those arguing for holding the referendum on the same date have done so either for reasons of perceived party advantage, or, rather less dishonourably, because they believed that it would help to achieve the 'right' answer.)

There's a nice irony about the possibility that those who most strongly argued against combination of two very different events might yet find that they've been over-ruled not by those against whom they were arguing, but by their own political masters.

I don't think that I can disagree with the suggestion of a referendum commission, although whether it needs to be a separate body or merely an augmentation of the remit of the Electoral Commission is perhaps a subject for debate. I suspect it won't happen any time soon though - not while referenda are still pretty rare in the UK.