Monday, 28 February 2011

Does the turnout really matter?

There seems to be general agreement that we can expect a pretty low turnout for Thursday’s referendum; and there’s no surprise at all that the expected losers are already positioning themselves to challenge the legitimacy of the result on that basis.  But does it really matter how many turn out and vote?
I’m not a supporter of compulsory voting, and without compulsory voting, the decisions will always be made by those who participate.  Whilst it might be fair to conclude that those who decide not to vote at all probably don’t feel particularly strongly either way, there is really no merit in the argument that their failure to vote for any given proposition means that they should be counted as being against it, which is what calls for a threshold amount to.
And outside the small circle of pundits and professionals, who really cares how many have voted?  It's mostly the politicians who seem worried about it, but the problem of low turnout is one which the politicians themselves need to solve, by given people a good enough reason to go out and vote.  The most important element of that is convincing people that voting will make a difference.
The problem with this referendum is that it’s being held for the wrong reason on the wrong issue.  If the turnout is as low as predicted, it’s not the voters who should take the blame, but the politicians who insisted on holding a referendum on the wrong issue.


Jeff Jones said...

Unfortunately turnout does matter in a referendum which is really a no event. Any referendum should be about an important point of constitutional principle. The important point of principle is basically should Wales have the right to make laws differently from England? That was conceded in GOWA 2006 without many people seeming to realise it. On Thursday no extra powers are being given to Wales. All that is happening is that the process of lawmaking is effectively being speeded up. Instead of what is it 14 measures in 4 years we should be getting between 5 and 7 a year depending on how complex the proposed law change actually is. What we will not be getting is the same powers as either Scotland or Northern Ireland. We also will not be getting any form of tax raising powers even though the average amount raised by local adminstrations in the OECD countries is 55%. This is because the majority of the Welsh political elite seem frightened by even the word'tax'. To talk about ' a New dawn in Wales' as some in the yes campaign are is just plain silly and bound in the long run to lead to disappointment.The problem with Thursday's vote and the campaign is that it hasn't strengthened Wales. In fact you could argue that it has exposed the weaknesses in Welsh civic society and the gulf that exists between 'legal' Wales and 'real' Wales. This isn't a rugby match where a win is a win. Lawmaking as A V Dicey points out must have legitimacy because the people are transferring the powers to affect their lives to politicians. If most voters in Wales do not vote for what ever reason then it rightly or wrongly does raise the issue of legitimacy. Effectively it means that those who are elected to the Assembly in May have a major responsibility to ensure that the laws that they propose have the backing of a consensus in order to win that legitimacy if not through the ballot box then through good lawmaking. Who is to blame for this sad state of affairs? It definitely isn't the 'no' campaign. Even if we had all received a leaflet delivered through the post I doubt whether it would have made that much difference to turnout. The blame lies with those who framed the GOWA 2006 and put political expediency before principle. It also sadly reflects the anti politics mood which dominates much of western political society and which has been fueled in Wales by an Assembly which has failed in the eyes of many voters to deliver in so many policy areas in the past 12 years.

John Dixon said...


I agree with almost everything you say, except for the bit about the turnout mattering! If this had been a referendum on the principle of GOWA 2006, when legislative power was first granted to the Assembly, then I'd have more sympathy with that view. But if the politicans are going to call a referendum when there's no real issue of substance, then I think that they're being unrealistic in expecting people to be in any way enthused by it.

"the majority of the Welsh political elite seem frightened by even the word 'tax'"

Absolutely - I wonder how some of them would manage if they were community councillors and had to ask their electors for money! It seems to me that too many of them want to have all the credit for their spending largesse whilst avoiding any blame for the taxation consequences. A grown-up government must be prepared to take responsibility for raising, as well as spending, money.

"The blame lies with those who framed the GOWA 2006 and put political expediency before principle."

Again, absolutely agree. The referendum was legislation to suit the legislators rather than the people. A shameful fudge in order to avoid proper debate, and a case of 'the end justifying the means', I fear.

Spirit of BME said...

Ref your last para.- spot on, well done that man.

Anonymous said...

"This is because the majority of the Welsh political elite seem frightened by even the word'tax'."

Really? Just the Labour party, actually. It's no secret that Plaid have always been keen on devolving taxes as long as Barnett is reformed. Everything that is "wrong" or flawed about this process and the unfolding of devolution can be traced to Labour (as can the mechanisms for actually giving us devolution in the first place, to be fair!). True Wales is effectively a Labour split which was started in response to Plaid becoming boisterous and talking about independence after One Wales was formed. The problems with GoWA 2006 come from Labour's internal disagreements.

"The blame lies with those who framed the GOWA 2006 and put political expediency before principle."

I completely agree with Jeff. It isn't "the separatists" or "the nationalists" as the No campaign would argue. It is what is usually their own party- Labour.

You can't blame Plaid for fighting for what is on the table.

Turnout is important but does not affect the legality of the result. It is a moral question to be debated at the political level- it isn't a technical question. If people don't mind the change on offer either way, they are free to stay at home.

I think Plaid- who according to Peter Hain are the main reason we have a referendum- always knew there would be a low turnout and never expected voters to be "enthused".

"If most voters in Wales do not vote for what ever reason then it rightly or wrongly does raise the issue of legitimacy."

With who though? Not with voters, ironically. There will be a moral debate to be had but the political tactic by defeated No campaigners will be to question the result, not out of any genuine care for our imperfect Welsh democracy.

Anonymous said...

exactly, it's a referendum which politicians want rather than the people of Wales.

The people of Wales will probably treat it in this way. Many will have aprotest 'NO' or will not bother, some cannot make it to the polling booth. others will forget and many will not fully understand what they are voting for or against.
I think a 'NO' will have it by 5%

John Dixon said...


I'd be surprised if it's a 'no', but we shall see on Friday.

Unknown said...

If no win by 5% on Thursday, on a low turnout, then can we expect Rachel Banner and her motley crew to be calling for a rerun? I doubt it!