Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Question Time

Based at Westminster, I tend to steer clear of the All Wales Convention and referendums on the Welsh Assembly's powers as they are so well covered elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Indeed, some of the posts I read on the convention's recent report were longer than the report itself.

But today the issue arrived in the House of Lords. Its Constitution Committee has been conducting an inquiry into referendums.

Daran Hill, lobbyist/political consultant/commentator from Postif Politics raised the issue of the question that would be put in any referendum on Welsh Assembly powers.

"In 1997 there was a substantial constitutional issue that could be easily expressed ...I'm rather nervous about how the question will be phrased. Essentially, what you will be asking is do you want to go from part 3 to part 4 of the Government of Wales Act - how might you ask that?

" I think that improving a referendum can be done by offering more context , rather than placing a simple question before the public. If, for example, in the 1997 experience there had been a paragraph that said 'if you vote yes it will mean this , it will not mean independence but it will mean establishing an Assembly'.

"I say this knowing that the form of words would need to negotiated, involving the Electoral Commission and maybe both sides of the campaign too.

"But, I think that an explanatory paragraph can add real value and I say this particularly from the context of the future Welsh referendum which is likely to happen in the next 18 months , where it is about moving from one part of Act to another and I think that just posing one question on its own without context that seeks to explain what powers are already held by the Assembly and what the net effect would undermine the asking of the question, I think".

Mr Hill didn't suggest a precise question, but he is right that the wording can influence the result. A ballot paper that asked voters: "Do you want laws for Wales made by patriotic Welshmen and women of goodwill in Cardiff or by a bunch of toffs in London, yes the same ones who rip you off through the Barnett formula?" would, I dare to suggest, be likely to produce only one answer.

On the other hand, "Do you want to give the political establishment a kicking without risking a change of government or great personal hardship" might secure another verdict.

Alternative suggestions welcome.

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