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The Welsh referendum campaigns are being stifled by electoral rules

n the lead up to the Welsh assembly powers referendum on 3 March, both the Yes and No campaigns are going for a final push. But the legislation setting out how the campaigns should be fought is having unintended consequences.
John Osmond
15 February 2011

In the lead up to the Welsh assembly powers referendum on 3 March, both the Yes and No campaigns are going for a final push. But the legislation setting out how the campaigns should be fought is having unintended consequences. As there is no designated Lead No campaign against more powers for the national assembly, there cannot be a designated Lead Yes campaign either. As a result, both campaigns are coping with severe spending limits.

The full implications of True Wales’ decision against applying to the Electoral Commission to be designated as the Lead No campaign in the Assembly referendum is only now becoming clear.

The rules in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, applied by the Electoral Commission, mean that if there isn’t a designated Lead No campaign there cannot be a designated Lead Yes campaign either. The immediate result is that neither can access public funds for the postage to send out a leaflet to every Welsh household or have access to television broadcasts.

But it goes deeper than that. As the accompanying table shows, if there had been Yes and No lead campaigns they would have been entitled to spend up to a limit of £600,000. As it isYes for Wales, in effect the leading Yes campaign, can now only spend up to a limit of £100,000. This means that even if it could afford it – and it probably could since its fund raising is going well – Yes for Wales is being prevented by the rules from distributing a leaflet by post to every household in Wales.

Spending limit for different campaignersReferendum campaignerSpending limitLead campaigners£600,000Registered campaigners£100,000Campaigners not registered with the Electoral Commission

£10,000

Labour Party£600,000Conservative Party£480,000Plaid Cymru£480,000Liberal Democrats£360,000

Source: Electoral Commission’s Media Handbook for the referendum on law-making powers for the National Assembly, December 2010.

This is because, if it decided to do so the cost would absorb at least 94 per cent of what it can legally spend in the campaign – around £24,000 to print 1.3 million leaflets and an estimated £70,000 to cover the postage.

There are, of course, a number of Registered yes campaigns, apart from Yes for Wales. They include the trade union Unison and the constitutional campaigning group Cymru Yfory/Tomorrow’s Wales, chaired by the Archbishop of Wales. Technically these could spend £100,000 each but in practice could not afford to do so. Moreover, the rules prevent any cross-subsidy which would have the effect of a Registered campaigner breaching its funding limit. So, for instance, Yes For Wales could not fund Cymru Yfory to send a leaflet out for them in a way that would take it above its £100,000 limit.

Bizarrely, the political parties have much higher spending limits than Registered campaigners, calibrated according to the size of their vote at the last Assembly election. But none of them are spending much on the campaign, preferring instead to build up their war chests for the forthcoming May Assembly election.

And even if they wanted to, the parties are prevented by the rules from donating to a Registered campaigner such as Yes for Wales. On the other hand, if Yes for Wales had been a Lead campaigner the political parties could have donated to it, so long as any contributions did not result in them exceeding their own spending limits.

If the main Yes and No sides had been registered as Lead campaign groups the benefits would have been:

 

  • A higher spending limit than other registered campaigns – £600,000 rather than £100,000.
  • To be able to send a mailshot by freepost – undoubtedly the major benefit.
  • Referendum campaign broadcasts.
  • Free use of certain public rooms to hold public meetings.
  • A grant of up to £70,000 administered by the Commission to pay for set-up costs, and items such as furniture and computer equipment, but not campaign materials.

 

When True Wales announced they would not be seeking lead campaign status a few weeks ago it was widely assumed their objective was to deprive the Yes campaign of these benefits, and especially the freepost mailshot. No campaigners would not be have been able to take up the latter as they simply could not find the money to print the necessary leaflets. One estimate has put the amount they have raised in the campaign so far at no more than £5,000.

But, because of the rules on spending limits, True Wales’ decision not to register as the Lead campaign, is preventing Yes campaigners using their own money to get their message across. Is this what the legislation intended?

Is this fair? The main effect will be to stifle the debate with one inevitable result being a depressed turn-out on 3 March. Was this intended by the 2000 Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act?

The experience of this campaign is telling us that after the dust has settled, following the vote, we will need to revisit the 2000 Act. It surely cannot be allowed in future referendums for one side’s expenditure limits to decided by another’s refusal to take part in terms of failing to register itself as the Lead campaign.

This piece was originally published on ClickonWales.org

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