The Coming AV Referendum, Coalition Problems and the Electoral Commission
Open Democracy, July 28th 2010
There is a sense of gathering storm clouds for the coalition on the forthcoming AV referendum.
Nick Clegg made a statement to the House of Commons on its last day sitting before summer recess, and dismissed any concerns about having the AV vote on the same day as the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish devolved elections, as well as English council elections. Forty-four Tory MPs have signed a Commons motion tabled by backbencher Bernard Jenkin opposing a referendum on the day identified: May 5th 2011.
The central question is not about the process of the vote, vote counting or organisation, but what it would do to the respective campaigns and the democratic process. Voters across the UK would not have an equal experience or be part of the same campaigns, which could distort the result and pose all sorts of problems for the broadcasting media.
The Electoral Commission have recognised these problems when faced with the prospect of a 2003 Euro referendum being held on the same day as the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish votes they issued a ruling on combining a referendum and devolved votes on the same day. They stated that they had serious ‘concerns’ driven by protecting ‘the interests of the voters’ and that while ‘there might be a beneficial effect on turnout’ of having the two votes together, there were ‘a number of disadvantages’ (1).
These include the consideration that ‘cross-party campaigning on a fundamental referendum’ could cause voter confusion if combined with normal party electioneering. Then there was the risk that ‘the dominance of the referendum issue would influence other polls’ and do so ‘to an extent that may compromise the electorate’s will in those other polls’.
A fundamental area of concern for the Commission was that ‘not all of the electorate would experience the same conditions for considering a major referendum issue’. This led to the Commission deciding that ‘a referendum on the single European currency should not be held at the same time’ as the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish votes. That is a powerfully unambiguous ruling which still carries resonance today.
The Electoral Commissioner in Scotland, John McCormick, has spoken of the current political situation in more soft and ambiguous terms, recognising the ‘risks’ of the super-Thursday of 2011, but commenting that this is merely an ‘amber rather than a green light’ (2). The reasoning of the original Electoral Commission statement still stands.
There are only two major examples in the world of what the UK Government is proposing: the New Zealand second PR referendum and Ireland combining one with a Presidential contest. The Scotland Act 1978 lay down that the devolution referendum could not be held within three months of a general election. Lord Ross in a Scottish Court of Session ruling in 1979 in a case brought by Brian Wilson and Tam Dalyell stated that the devolution referendum of that year should be kept apart from the party political context.
Any combined referendum and election would also pose huge challenges to the mostly Londoncentric media making it near-nye impossible to disentangle the different contests. This would be even more problematic for broadcasters, who are required to be ‘balanced’ during elections. In general elections this is achieved by well-established agreements on party proportional balance. At the same time referendums have evolved a set of conventions which involve a 50:50 split in coverage between both sides.
Numerous serious constitutional and political issues are raised by the AV referendum consideration. First, there is the sheer lack of thought, subtlety and preparation which has characterised the coalition government on this. Already this begins to look like an accident prone and centralising administration, and one whose commitment to a ‘new politics’ and the supposed ‘respect agenda’ between Westminster and Scottish Parliament, is threadbare after a mere three months.
Then there is the Westminster short-sightedness of situating the AV referendum on top of the 2011 Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish votes – just a couple of months after placing the fixed five year UK election date of May 7th 2015 – on top of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections. There is a pattern here, and it is not a healthy one.
Whether even at this late stage the coalition will listen to the widespread concerns from its own backbenchers, devolved administrations, and importantly, the previous Electoral Commission ruling, will be a marker of how serious the Cameron-Clegg project is about being grown up and going beyond the rhetoric of ‘the new politics’.
1. Electoral Commission, ‘Combining polls – the referendum on the Euro and the devolved legislative elections’, News Statement, July 12th 2002.
2. Newsnight Scotland, July 27th 2010.