Welsh referendum: under starter’s orders

The National Assembly voted yesterday in favour of a referendum on bringing Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 – ‘primary legislative powers’ – into effect.  The BBC News report is here, and the Western Mail‘s is here.

The motion itself (available here) makes no reference to either the wording of a question or the date of the vote, leaving both wholly to the Secretary of State’s discretion.  Tabled in the name of Jane Hutt, Minister for Business and Budget, it is:

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales resolves, in accordance with section 104(1) of the Government of Wales Act 2006, that a recommendation should be made to Her Majesty in Council to make an Order in Council under section 103(1) of the Act.

It would have been open to the Assembly to make suggestions about both date and wording of the question, which would not have had any legal impact on the powers of the Secretary of State but would have exercised some political influence.  It’s notable that it did not, despite pressure from both Conservative and Lib Dem groups in the Assembly to do so.  (Their concern was purportedly to ensure that the vote would not be held on the same day as the UK general election, although the practicalities of that would make it almost impossible, and likely to concern the Electoral Commission among others).

The fact that the vote in favour of a referendum was 53-0, with no abstentions, is impressive.  Not only were both the opposition groups said to be unhappy about the text of the resolution, but there have been reports of some unease on the Labour back benches as well.  (The seven non-voters were the Presiding Officer and Deputy Presiding Officer, whose office prevents them voting; Mick Bates of the Lib Dems, an absence explained here; and four Labour AMs: Irene James, Lynne Neagle, Carl Sergeant and Karen Sinclair.)   The fact that the vote is unanimous will have a powerful effect on the Secretary of State and the parties at Westminster; if Labour or Conservative MPs wish to hinder a referendum, they risk opening up significant disagreements with their party colleagues in the Assembly, and in Wales more generally.

What happens now depends heavily on Peter Hain.  He has 120 days to respond to the Assembly’s request, starting with the day after that on which he formally receives it.  (The Assembly has sometimes fallen down in the past on communicating decisions to Whitehall formally, and it’s important that it gets its resolution in the post to him straight away.)  The period of 120 days will expire in the first part of June, by which time he is likely to be out of office.  Moreover, Hain made it clear in his comments yesterday responding to the vote (and on other occasions in the past) that he regards Labour’s campaign in the UK general election as the priority, not a referendum. But if Peter Hain wants indeed to help secure a ‘yes’ vote, notwithstanding his misgivings, he needs to do two things.  First, he needs to take the formal decision giving the go-ahead to the referendum quickly.  Merely promising not to veto one (as he did in November) is not enough.  He also needs to make sure that the votes in Parliament are held before the dissolution.  As time is tight,  that means scheduling the votes very soon.  Second, having done so, he needs to take part in the campaign himself, and to use his influence to ensure that the Labour Party more generally does so.  While he may regard the UK general election as the priority, his active support for a yes campaign is needed too, and from the outset. The circumstances are such that mere inaction on his part risks seriously undermining the cause of Welsh devolution of which he has been such a staunch supporter over the years.

The issue of how political parties engage with the campaigns is a significant one more generally.   It’s clear that the ‘no’ campaign is already underway through True Wales (which has its campaign website up and running; it can be found here).  It’s less clear where the ‘yes’ campaign is, or will be, based.  It needs leadership from all the political parties that support devolution, and can’t be left to civil society groups.  If the parties are to live up to their commitments, they need to engage with the Yes campaign straight away.

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Filed under Conservatives, Intergovernmental relations, Labour, Referendums, Wales, Westminster

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