All three devolved first ministers have now written to the Prime Minister seeking to ensure that the referendum on the UK’s EU membership is not held in June. The current thinking suggests that 23 June may be in David Cameron’s mind, assuming all goes well in reaching a final agreement with the other member states in the renegotiation. The First Ministers’ concern is proximity to devolved elections, and they are right to be concerned; the surprise is that their concern is not shared by Conservatives, or Labour, at Westminster.
The timetable for the EU referendum is not clear, but there are two fixed dates running up to the process. The first is the deadline for publication by the UK Government of
a report which contains … information about rights, and obligations, that arise … as a result of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, and … examples of countries that do not have membership of the European Union but do have other arrangements with the European Union (describing, in the case of each country given as an example, those arrangements).
This is required by section 7 of the European Union Referendum Act 2015, and must take place not less than 10 weeks before the referendum date.
The second is the formal referendum campaign period, during which the two designated In and Out campaigns will have referendum election broadcasts, rights to public funding, and be required to keep detailed accounts. All that is complicated and requires effort and engagement from those involved in campaigning (and can easily be got wrong). It also means engaging the public with issues about the UK’s future relationship with Europe rather than parties’ plans for taxation, housing policy or the health service. That period starts 10 weeks before referendum polling day.
Thursday 23 June falls seven weeks after polling day for the devolved elections, 5 May. If 23 June is referendum day, the information report will have to be circulated at least three weeks before the devolved legislatures’ polling day – so, quite probably, in the middle of the devolved election campaigns. Referendum activities, broadcasts and expenditures will be starting three weeks before election day. And the activists who can be expected to be campaigning for both Leave and Remain votes will probably also be campaigning, or wanting to campaign, in the elections.
Moreover, at least three of the major parties have clear internal divisions about the EU. While the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and the DUP may be clearly on one or other side, there are significant divisions among supporters of Labour, the Conservatives and (perhaps surprisingly) UKIP about the EU. At least for the Conservatives and Labour, those divisions are mirrored among their leadership and elected representatives. If the two campaigns coincide, party activists will be torn between working on one of two different campaigns, which is bad enough. But worse, in one of those they may be allied with people from other parties – and in the other they will be publicly and conspicuously disagreeing with their party colleagues. What is a list Conservative candidate in Cardiff or Glasgow meant to do if they are pro EU but the person above or below them on the list, or running for the constituency seat, is an Out-er? Labour will have the same problem, and so might UKIP (which has serious prospects in the Assembly elections in Wales). These questions will be asked on the doorstep and by TV, radio and press interviewers. They cannot be avoided. News coverage will be full of ‘party splits’, which will do no-one any good – whether in the devolved elections or in the EU referendum.
As the most divided party the Conservatives will be most hit by this clash of campaigns. It will undermine their electoral prospects in both Scotland and Wales, where they have well-founded hopes of gaining votes and seats.
There are of course other arguments why polls should not coincide. The Electoral Commission emphasises organisational readiness on the part of those who will deliver the referendum and whether voters might be confused by two simultaneous or near-simultaneous campaigns in arguing for separation of the timing of polls. The devolved first ministers have emphasised ‘due respect’ for elections to their institutions. Each of those concerns overlooks the practical difficulties which face parties and campaigners and which are even further-reaching than those issues of principle.
This is not, in fact, a new issue. Exactly the same question cropped up regarding timing of the referendum in Wales on the National Assembly’s law-making powers, which was eventually held on 3 March 2011 and followed by Assembly elections on 5 May. That was a separation of 10 weeks between polls. The Welsh situation was easier for several reasons. The referendum came first, so politicians from across the party spectrum could campaign together in that and then disagree in the election campaign – easier than doing it the other way round. Three parties officially supported a Yes vote (Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems), and the bulk of Conservatives did so too though the party stayed neutral. Ironically, the failure to have designated Yes and No organisations may have helped too, since that meant limited media coverage and so reduced the public emphasis on party division or unity in the run-up to elections. It is doubtful those factors will apply in the EU poll. The Welsh situation still made for an exhausting five months for those involved in the two campaigns.
What to do about this? There are compelling domestic reasons why Cameron would be well advised to want a referendum to be held sooner than later, and at all costs to avoid 2017 (let alone the later autumn). Moreover, apart from those domestic concerns, elections loom in Germany and France, Schengen countries are deeply concerned by the migration crisis, and much work remains to be done about the nature of the Eurozone. None of this directly concerns the UK, but it concerns key participants in the negotiations and everyone will want to know where the UK stands. A referendum date in early or mid-summer presents serious problems, though. Holding the EU referendum 10 weeks after the devolved elections would mean holding it on 14 July; well into the Scottish holiday season, when school holidays are just starting or are about to start in England and Wales, and in the middle of the marching season in Northern Ireland. Going any later into July is impractical because of the holiday seasons. So that makes the first part of September look much better. That is far from problem-free – party conference season looms, in particular – but it avoids the problems of trying to hold a referendum so close to the devolved elections and lets campaigns for devolved elections dissolve before referendum campaigns start in earnest.
David Cameron should make his decision very soon, though, and let the public know. That needs to be before the scheduled European Council meeting on 18-19 February (let alone the March follow-up). The date of the 2011 Welsh referendum was known more than eight months before the poll. For the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, it was eighteen months. Each of those may have been flawed, but were better than what we have: serious confusion about the date of a referendum which could be held in as little as four and a half months, with the alternative being seven months. Neither such confusion nor potentially short notice is good for democracy.