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.
It’s intriguing to see various senior figures from the New Labour era call for a return to something much more like new Labour to revive the Labour Party. Those figures seem to overlook how responsible New Labour’s politics and legacy are for the mess Labour now finds itself in. (On the nature of that mess, I agree with quite a lot of what Paul Mason says here; it is very clearly a structural problem caused by the collapse of an electoral coalition, not just a question of policy detail or leadership.)
New Labour helped create the mess, at least in its territorial dimension, in two particular ways. First, its political economy depended on getting London to generate large tax revenues to pay for redistributive benefits and much of public services in the rest of the UK, and satisfying those already owning property in London through a property boom. This has left a lasting and damaging legacy by creating or at least magnifying huge inequalities and resentments arising from different regional economies and levels of prosperity. (In technical terms, it sought to use a huge vertical fiscal imbalance to redress horizontal inequalities. What actually happened was that those horizontal inequalities increased.)
With all the speculation about what impact a large contingent of SNP MPs (or other regionally-based minor parties like the DUP) might have at Westminster after 7 May, it is worth looking at experience in some other countries. This situation may not be something the UK is used to, though it was key to how British politics worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century once the Parnell/Redmond Irish Party became the dominant electoral party in Ireland. There are more recent parallels from two other parliamentary systems with minority nationalities: Canada (and the Bloc Québecois), and Spain, particularly with Convergència i Unió but also other parties from Catalonia, and indeed the Basque Country and Galicia.
To make sense of what has happened in Canada, it’s necessary to know a bit how Canadian politics works. Federal and provincial party organisations are quite separate there, except for the New Democrats. The main party of Quebec ‘sovereignism’*, the Parti Québecois, has limited itself to Quebec provincial elections (as has the federalist Parti Libéral du Québec). Its counterpart for federal elections, the Bloc Québecois, was established in 1991, between the 1980 and 1995 referendums and after the failure of the Meech Lake process that was expected in Quebec to lead to a renewed form of federalism including a special status for Quebec. Its first leader, Lucien Bouchard, had been a minister in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet and an advocate for the Meech Lake deal. The Bloc was highly successful in its first election in 1993, winning 54 of 75 Quebec seats, and with the implosion of the Progressive Conservative Party it found itself forming the official opposition to the Liberals in the 1993-97 Parliament. It remained the dominant player in Quebec federal politics until 2011, winning over 40 seats in each election (and usually over 50) except for 2000, when it won 38.
The story about Labour concerns about changes to the electoral system for the National Assembly (which I was on BBC Radio Wales to discuss on Sunday morning) continues to run. Today’s Western Mail describes Carwyn Jones as appealing directly to David Cameron over Cheryl Gillan’s head to deal with an ‘explosive row’. There’s also coverage from BBC News here.
This is a completely bizarre row. For one thing, there’s no reason that it’s an issue now. Section 13 of the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act 2011 decoupled National Assembly constituency boundaries from those for Westminster. This was readily offered by the UK Government when the reduction in the number of Westminster constituencies was first mooted, and avoided the size of the National Assembly being reduced to around 45 as a result of the proposed new Westminster arrangements. The loss of ‘co-terminosity’ (the fact that Westminster and Cardiff Bay boundaries will no longer coincide) causes significant problems for political parties, and is widely disliked by the parties in Scotland, where this has already happened. But to ordinary voters it makes little noticeable difference. That it’s a matter of such anxiety to politicians but no-one else illustrates, I’m sorry to say, the gulf between them and their voters.
For a second, this issue is on no-one’s official agenda. The remit of the Silk Commission is Continue reading
This year’s Scottish and Welsh elections, and the Welsh referendum on primary law-making powers, have made 2011 a watershed year in UK politics. Fortunately, the ESRC has funded detailed studies of all three polls, and the research teams involved (based at Strathclyde, in the Scottish case, and Cardiff and Aberystwyth in the Welsh) are holding a seminar in London to present their work. It will take place at the Institute for Government at 2 Carlton Gardens, London SW1Y 5AA, at 6.15 pm on Wednesday 14 December. Speakers include James Mitchell from Strathclyde and Richard Wyn Jones from Cardiff.
There’s a flyer with more details of the event here. Please email RumbulRA@cardiff.ac.uk by 9 December if you wish to attend.
UPDATE: Presentations from the 2011 Scottish Election Study can be found here, and from the Welsh Election Study here.
Murdo Fraser’s announcement last Sunday, that if elected as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, he would disband the party and establish a new, separate, party of the Scottish centre-right, has caused much excitement among political journalists, commentators and activists. The new party would have its own leadership and policies, but sit with the English and Welsh Conservatives at Westminster. There’s news coverage from the BBC here, the Telegraph here, and Scotland on Sunday here. A short article by Fraser is here, and his speech launching his leadership campaign is here. Without doubt this would be a radical step, but it’s also one that has compelling logic. I’ve already made some general observations about party systems in regionalised or federal systems like the UK (below, or HERE). In this post, I am concerned directly with the implications of Fraser’s proposal. It’s worth noting that the other declared leadership candidates, Jackson Carlaw and Ruth Davidson, clearly don’t share Fraser’s approach, as well as some key party funders – so this is far from a done deal, even if Fraser is widely regarded as the front runner in the election.
What Fraser is proposing – two geographically distinct parties occupying much the same political space, and collaborating in state-wide politics but otherwise ploughing their own furrows – is all very reminiscent of Germany. That’s the relationship between the Christian Social Union in Bavaria and its relations with the CDU in the other Länder. While the Sanderson review of the Conservative Party in Scotland (discussed HERE) recommended a Continue reading
One of last week’s less-noticed developments (at least outside Wales) was the resolution of the position of two Liberal Democrat party members, elected as AMs in May but unable to take their seats. At the time of their election, both were members of organisations that disqualified them from membership. This became apparent immediately after the May elections – but took two months to resolve, during which the voters of the two regions involved (South Wales Central and North Wales) were deprived of representatives they elected. The protracted delay has not been entirely because of political indecision; there has been a police inquiry into the possible commission of a criminal offence, and an investigation by the Assembly’s Commissioner for Standards, Gerald Elias QC, the Assembly has voted to disregard the disqualification in relation to one of the pair – Aled Roberts, from North Wales – but not the other, John Dixon from South Wales Central. Eluned Parrott, who was second on the list, has taken the Lib Dem seat instead.
Both Roberts and Dixon were leaders of their local authorities, and stood down from that post after their election. That wasn’t the disqualifying office. In Roberts’s case, that was the Valuation Tribunal for Wales. In Dixon’s, it was the Care Council for Wales. Roberts’s position was bolstered by the fact that this body was added to the list of disqualifying bodies in the Continue reading