01 August 2010

A Swift Kick in the Ballots

The New Reform Package - TOC

1. Is There No Alternative?
2. A Swift Kick in the Ballots
3. Does Size Matter?
4. Bringing It Together: Why All This Matters

Leaving aside the row over the electoral system to be used, there is the fiasco regarding the referendum to consider. For one, I find it amusing that after years of opposing a referendum on independence the Tories are willing to have a vote on something else they don't like and just campaign for a 'No' vote. Consistency, much?

Then there's the timing, with the poll intended to clash with the elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. A number of reasons have been given to lament this, but in a lot of cases, they are flawed.

Firstly, the fear on the right is that the devolved elections would drive turnout up in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland while England would have nothing else to vote for and stay at home, so England would be forced by its neighbours into a policy it didn't want (*cough* poll tax *cough*). This is bonkers. Firstly, turnout for the Scottish Parliament has never been higher than 58.16%. So a record high Holyrood turnout would be delivered by about 2.3 million voters. A record high in Wales would be 1.1 million. Add in around 800,000 Northern Irish voters. That's 4.2 million votes for a record high showing. The electorate of England is just over 38.1 million. Bearing in mind that local elections tend to get a turnout of about 30% - and local elections will be taking place in large parts of England anyway - so even those measly levels of participation would see England outvote the others by about three to one. At that level, opinion in England would have to be massively more finely balanced than in the other nations for them to have the 'casting vote'. And that's assuming you need another poll to get you out to the polls anyway (if anything, I'd expect the referendum to drag turnout up for the Council elections in England): in both Scotland and Wales, turnout for the referendum creating a Parliament and Assembly actually outstripped turnout at any election for the bodies themselves. So I don't buy this line.

Nor do I buy the line that the issues at stake will all get conflated. Firstly, people can vote different ways in different polls taking place on the same day. Witness the Glasgow Anniesland By-Election following the death of Donald Dewar: his successor as an MP, John Robertson, secured a majority of 6,337; his successor as an MSP, Bill Butler, secured a majority of 5,376. And the cross-ballot figures from the last Scottish elections show that people vote differently for the two components of the same election. And even if they are conflated, this is nothing new. Issues cross over all the time: in the last two Westminster By-Elections to be fought in Scotland, the hot-button issues were dealt with by Fife Council or the Scottish Parliament, for instance. Local, devolved, UK and European politics have a habit of getting in each other's way, no matter what you're voting for.

And combined polls are nothing new: the last four General Elections have co-incided with local Council polls, as have the last three Scottish polls and the first Welsh Assembly elections. Local Council elections were moved back a month in 2004 and 2009 (and in the first case, the London Elections were moved back as well) to co-incide with the European elections. So why is this one a shocker?

Firstly, Scotland's politicians agreed after the 2007 fiasco that combined polls are not as great as we once thought. Secondly, Wales is already awaiting a date for the referendum on new powers for the Welsh Assembly. Thirdly, the Coalition has already agreed to fix the next Westminster election to clash with the devolved elections in 2015.

And here's the frustrating thing: the dates of the 2011 and 2015 elections have been enshrined in law since 1998. The 2015 Westminster date emerged three months ago from a rushed agreement, and the 2011 referendum date has just popped out of Nick Clegg's head, it seems. Yet rather than fitting their plans around what's already there, they're suggesting that if Scottish and Welsh politicians feel so strongly, they'll pass legislation allowing them to change the date of the devolved elections.

Now in a way, you might expect that: given the UK's present constitutional landscape, you'd assume that a UK-wide national poll would take precedence over the devolved bodies, but it does rather knacker the respect agenda.

But whichever date has to change, there is, for me, a major practical reason why the two polls cannot be on the same day.

According to the precedence I've already pointed out, it's the national poll whose ballots have to be counted first. That means that the devolved ballots won't be counted until the Friday morning after the poll at the very earliest. Factor in any recounts and it would be later still.

Now this is important: the same laws that enshrine the dates of the election also make clear that MSPs and AMs have 28 days after the election - not after the results are out - to find a First Minister. Moving the counting back means a waste of a day in a period when parties have to move quickly.

And that's the key - there is no clock ticking at the end of a referendum, and no legislation currently sets time limits on a Prime Minister being appointed. But MSPs and AMs do have a tight schedule to work to and a nationwide poll would interfere with that schedule.

And I'm surprised that the Advocate General for Scotland, a certain Lord Wallace who had to work to that schedule when his name was just Jim, hasn't borne that in mind.

1 comment:

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