Monday, 7 June 2010

Framing the debate

Published in the Western Mail on 8th June 2010

As the debate over the timing of a referendum on further lawmaking powers for the Assembly intensifies,political expert LEE WATERS looks at the challenges that will inevitably face the ‘Yes’ campaign

THE delay to the referendum on further lawmaking powers for the Assembly is a disappointment to some. But it provides an opportunity to assemble an effective Yes campaign and, crucially, to shape its message.

While working as a student in the US Congress in Washington DC in the mid 1990s I remember one of President Clinton’s advisers saying that in modern political campaigns the opponents of change have an advantage.

As competition for people’s attention becomes fiercer, he said, it is much easier to frighten someone in 60 seconds than it is to inspire them.

And that is the difficult task before the Yes campaign. In the midst of a recession and an anti-politics mood, how can we motivate people about what is essentially a fairly narrow and technical question: Should we move from part three of the Government of Wales Act to part four?

The No campaigners have already proved themselves to be formidable exponents of doubt and fear. Though they present themselves as political innocents, the men and women behind the “True Wales” campaign are sophisticated political operators. And though opinion polls consistently show that they are out of touch with Welsh public opinion, once the date is named for a referendum they’ll be given an equal platform by the broadcasters.

So how should progressives deal with their backward looking pessimism? In my view the Yes campaign should concentrate on three themes:

1. It’s about the future

As flawed as the law-making system is, the referendum is not going to be about mechanics.

There are bags of evidence that the LCO system is not working, but it is of little interest to most voters. There is little profit in getting drawn into opaque arguments about the Government of Wales Act. The Yes campaign needs to focus on the future.

The No campaigners will dust off the Leo Abse playbook from the 1979 referendum campaign and conjure up the bogeymen of the past – the elites, the language fanatics, the constitutional obsessives, who care little about bread and butter issues in their quest for an independent Wales. But the Yes campaign must not be distracted by the dog whistle tactics of the 1970s. We must frame the debate to be about the future and not the past.

Over the last decade the Assembly has gradually grown in stature and confidence. A Yes vote will help take Wales forward, giving Wales a stronger voice. It will give those we elect the tools to protect our communities from Whitehall indifference.

Of course not everyone will agree. About a third of voters are currently thinking of voting No in the referendum. But opinion surveys by academics have consistently shown the number of people wanting to return to direct Whitehall rule is declining, and among younger generations especially, people increasingly look to the Assembly.

2. Hope not despair

We face tough times in the coming years and the Yes campaign must set out an optimistic vision for the future and contrast it with the backward-looking message of the No campaign.

Jobs for the boys; the slippery slope to separation; “the lavish trappings of Government” – these are the messages of the anti- devolutionists. These barren slogans represent the old politics of fear. What is the vision of the future offered by the No campaigners?

The choice is between a more confident Wales where young people don’t need to leave their communities in search of jobs and challenges, or a dependency culture where we look to others for solutions to our problems.

3. The consequences of voting No

The majority of voters want to see devolution succeed, but the No campaigners want to hobble our Assembly.

They present a No vote in the referendum as a risk-free venture. Defeat the elites, says Oxford-educated True Wales spokeswoman Rachel Banner, and let Assembly Members carry on as they are.

But staying as we are is not an option. If Wales votes no to the proposals for modest reform, the Assembly’s ability to stand up for Wales will begin to unravel.

We already know that London officials need little excuse to sideline Welsh affairs. Indeed, Wales’ former top civil servant, Sir Jon Shortridge, has described in detail how awareness of the needs of Wales in Whitehall is poor. The UK Cabinet Secretary put the failure to take Welsh interests into account down to “forgetful- ness” among Whitehall chiefs.

If there is a no vote, the slow and complicated system of law-making will get worse.

The holes in the devolution settlement will be exploited. Whitehall mandarins will become even more absent- minded about Wales if they feel they have a green light to frustrate the Assembly.

So the status quo is not an option. Forward or back, that’s the option. And let’s not pretend otherwise.

Lee Waters is a former Chief Political Correspondent for ITV Wales and is editor of the Bevan Foundation blog

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