Monday, 4 July 2011

Were we wasting our time?

Posted on the Wales Home website on 28 June 2011

“There was a very limited campaign impact.”

This was Professor Roger Scully’s verdict said as he presented the results of a survey of voting patterns in March’s devolution referendum last week.

“The campaign didn’t actually change a huge amount. It increased the levels of those intending to vote a bit, but other than that we’re not seeing a huge amount of change,”

This was his conclusion after analysing the results of a repeat survey by YouGov of more than 2,500 people. This is capable of being interpreted as an indictment of the Yes campaign. As one of the people who sacrificed several months of my life to help run the campaign, I naturally have an interest in discovering what kind of impact our efforts had on the end result.

The analysis, by Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Welsh Politics and Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, does not suggest that the Yes campaign failed. It simply reconfirms what previous studies have shown – Welsh public opinion has been steadily settling around the view that the Assembly should be the institution with the most influence on matters which effect day to day life in Wales.

Across all age groups there has been a growing consensus that the Assembly is ready to assume the powers of a Parliament. The same analysis – informed by the same authors – underpinned the findings of the All-Wales Convention. The referendum was winnable, the Jones Parry report concluded, but had yet to be won.

That was task we accepted at the end of 2010. Led initially by Leighton Andrews, a small core team of volunteers, supported by a broader cross-party steering committee, set about building a campaign. We went to work with no resources, little time and a backdrop of growing impatience with the absence of a visible Yes campaign. The challenge of getting our message across was considerable, and it is no surprise that most people felt they had insufficient information or understanding about the issues. For our part, we did what we could.

With the exception of BBC Wales and the Western Mail we were confronted by a media which displayed palpable indifference to the referendum. From a standing start the Yes campaign created an infrastructure, without Electoral Commission funding, to support the delivery of over 1 million leaflets. We raised £60,000 in the space of a few short weeks and were on to course to raise more before we ceased efforts in the face of a spending cap imposed on us as a result of the failure of the No campaign to organise a serious campaign.

The analysis by Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully does show that the Yes for Wales campaign was significantly more successful than any other ‘permitted participant’ at contacting voters. However, it is a surprise that fewer than 10% of people responding to the survey recalled being contacted by anyone during the campaign.

“For the most part people seemed to have voted on the basis of what they thought about the issues that were actually on the ballot”

Roger Scully told his audience at last week’s presentation. Well, in the face of a No campaign strategy that sought to widen the debate way beyond what was on the ballot paper that was no mean feat.

Further, the research showed that the percentage of voters certain to vote over the last four weeks of the campaign increased from just over 50% to just under 60%.

In a sense, the Yes campaign couldn’t win. Success was bound to have a thousand authors and failure would have been an orphan. But even if the psephology pointed to a likely outcome, the success of campaign was not inevitable.

Forging and sustaining a consensus across four parties and civil society so close to an election was a significant challenge. It is testimony to the determination to succeed of everyone involved that moments of real tension around the messaging of the campaign were contained, and kept private.

It is easy in retrospect to say that the Yes campaign was always going to win. But imagine a campaign where the parties were attacking each other, where there was no local network of organisations, no credible civil society figures endorsing the message, and no literature save the lamentable leaflet from the Electoral Commission setting out the issues. In those circumstances how confident could we be that people’s feelings about their constitutional preferences would have resulted in a Yes vote in all age groups and all but one of the Welsh counties?

I was clear in my own mind from the beginning that the referendum was the Yes campaign’s to lose. All we had to do was run a professional and credible all party campaign and we would win. But as experience taught me, that wasn’t as easy as it sounded.

While they may be some force to the analysis that “the campaign didn’t actually change a huge amount”, a poor Yes campaign could have produced a very different result.

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