"It's winnable, but there's no certainty it will be won." Having been asked so many times regarding the likely result of a referendum on extending primary powers to the National Assembly, my colleagues and I on Aberystwyth University's Institute of Welsh Politics' research team have whittled down our response to ten words. Of course, scholars are famous for responding to direct questions by insisting on weighing up things and turning from the one hand to the other! But in the case of the proposed referendum, the third on devolution, there are good reasons for not offering a more categorical answer.
Our belief that a referendum is winnable is based on the results of the only opinion polls which have asked directly for voters' intentions in such a contest. Here are the relevant results:
As you can see each one has shown a majority in favour, varying from a 3% advantage in the first one, to a much more comfortable lead of 14% in the latest poll. But before devolutionists start celebrating a positive movement of public opinion in their favour, the problem with these polls is that we are not comparing like with like. Each one of the polls has worded the relative question differently:
'If there was a referendum on turning the National Assembly for Wales into a Welsh Parliament with full lawmaking powers and the power to levy taxes, how would you vote?' was the question in June 2007. All talk of levying taxes was dispensed with by February this year: 'If there was a referendum on turning the National Assembly for Wales into a Welsh Parliament with full lawmaking powers, how would you vote?' Again different wording was used in the latest opinion poll: 'If there was a referendum tomorrow on extending full legislative powers (similar to the powers of the Scottish Parliament) to the National Assembly for Wales, how would you vote?'
It's natural that the question has varied. At the moment we don't know for sure what the wording of the question asked to Welsh voters in the referendum will be, and there's room to doubt how many of the public would understand a technically correct question such as 'How would you vote in a referendum to permit the implementation of Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006?' But as research has confirmed again and again that the exact wording of the question is key to the result of any poll or plebiscite, it means there are no means for us to say anything concerning tendencies in public opinion.
Nonetheless, from the point of view of a prospective Yes Campaign, the same variance seen in the opinion polls holds a number of important lessons. While the level of the Yes vote is very consistent whichever way the question is put, the size of support for those against varies greatly. As far as the message of the campaign is concerned, then, it would be wise to underline ad nauseum there are no financial consequences to a 'Yes' vote whilst emphasising also the comparison with Scotland - as longas there is no vote there on independence, of course!
And that brings us neatly to the second clause of the 'Aberystwyth answer'. Yes, the polls suggest there is some kind of majority in favour of primary powers. But there's as much research as you like also showing that the results of referenda reflect the opinion of voters on the social and political context of the vote has as much to do with it as their considered opinion of the specific subjectin question. Or, to put it in more concrete terms, devolutionists have plenty of reason to be grateful for the wave of popular jubilation that followed the defeat of John Major's government in 1997. The spirit of the time was key to ensuring a positive vote. In the same way, the general context of the next referendum will be key in deciding the result of that vote.
What then can be said about the likely context of the third referendum? Remember that the wording of the 'One Wales' coalition agreement allows for all kinds of possibilities. The Labour Party and Plaid Cymru are committed
'to move forward as soon as is practically possible to get a successful result in a referendum on full legislative powers under Part IV, at the end of this Assembly's term or before.'
If I'm not reading too much between the lines, this suggests to me the Assembly will be invited to vote in favour of asking Westminster for a referendum to be held sometime towards the end of the present term (which will end in May 2011), and that if - and only if - there are promising signs of a successful outcome. At the moment, although a No Campaign has been established by the two other Dafydds - Davies and Rees - no Yes Campaign has ventured onto the battlefield. And with the Jones Parry Commission moving forward slowly enough, there's hardly anyone from among those in favour of primary powers - apart from a few prickly Liberals - who are worried about it.
It's easy to understand why the Welsh Labour Party wants to wait for as long as possible. Calling for a referendum is bound to cause a split in its ranks. Whilst two out of every three AMs is sure of supporting the call - the necessary majority according to the terms of the 2006 Act - it's possible some Labour AMs will oppose or abstain. And once the call is transferred to Westminster and Whitehall we can be totally sure that a number of Welsh Labour MPs will oppose it. This is the challenge to its internal discipline that the party would prefer not to face until necessary.
But in this case the self-interests of the Labour Party and the interests of devolution's cause more generally coincide - even if for reasons that will cause anguish to the hearts of most Labourites. Although I possess no powers of prophecy, I believe that towards the end of 2011 or indeed in 2012 is the most promising time for a referendum if we want to ensure a victory.
Unless the British Labour government - by some strange miracle - rises alive from the dead, as it were, a Conservative government will be formed in London sometime between now and the summer of 2010. If the latest YouGov poll is correct, then that government will be formed in the wake of a sweeping victory in England, the Tories' best performance in Wales since the dawn of democracy, but unremarkable results in Scotland.
Now, if I was one of David Cameron's advisors, I would urge him to take steps that would dispense for the need of a Welsh referendum at all, by pushing through a small bill through Parliament straight straight after being elected that would (1) implement Part 4 of the 2006 Act, and (2) undo the restriction on 'dual candidacies' in the Assembly elections. This could be presented as a more general attempt to 'stabilize the Union' side by side with different concessions for Scotland. Looking at the Welsh situation, for reasons that I have tried to explain in a previous column, the present 'settlement' only has trouble to offer a Conservative government. A referendum would also harm it as it would be sure to cause a deep rift in its ranks. On the other hand, rejecting a call by two of every three AMs for a referendum would be extremely damaging to the Conservative Party's long-term prospects in Wales - and would also lead to a split. But why fall into the trap? By moving quickly in the first months, those months when a new government can do almost anything it likes, it could avoid a lot of pain. But I'm not his advisor and it's hardly likely that anything similar to what I'm suggesting will happen!
By establishing a Conservative government in London, and in the absence of any such imaginative movements, the government in Cardiff will face completely new political circumstances. Very difficult circumstances in many ways, but - because of that - circumstances that couldmake it much easier to mobilise a coalition in favour of a positive vote in a referendum. Specificly, it will be very much easier to keep the Labour Party united.
If we see the expected electoral crash, The Parliamentary Welsh Labour Party's crest will be cut off. But on top of that, depending on the size of the crash, with the Labour Party likely to lose power in Westminster for a decade at least, and perhaps for a much longer, the Labour movement in Wales will have very strong reasons for urging a movement towards full legislative powers if only to insulate Wales somewhat from the policies of Cameron's government. Of course, the support of Plaid Cymru and progressive parts of the Democratic Liberals for a referendum and a Yes Campaign are secure. But I suppose that members and supporters of those parties will contribute even more fervently in the face to face struggle with a Conservative government in London - especially so if that government loses its starting sheen before calling the referendum.
That then is my suggestion if we are for ensuring an affirmative vote in a referendum on Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act. If a Conservative government is elected in May 2010, the Assembly should wait until the beginning of spring of the following year before passing a motion formally calling for a referendum. (And if we want to be truly Machiavellian about the whole thing, it would be best to have a few skirmishes with the London government in the meantime in order to demonstrate the failings of the present system.) If London is unwise enough to reject the call, an Assembly election can be fought in 2011 on the basis of giving the Welsh people the right to choose. On the other hand, if London agrees then the vote can be held in the autumn of 2011, or better still from the point of view of devolutionists, some time in the spring of 2012.
The problem with this layout, of course, is that it is impossible to foresee what other developments will occur in the meantime, and what their effect will be on public opinion in Wales. What if there is a referendum on independence in Scotland in the meantime? Or an economic crash on the scale of the 1930s? Or...who knows! Remember the uncharacteristicly wise words of Donald Rumsfeld about the 'known unknowns' and the 'unknown unknowns'. But by trying to consider the likely effects of that which is now very likely, namely a Conserrvative government in London, it seems to me that this layout excels any other layout that has been suggested until now. Has anyone got a better idea? How would you make winnable a winner?
Professor Richard Wyn Jones is Director of the Institute of Welsh Politics at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. This translation was originally posted on Ordovicius