A momentous – and under-reported – event in Welsh politics
The referendum that noone is talking about.
Although very few people have heard about it, on 3 March Wales is holding a referendum on increasing the powers of the Welsh assembly.
Currently, it has 20 areas on which it can legislate without permission from Westminster, although there are dozens of exceptions within the categories.
But a "Yes" vote in March would dramatically increase the Assembly's powers by removing these exemptions. For example, it would be able to introduce presumed consent for organ donations, regardless of the situation in England. The areas covered are both broad and important - health, transport, social welfare, housing, the environment and so on.
So why have we heard so little about the 3 March vote in the mainstream media? It's partly a reaction to the complaints about the previous referendum in 1997, which created the Assembly. This was marked by low turnout - 50.1 per cent of the population - and the minute scale of the majority, just 0.6 per cent. With such an important issue decided by such a small margin, there were complaints that the Labour government had unfairly influenced the decision by funding and promoting the "Yes" campaign.
This time round, neither side will receive any public funding for campaigning through mail shots of TV and radio broadcasts. The result, somewhat unsurprisingly, is a distinct lack of interest. In a YouGov poll in January, just 52 per cent of people said they were "certain" to vote on 3 March. Some 15 per cent didn't know how they could vote.
The decision by the "No" campaign to refuse funding, can now feel that the advantage their opponents had in the last referendum has now been checked.
"We are helping the people of Wales not to waste money on something we don't believe is necessary," said Len Gibbs, a member of True Wales, an organisation running the "No" campaign. "We are not fighting this new war with the tools of the last."
The No campaign is well within its rights to take this attitude, but it does seem a little rash - and detrimental to the greater issue: engaging the Welsh people in informed and rigorous debate about the future of their nation. There's no doubt that the allocation of powers to the Welsh Assembly is an important issue; unfortunately it's been made into an inaccessible one.
The lack of TV attention is particularly detrimental, because its reach is so great. Engaging people via the internet has been raised as the new frontier in campaigning but is far from being an assured method - particularly in Wales. Ofcom figures show that only 37 per cent of individuals in Wales use social networking sites, and the use of the internet is lowest in Wales as compared to the rest of the UK. The lack of "digital inclusion" is something that worries Welsh politicians. There is plenty of information about the referendum on Welsh governmental websites, but only 18 per cent of people In Wales access these.
The task of raising awareness will now fall more heavily on the Electoral Commission, which is funded by taxpayers. So refusing party-political multimedia advertising is unlikely to save taxpayers as much money as the "No" campaign might hope.
This referendum marks a hugely important moment for Wales; it asks whether the nation should take decisions independently on issues such as health services and education. Although the motives of the "No" campaign are sincere, the effect of their actions is to limit debate.
The conviction and passion of political groups can engage people, promote discussion, define viewpoints and, most importantly, get voters to the ballot box. Instead, Wales is getting a "campaign-lite".