Why Wales said Yes

21 June 2011

The Senedd
The Senedd

Why did Wales vote Yes so clearly in the referendum in March? This question will be answered in two Breakfast Seminars held this week - in Cardiff on Wednesday morning 22nd June, and in Aberystwyth on Friday morning 24th June.

In these seminars, Professor Roger Scully from Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Welsh Politics (IWP) and Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre (WGC) will give the first public presentations of data collected by the 2011 Welsh Referendum Study (WRS).

The seminars will be held in Cardiff at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay, and in Aberystwyth at the Welsh Assembly Buildings, Rhodfa Padarn, and are organised by the IWP and the WGC.

The 2011 Welsh Referendum Study was conducted by the IWP and WGC in collaboration with the leading polling company YouGov, and with financial support from the Economic and Social Research Council of the United Kingdom.

A representative sample of the Welsh electorate, comprising over 3000 respondents, were interviewed via the internet over the course of the four-week referendum campaign. These respondents were then re-interviewed immediately after the vote.

Professor Scully and Prof Wyn Jones, Wales’ two leading voting analysts, will draw on evidence from WRS to address a number of specific questions, including:

•        Who voted in the referendum, and who didn’t? Why was turnout in the referendum (at 35.6 percent) so low?

•        What sort of people voted Yes and No? Were there ‘typical’ Yes and No voters? Did the referendum result show a Wales that has become more unified on the issue of how it should be governed?

•        Why did people make the voting choices that they did? Whether it was a decision to vote Yes, vote No, or to fail to participate, what were the main factors pushing people in different directions? Were people voting to express their national identities? Were they seeking to deliver a verdict on the first decade of devolution? Or were there other factors guiding their choices?

•        What difference did the campaigns make? Which arguments resonated with the electorate? Or did the campaign pass by un-noticed by the majority of the Welsh people?

Among the major findings from the study to be discussed in the seminars are the following:

•        That while turnout in the referendum was low, it was not heavily skewed towards particular social groups – with the exception of younger voters who, as is now typical in western democracies, voted in far lower numbers than older age cohorts.

•        There is little evidence of a substantial latent ‘No’ vote which the weakness of the No campaign failed to exploit. Among those who seriously considered voting in the referendum but in the end did not, their preferences between the Yes and No sides were very similar to those seen in the final result.

•        The campaign period made very little difference to voting preferences in the referendum; nor did it greatly alter broader public attitudes towards devolution. In large part this was because the two sides had great difficulties in connecting with the voters in the campaign period. Fewer than one in ten WRS respondents reported being contacted in any way by anyone about the referendum; barely a quarter felt that the campaign had left them feeling sufficiently informed on the issues at stake in the referendum; and almost 40 percent thought that the Yes campaign had been ‘completely invisible’ in the run-up to the vote, while more than 60 percent felt this about the main No grouping, True Wales.

•        The major parties also had problems in communicating their positions on the referendum to voters. Plaid Cymru were the only party whose position on the referendum was correctly perceived by a clear majority of voters, and the only party seen as united on the issue by a majority of voters.

•        There were few differences in the social background of Yes and No voters, except along lines of national identity. Those with a more Welsh sense of identity were, perhaps unsurprisingly, far more likely to vote Yes, while those with a more British national identity voted No in greater numbers.

•        The main factors shaping voting choices in the referendum were individuals’ basic attitudes to how Wales should be governed, and secondarily, their perceptions of the performance of the Assembly Government in the years prior to the referendum. The Yes camp were helped by the fact that while relatively few voters believe that devolution has substantially improved the economy and public services in Wales, fewer still think that it has made them worse.

Commenting on the findings, Prof Roger Scully, Director of the Institute of Welsh Politics, observed that “There was plenty wrong with the March referendum. But our findings offer at least two positive messages. The first is that, while turnout in the referendum was low, it was not concentrated among particular social groups. In that sense, the referendum was not socially divisive. The second positive message is that the strongest factor shaping how people voted in the referendum seems to have been their basic attitudes to how Wales should be governed. Referendums often seem to be hijacked, and become votes on things that have nothing much to do with what is on the ballot paper. That didn’t happen in Wales this year. In that sense, the referendum worked.”

Prof Richard Wyn Jones, Director of the Wales Governance Centre, added,

“What is most striking in the data is how similar the attitudes of non-voters seem to be to those who actually voted. We have found no support for the claims of some No campaigners that they somehow represented a 'silent majority' in Wales. They clearly did not! That in turn is perhaps the most important thing about the 2011 referendum: after the pulverizing defeat of 1979 and the very grudging approval of 1997, the majority opinion in Wales – silent or otherwise – is now clearly pro-devolution. Those arguments should now, finally, be put to bed”

The Institute of Welsh Politics

The Institute of Welsh Politics is an independent and non-partisan research centre within the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University. It was established to promote the academic study and analysis of all aspects of Welsh politics. Reflecting its institutional home within the oldest Department of International Relations in the world, the work of the Institute focuses not only on the political process within Wales, but also on Wales' political and political-economic relations within Britain, Europe and the wider world.

The Wales Governance Centre

The Wales Governance Centre is a research centre supported by Cardiff University’s Law School and School of European Studies, and drawing together scholars from across the University. The Centre’s staff undertake innovative research into all aspects of the law and government of Wales, as well the wider UK and European contexts of devolved governance. The Centre also facilitates and encourages informed public debate of key developments in Welsh governance.

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