Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lawyering Up

And so, after the commotion, come the lawyers. Today's coverage of the unfolding saga regarding John Dixon and Aled Roberts and their present disqualification from the Assembly has latched onto the first legal opinion offered, by former counsel general Winston Roddick, and (with some exceptions) taken it as gospel.

Unsurprisingly, as your favourite (read: only) Lib Dem blogger-cum-law student, I've taken a look at the matter. So as that fine constitutional scholar, Toby Ziegler, might have had it, let us turn our attention to the Government of Wales Act 2006, for it is the owner's manual and we should read what it has to say.

Section 16 of GOWA outlines the grounds for which a person may be disqualified from being an Assembly member, and in Section 16(1)(b) includes as a disqualification the holding of any office, "for the time being designated by Order in Council as offices disqualifying persons from being Assembly members". It is this section that gives effect to the National Assembly For Wales (Disqualification) Order 2010, which lists the offices for which John and Aled are currently disqualified.

The effect of being disqualified is laid out in Section 18 of GOWA, and in this case Section 18(1) applies when it states that, "if a person who is disqualified from being an Assembly member is returned as an Assembly member, the person's return is void and the person's seat is vacant". It is this section that the former counsel general is presumably referring to when he says the law is clear that the election is invalid.

But, und zis is a big but, Section 18(1) must be read together with Section 18(4), which says that Sections 18(1)-(3), "have effect subject to any resolution of the Assembly under Section 17(3)".

And what does Section 17(3) say? "The Assembly may resolve that the disqualification of any person who was, or is alleged to have been, disqualified from being an Assembly member on a ground within section 16(1) or (4) is to be disregarded if it appears to the Assembly (a) that the ground has been removed, and (b) that it is proper so to resolve."

On the question of whether the Assembly has the power to reinstate, therefore, the Government of Wales Act is indeed clear; it does.

Inevitably there will be much politicking over the next few days as to whether it is proper to resolve, as that is a judgement left to the Assembly and not defined in law. But just by having Section 17(3) in place, the intent of the legislation must be obvious, that it seeks only to disqualify those who continue to be disqualified, and not to invalidate elections altogether or to keep disqualified those who aren't.

One of the few comforting features of British politics is that, once the sides have extracted their pound of flesh, calmer heads normally prevail. Armed with a clear power to do so, we can but hope that they do.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Votes From The Elbonian Jury

So what, then, to make of the AV referendum campaign? Like much in British politics in the , I suspect it's a question that only the historians will be able to answer. After all, whatever result emerges at teatime on Friday, will we be able to say with any sort of confidence why it happened?

I certainly don't feel like the campaign has had much to do with the result. Much as the Yes campaign clearly won the intellectual argument, doing so by default because the No campaign didn't have one made that victory rather hollow. Beyond that, the primary effect of the campaigning seems to have been to further convince the electorate that they're all just as bad as each other, which in a referendum always likely to be touched by voter apathy was never going to be helpful.

Either way, it is that lack of an intellectual argument that will, more even than the result, affect our politics in the years to come. The defining moments of the campaign were when David Cameron, the Oxford PPE graduate and student of Vernon Bogdanor, not only said that he didn't understand AV, but then proved it in front of John Humphrys. At another time, it might have been funny, but with the issue front and centre and coming from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I have to say it was terrifying.

In the month or so of a formal campaign, it was understandably impossible for the Yes campaign to cover all of the many ways in which our world has changed and our political system hasn't. But for the No campaign to do what it has, to stick its fingers in its ears and its head somewhere else, and try to claim that the world hasn't changed and that our political system is what it is, what it will be and what it was, is unconscionable.

The result of one referendum on one small part of a political system that involves every single person in the country will not alter the fundamental fact that people rightly expect and demand more involvement in decision making and more choices and that it will require wholesale reform of every branch of government at every level to deliver that. Petty tribalism on all sides, including my own, cannot justify the disenfranchisement of so many.

So as you cast your ballot today, of all the myriad statistics that have been thrown at you, consider these two that maybe haven't. In the 2010 UK general election, just under 58% of people didn't vote Labour or Conservative, because a third of people didn't vote at all. Indeed, five million more people didn't vote than voted Conservative. How many of those didn't vote because their choice would be ignored or wasn't available under the current system? AV is not about Lib Dems, or Conservatives, or Labourites, it is about all of us and it is a road we must embark on, starting today.