Friday, 30 July 2010

Five Days

Like most others who fancy themselves as an amateur politico or psephologist, I watched Nick Robinson's documentary "Five Days that Changed Britain" last night (available on iPlayer here).  On the whole, it was pretty decent fare - I mean, you can (as most people do) question Nick Robinson's politics and the choice of questions he asked, but on the whole, I thought he struck the right chord with most of the interviews.

Three things that really stuck out for me though, the first of which was Nick Robinson's conclusion that "coalition government might be here to stay".  This is something I agree with - and wrote about 2 days after the coalition was finalised.  I've gone further too, by saying that I don't think Labour will return to government for at least another 15 years.

Which brings me to the other two things that stuck out - Labour attitudes and personalities.  It was an unedifying spectacle to see Ed Balls, a man who is a potential leader of the Labour party (though probably not on that performance) almost spitting venom when discussing the coalition negotiations.  Labour's attitude towards the Liberal Democrats in particular appears to accuse them of selling out social democracy, despite the fact that wasn't quite what the country had voted for.  "Screw the country - the other lot didn't get a majority, we can still govern unless you do a deal with them".  Except, by last night's account, Balls was one of the main obstacles to an agreement, despite being part of the Labour "negotiating" team.  

It is a worrying situation for Labour when, of all the Labour figures interviewed, the two who came across best were Lords Mandelson and Adonis.  They seemed assured, smart enough to realise that Labour had to take their medicine of opposition for a while, to rebuild trust - they knew it was over.  If Labour has any sense (and I can't believe I'm saying this) Peter Mandelson will be a guy they will listen to when the rebuilding project begins under the new leadership.  Personalities play a big role in this, and his is one which will be fairly influential.  Alistair Campbell too, though he seems somewhat more entrenched and Balls-like than the Lords pair.

On a further note, how disappointing not to have Gordon Brown interviewed.  I don't know if he was invited, but it would be pretty strange if he wasn't.  You can understand his reasons - the way it was described, he was the guy that was dragging all the negotiations, the block to any kind of Lab-Lib Dem pact; he was the loser, the vanquished.  But by not appearing, he allowed that perception to be furthered.  This was an opportunity to go in front of cameras again and say to the public "look, you voted us out, I'm sorry you didn't think we could provide the recovery this country needs but we tried."  But again, his lack of media savvy shone through.

I'm sorry if it appears that I'm having a pop at Labour at the moment, given what I said about Richard Baker a few days ago.  But I think these are worrying times for Labour I think, if Ed Balls is the standard of leadership candidate that they have.  Labour supporters better hope he is not the new leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, because if he is... well, he might not be for long, but his successors will be.

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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Nick Clegg's scheming plan

Nick Clegg thinks its "disrespectful" of 44 Tory MPs to think that voters in Scotland and Wales cannot vote on 2 issues on the same day - he said so yesterday at Deputy PMQs.  He should probably tell that to Ron Gould and the 140,000 voters in Scotland who spoiled papers in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election as they were invited to vote on both it and the local authority election on the same day.

The Deputy PM's idea for holding the AV referendum on the same day as Scottish Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections is supposedly about cost - with an apparent saving of £17m if it goes ahead on that day (as opposed to decoupling the two events and having them on different days).  Strange for me, that Clegg's point of principle, a semi-proportional electoral system should be a matter for such penny-pinching.

Also, I don't suppose he has given much thought to the potential outcome of the vote and the fact that it will be held alongside two national elections in Scotland and Wales and none in England.  Think this one through from a Tory perspective for a minute.  Say people in Scotland and Wales ARE convinced of the argument for AV and vote, possibly 80-20% in favour on a turnout average for devolution of around 60%.  Now consider England is predominantly not in favour, for argument sake, 80-20% against.  But given there is no other election on in England at the time, turnout is merely 15% (less than the European Election in 2009).  

What I'm trying to say is this:  what happens if the electoral system is changed to AV on the fact that turnout in Scotland and Wales is high and in England it is low?  

It's hardly fair that England gets saddled with an electoral system they don't want on the back of Scotland and Wales voting for it.  Or is that Clegg's intention?  Make the case in Scotland and Wales, ignore England and hope no one bothers to show up.  Which they probably won't.  He gets AV.

No wonder the Tory MPs are against the proposals.

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Tuesday, 27 July 2010

A wolf in sheep's clothing

With apologies to the predominantly Scottish readership but there's some more news from Wales which I've found interesting (and, which has potential relevance to Scotland as well).  And it's this:  How much are the Tories about to royally shaft Labour?

I shall, perhaps, have to put that in a slightly more socially acceptable format should it ever grace the pages of an academic journal, but I felt the terminology apt.  Basically, I'm thinking about David Cameron's (and, to be fair, Nick Clegg's) plans to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and ensure constituencies of roughly equal numbers (75,000 voters).

The reason I'm interested?  The reduction of Welsh representation at Westminster by a QUARTER - or from 40 seats at present to 30 after the reduction.  In actual fact, Wales is, and has been for some time, over-represented at Westminster, so this would really be a simple bringing them into line with the rest of the UK in terms of representation.  As far as I understand, Scotland would be in line to lose 6 or 7 seats while Northern Ireland would lose 3 and the remainder would come from England.

Anyway, three knock-on effects (identified by John Osmond as "unintended consequences") resulting from the changes.  Firstly, the constituencies for the Welsh Assembly are tied to those for Westminster - meaning any reduction in seats for the House of Commons means a corresponding reduction in Cardiff Bay.  If nothing is done to change that then Wales would have an Assembly of just 50 members - 30 constituency and 20 regional list.  And given there are discussions at the moment to increase its powers (and the Richard Commission recommended in 2004 to increase members to 80) that might cause a re-think there.  

Secondly, they could de-couple the constituencies.  There is precedent here - Scotland's were tied too, but an amendment to the Scotland Act allowed us to maintain 73 Holyrood constituencies when we reduced the Westminster ones in 2005 to 59.  However, Welsh Tories aren't keen on the idea - the Welsh Assembly already suffers from a lack of electorate enthusiasm, and confusing the constituencies may make that apathy worse.  Which means that to maintain numbers, they could have an extra 10 list members, which would increase the proportionality of the system (and, one would think, the outcome of elections, the last of which was less proportional than the English local elections).

Thirdly, were the Assembly elected more by PR (with less reliance on FPTP) it would hurt Labour more, as they have benefited most from the only 1/3rd PR element - though, as I noted last week, their vote has been diminishing in Wales for the last decade.  Wales remains the last of the devolved administrations led by a Labour figure - with Carwyn Jones, as Welsh First Minister, the highest elected Labour official in the country.  It appears as though that position is under threat, as with diminishing vote numbers and a potential reduction in MPs, Labour's position as the dominant party in Wales is no longer guaranteed.  In short, the institution which they delivered in 1997 in  the expectation that they'd be governing - individually - for the subsequent two decades looks like it may end up as a further harbinger of doom for the party.

A final thought on that.  In 1997, the Conservatives opposed devolution.  Now, 13 years on, they've found ways to work with it and adapt the system to how it suits them after a damning defeat.  PR, a system which they are not fond of, has saved them electorally in Wales and, ironically, might be the system that secures their position and weakens Labour further.  Sea change indeed, and change that is fuelled by pragmatism on their part.  

A little pragmatism goes a long way - a lesson the Tories have learnt the hard way.  The question is - will Labour?

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Monday, 26 July 2010

Baker's Dozin'

The whole furore over the al-Megrahi release which has been opened up by David Cameron's visit to the States and the US Senate's desire to have Scottish ministers give evidence to their committee is a sad state of affairs.  Plenty has already been written about why this is ridiculous - when will the US start to realise that it does not have jurisdiction over any more than its own shores?  I'm still a bit annoyed (and that's putting it lightly) that Messrs Salmond & MacAskill didn't just tell them to f*** o**.  But perhaps my political antenna isn't quite as in tune as theirs.

Anyway, I digress.  I just wanted to point out the utter nonsense on the issue spouted by Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Baker.  He told the BBC (who have called him "Labour's justice spokesman" which I think is a downgrade in title):

"It speaks volumes about the lack of confidence he has now in his own decision that he is running a mile from any scrutiny of it".  Apparently in his view it is "perfectly legitimate" for American politicians to ask Kenny MacAskill to go to Washington because they can pretty well do what they like.  

Okay, I may have paraphrased that last bit, but his point is daft anyway.  Of course it is legitimate to for them to ask, but it is also legitimate for the Justice Secretary to decline (just as, incidentally, Baker's own colleague and former UK Home Secretary Jack Straw did).  Wouldn't the Scottish Government be justified in inviting the US Senators (some of whom enjoy lucrative sponsorship from oil companies) to come and share their findings with a committee of the Scottish Parliament (who DO have jurisdiction in the matter?  Of course - but they won't, because they recognise that the Senators do not have a constituency over here, and no place in our democratic system.

I think, thankfully, and hopefully, that the best outcome from this sorry media frenzy is that Richard Baker is unlikely to take his present role in opposition into government in the event he is re-elected in May and his party form the government - neither of which event is, thankfully, a certainty at this point.  

Of course what he said is political point-scoring, an opposition MSP trying to paint the government as incompetent.  But I wonder if Iain Gray realises yet that if he wants to run the Scottish Government next year he'll have to do better on the personnel than the amateurs he has running the show at the moment.  But then, it isn't like he has much of a choice.

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Thursday, 22 July 2010

Big Society, Little Britain

David Cameron got some points from me for his idea of a "Big Society".  His idea is very much in keeping with my view of what I guess is often described as "civic nationalism".  Leaving aside that the "nation" it encompasses is larger than I would like (being the UK and not just Scotland) I think the idea is bold and sensible, particularly in the times of financial difficulty which we currently find ourselves in. 

"Dave" wants society to help itself, to let communities run their own (non-vital) services and pull Britain back from the big (sprawling) government it has developed.  That to me is a laudable aim, particularly given that I have a "liberal" view of government as a "necessary evil" and that people shouldn't expect government to do everything for them.  If anything,  I don't think his Big Society goes far enough, but the idea is good, so as I say, points on that score.

But then he lost the points on arrival in the States when, in the words of the excellent Joan McAlpine, he "trashed" Scotland on the world stage by saying how wrong he felt the decision was to release Abdelbasset al-Megrahi, and clearly emphasised how he stood with the US against the Scottish Government on the issue.  Whether you believe the decision to be correct or not, the way in which David Cameron has blown his "respect agenda" for the devolved institutions shows a clear disregard for devolution. 

I expect he will announce a full UK-level inquiry into the decision in the coming days, further ignoring the fact that the decision was the Scottish Government's to make.  The fact that he was not PM at the time of the decision probably makes this easier for him - both in a partisan and bi-lateral, UK-US sense.  I made reference a few days ago to the UK (specifically Jack Straw, when he was Home Secretary) allowing General Pinochet to be released back to Chile on medical grounds, despite charges of torture and assasination against him.  I guess the difference in that case is that he was a) backed by former US President George H. W. Bush (and the fact that his military coup was supported by the US) and b) the decision was made by a UK minister.  I don't remember David Cameron (or indeed, anyone from the US Government) speaking out against that decision, and Pinochet lived 6 YEARS after his release.  The truth of the matter is that we would not be talking about this again had al-Megrahi not survived 11 months (and counting) after his release.  A sad state of affairs indeed that government ministers from both sides of the Atlantic are waiting for a terminally ill man to die.

So yes, the "Big Society" is a good idea.  But Dave, your perception of devolution is small and petty, and the respect for it is non-existent.  Must try harder old chap.

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Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Florence and Precious


I think I've missed the boat with the timing of this post - but the sentiment is there, so let's ignore the fact I've showed up late and embrace the fact I'm here.

Last night's vigil and blog-in supporting Florence and Precious Mhango got plenty support from Scotland's great and good in the blogosphere.  Anne and Caron led the way, ably supported by Will and Alison while Jeff and Subrosa both chipped in with their views, all saying the same thing: they've got to stay.  And I'm 100% behind them.

Each of the posts above makes the same point in slightly different ways.  Will points out we've led genocidal murderers (Pinochet) and terrorists (al-Megrahi) live freely out of compassion but we can't see fit to extend that same compassion to a mother and daughter who have made Scotland their home after suffering domestic abuse among other things.  And Jeff points out that David Cameron's warm words about a "Big Society" sound hollow when the Glasgow community to which Florence and Precious belong want them to stay and are being ignored by the political elites who think they know better.

Of course we should take immigration seriously, and the issue of asylum is a sensitive one - but this is a total no-brainer.  If we send them back to Malawi, we're condemning them to a life without each other, Precious to become the "property" of her father.  

I've never been one to call myself British, but if our government is doing this in our name... then I'm disgusted even to be associated with the concept.  Come on Dave - you banged on about compassionate Conservatism enough during the campaign - now lets see it in action.

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Thursday, 15 July 2010

Nat Gain?

Here's a thought for you: can you imagine Jim Murphy deciding that Labour don't quite cut it any more and standing for the SNP at the Scottish election next year?  No? No, probably not.  Perhaps he's not a good example to use for this.  What about previous Scottish Secretaries - Des Browne, Douglas Alexander, Alistair Darling, Helen Liddell, John Reid?  Any of those aspiring Nats do you you think?  No?

Why do I ask anyway?

Well, it seems that former Secretary of State for Wales (and, indeed, architect of Welsh devolution it would appear) Ron Davies HAS decided that.  Indeed, he decided that Labour weren't very good six years ago and joined Forward Wales, a now-disbanded left-of-centre Welsh regionalist party.  Well, he has now gone further, and after campaigning for Plaid at the UK election in May, he is now the only nominee for the party to contest the Caerphilly seat in the Assembly election next year.

I'm not sure what to make of this.  Of course the comparison with Scotland is crude, and doesn't work on any level.  Each of the living former Labour Scottish Secretaries are still active in Labour politics, have recently retired from the Commons or are in the Lords.  And none of them resigned from office in disgrace after a "moment of madness" on Clapham Common.  And I suppose the best comparison (in terms of the person who steered devolution on the Labour benches in Scotland) would be Donald Dewar, and he is no longer with us (and, perhaps, even less likely to join the SNP than any of the aforementioned Labourites were he still alive).

But what is interesting, particularly for folk like me with more than a passing interest in Welsh devolution is the fact that the guy who practically designed devolution in Wales now wants more.  And though that is a fairly common view among the Assembly politicians - they voted unanimously to move to a referendum on the topic - it is not exactly popular among current and former Welsh MPs.  The fact that Ron Davies is ready to stake his political future on it by standing for Plaid - in the seat he held as a Labour MP and AM from 1983 until 2003 - made me think a little harder about it.

On the other hand, relations between Labour and Plaid are much more amicable than those between the SNP and Labour.  They have to be, for the sake of the coalition.  And in spite of tensions here, former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish has readily offered his support to the SNP on issues where he agrees with them while Susan Deacon has recently taken on a role in the SNP Government advising on Children and Early Years education.  However, I would hazard that neither will be campaigning - or standing - for the party next year.

Of interest to electoral anoraks is if he wins.  He'd have represented the constituency for two different parties if he did so.  Betsan Powys points out that his former colleague in Forward Wales, John Marek could do the same, and represent 3 parties - he's just joined the Tories, having represented Wrexham for Labour between 1999 and 2003 and the John Marek Independent Party from 2003 to 2007.

Anyway, I'm not sure I can add much more to the analysis.  Just interesting stuff.

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Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Total Politics Blog Poll

If I have any readers left, can I point you to the button on the sidebar that will take you to the Total Politics poll of best blogs 2010.  As usual, this is being run by Total Politics and promoted by Iain Dale, Labour List and Lib Dem Voice.  Some rules you may need to know:  


1. You must vote for your ten favourite blogs and ranks them from 1 (your favourite) to 10 (your tenth favourite).
2. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. Any votes which do not have rankings will not be counted.
3. You MUST include at least FIVE blogs in your list, but please list ten if you can. If you include fewer than five, your vote will not count.
4. Email your vote to 
toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com
5. Only vote once.
6. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents or based on UK politics are eligible. No blog will be excluded from voting.
7. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name
8. All votes must be received by midnight on 31 July 2010. Any votes received after that date will not count.


I finished fourth in Scotland last year, but was much more active than I have been recently, so I'm not expecting much.  Indeed, I'm not even going to ask for your vote.  All I'm suggesting is that if you read blogs, you may want to vote.  Go on... 

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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The end of hegemony?

I was reading an interesting article by Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully today (it is this one here, though you'll have to pay to read it - I was at the National Library).  Anyway, the article was entitled "The end of one-partyism" and looked at the electoral performance of Labour in Wales between 1997 and 2005.

I wanted to extend it and look at 2010 as well, and performance in Scotland and England too.  So here's the info:

In Wales, Labour polled 54.7% of the vote in 1997.  In 2005, that figure was 42.7% - a massive 12% fall.  In 2010 they polled 36.2% of the vote - down a further 6.5%.  Of course we have to recognise that 1997 was a high watermark, even for Labour in Wales, but in 13 years of government - which included delivering a form of decision-making to Cardiff - their vote has fallen by 18.5%.  (Incidentally, despite being one of Labour's worst election results by share of the vote since 1918 in Wales, they still won 26 of the 40 seats there).

In England, the watermark was not so high in 1997 at 43.5% of the vote.  In 2005 that figured dipped to 35.5% - down 8%.  And this year it was down further - to 28.1% of the vote, down another 7.4%.  Now England - with the exception of the North, Yorkshire, the West-Midlands and bits of London - is not exactly Labour's heartland it is true, but drop 15% of the vote is a rather large fall.

And so to Scotland.  In 1997 Labour maintained their status as the dominant party in Scotland, winning 45.6% of the vote - not as high as Wales, but they faced a more competitive party system.  By 2005 that had fallen to 38.9% - a fall of 6.7% - almost half of the slide in Wales.  In 2010 they actually increased their share of the vote here, up by 3.1% to 42% of the vote.  In terms of seats, all that did was maintain their level of 2005, with the only nominal gains those which had been lost in by-elections during the session and the seat of the Speaker, which was a notional Labour seat anyway.

Which means what?  Well, I don't really know is the honest answer.  Certainly if you look historically at Wales you see a Liberal hegemony from mid-1800s until 1920s and then a Labour hegemony from the inter-war years to the present.  And recent trends (1997 on, as indicated above) show that hegemony waning, particularly in light of the four-party system at the National Assembly. 

Historically, Scotland is a similar story - a Conservative dominance was arrested in the 1950s and replaced by a Labour hegemony which, though less powerful than it used to be, remains in place today.  Obviously some Nats will take issue with the term "hegemony" and point to the SNP Scottish Government and Scottish and European Parliament results as evidence to the contrary, and that is a fair point.  But I haven't used that in the case of Wales (nor England, for obvious reasons) so why use it for Scotland.

I think the bottom line is equally obvious - that we have distinctly different party systems - and party competitions - in existence at the multiple levels of governance that currently occupy our representatives.  And though the SNP have been buoyed by winning Holyrood (2007) and European (2009) elections (and the Conservatives similarly with the European election in Wales) it is Labour who continue to dominate when it comes to Westminster elections, though that hold is loosening.

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Monday, 12 July 2010

Several(?) dates with destiny

I wrote at the tail end of last week about Nick Clegg's decision (well, okay, Nick Clegg's announcement of the decision) to hold the referendum to decide whether to adopt the AV vote on May 5th, the same day as the Scottish Parliament election next year.  Cue expected stushie, with Alex Salmond writing to David Cameron complaining that this hardly fits with his "respect" agenda, and suggesting that the referendum would "undermine and overshadow" the Scottish Parliament election.  I outlined some of the reasons for this in my previous post.

In theory, the Scottish Parliament can change the date of its election - up to one month either side of the 5th May date.  Well, actually, no, that's not strictly true.  The Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament can request that the Secretary of State move the election, and they must sign off on it.  This is something, as Brian Taylor points out, which is being considered as a means of settling the other problem of the date - namely Westminster's change to fixed term parliaments, where the election dates would clash every 20 years starting on May 7th 2015.  He wonders whether the PO might make such a request for next year - probably in the full knowledge that if he UK government has made its decision then such a request is likely to be politely declined.

Interestingly (and, I guess, obviously, since they follow the same electoral cycle as Scotland) the problem is the same in Wales - they face having their Assembly election conjoined with the AV vote on 5 May as well.  There has been a similar reaction among elected politicians there as here, except for one, fairly notable exception.  The Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales, Dafydd Elis Thomas, who has no "constitutional objection" to holding both on the same day on the grounds that it would benefit turnout for both.  However, what is really interesting is that he recommends holding Wales' other referendum - that which seeks to move the Schedule 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, bestowing in one move legislative powers to the National Assembly - on the same day.  So you'd have the devolved election, the AV referendum and the powers referendum on 5 May.

Dafydd Elis Thomas has previously made clear his objection to holding the powers referendum in Wales until such a time as the result is not really in doubt, and is sceptical of holding it in March (as is currently rumoured to be the intention of Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan).  So this seems a bold move - shifting the referendum to a date where there are a couple of other things going on would likely drive up turnout but at the expense of giving a clear campaign solely on the issue of the Assembly powers.  So that is interesting.

Of more interest in Scotland, I guess, is the impact of such a scheduling.  If this did go ahead - and the Welsh had all three votes on the one day - would the First Minister be able to argue that Scots are too stupid to be able to vote on two different issues (the Scottish Parliamentary election and the AV referendum) on the same day?  I guess time will tell on that one, but if Wales did go ahead on that score, it may start to make things more difficult to decouple the votes here.

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Thursday, 8 July 2010

Cardiff & Edinburgh

Apologies for the hiatus, I've been in Cardiff awhile, with no real internet to speak off (or time for that matter) doing some academic research for my thesis.  And I seem to have missed out on a fair bit whilst away.

Take, for example, the UK Con-LD Government's decision to schedule the AV referendum on 5 May, the same day of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English local government elections, ostensibly for reasons of saving the public money (£17m was the estimate I heard).  Cue outcry from MSPs, AMs and, well, anyone who isn't a Tory or Lib Dem MP to be honest.  

Their argument - it'll overshadow the devolved elections.  And that, I think, has merit.  Because - and this is more of an issue in Wales I think, than in Scotland, where our media is a little more focused on what happens at Holyrood - the media, generally speaking, sets the terms of reference for elections.  You can quibble with my hypothesis if you like, but look at recently passed General Election - without the TV debates and the presence of the now Deputy PM Clegg, where would the Lib Dems have been?  Answer: probably out of government, most likely with fewer seats.  So the media matters - and if they are focused on the AV referendum then the devolved institutions will lose out. 

Another argument, and one that has merit in Scotland after the fiasco of the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, is that we might confuse people. I know, it sounds patronising - trust members of the public to put a cross on two different bits of paper?  But with that experience here - and the resulting democratic stooshie - I wouldn't be too willing to bet that people won't make a hash of it.  So that one I think, has some merit - but just a little.

There is a case that it may actually help - by combining both votes you may drive the turnout up a little.  This I'm more sceptical of.  If people feel so strongly about changing the method of electing their MPs, they'll show up to vote on the day anyway.

But really, I think, what it comes down to is money - and a distinct lack of it.  Parties are fresh from fighting a UK General Election.  In Wales they have the added complication of holding a referendum to decide on the speed of extending the powers of the Assembly, probably in March, followed by the AV referendum and the Assembly election, both on May 5.  The latter has a month's wiggle room and so could be held in June, but that's at the discretion of the Secretary of State... and if her government has decided to hold the AV vote on May 5 to save money, I doubt they'll shift the Assembly election to June, however valid their reason for doing so it.

No, money is the kicker - and political parties are lacking in it at the moment.  So while in public they will whinge and moan about the AV vote being on the same day as the devolved elections, privately they are probably a little more pleased that campaigning for both can take place at the same time, thus saving them time and energy - and, more importantly, money - in the campaigns.  Or maybe I'm just being cynical.

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