The Electoral Commission and Welsh political activists

The Electoral Commission may want to consider revising its regulations following the refusal of political activists to register as a lead opposition party for the Welsh Assembly referendum on devolution on 3 March. Apparently, this is permitted within the present rules.

Yesterday I met key campaigner Len Gibbs from the True Wales group responsible for this and which is fiercely opposed to the Welsh Assembly having increased law-making powers, leading to a more independent Wales.

Their refusal means that neither True Wales or their opponents, Yes For Wales – which has the support of cross party political groups, including Conservatives – are eligible for £70,000 publicly funded election campaign funding, free mail-shots and TV and radio broadcasts; they either both have it, or none at all.

A defiant and hugely energetic Len, 74, is delighted at the  massive spanner True Wales has thrown into the political machinery declaring that public money should not be used this way.

He estimates their campaign will cost only£3,500 and this is sufficient to meet their campaign costs; their website cost £400 and their leaflets are being printed at cost price. Donations have been flooding in via their website and he says they have more than enough money to meet their needs. The only major expenditure so far is a gigantic pink helium pig  which cost £350 and will be used to symbolise the inherent waste they believe has taken place at the Assembly. There are plans to fly this over the Cardiff Bay Assembly building later this month during a publicity stunt to breathe fire into their campaign, and it will no doubt feature around the valleys during their rallies in place of the more familiar Welsh dragon which their people identify with.

“True Wales have not broken any rules or laws by not registering, so if democracy has been in any way ill served by True Wales’ decision not the register, the fault lies with the rules and laws, rather than a group which abided by those rules and laws,” insists Len.

He hopes their prudent action will be copied by other political groups in the future and proves that you can campaign on a shoestring. He regards this very much as a David v Goliath battle with the True Wales group made up of “ordinary people” taking on the might of the Assembly and its influential politicians – the Yes to Wales group is led by Welsh Rugby Union Chief Executive Roger Lewis and has the support of the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry  Morgan.

However, critics say this action is denying the people of Wales the opportunity to have a fair and open debate and ensure they all receive campaign leaflets from both sides.  Plaid Cymru has called it “a very sad day for politics and democracy in Wales.”

As a result, True Wales is either loved for its heroic stand against the establishment, or loathed  for refusing to follow the traditional campaign route and denying their opponents the funding and national debating opportunities.

Len argues that their campaign is being fought on the internet and that they are constantly in the media – especially as this furore has attracted considerable publicity –  including broadcast, and will continue to do so.

In fact, the only opposition to register with the Electoral Commission was the Welsh blogger David Alwyn ap Huw Humphreys, who writes as the Miserable Old Fart, but his application was not accepted. Despair is felt by many with claims the referendum risks descending into “a farce”.

True Wales’ case is that it believes the Assembly has failed to achieve what was promised to the people of Wales since its formation in 1997, that people feel let down by the prosperity gap between Wales and the rest of the UK. It wants to retain strong links with Westminster; and fears it will be thrust into the wilderness and forgotten about, ignored and left to languish if it becomes independent with more control given to the Assembly.

Len cites education statistics which show that Welsh pupils have £600 less spent per pupil compared to their English counterparts, and less on health care, a situation be believes would see Aneurin Bevan turning in his grave.

While a £1.3 million All Wales Convention and polls show that the Yes For Wales group is likely to win the referendum, Len is adamant that he and his supporters are getting a different message on the doorsteps and out in the towns when they speak to people. He is using all his skills from his marketing background to persuade them to support the ‘N’o vote by honing in to their “emotional perception”.

True Wales is hoping that the idiom about flying pigs will come true and they will prove the sceptics wrong.

*We met at the CIPR HQ in Russell Square. He is hoping the No Wales campaign might be included in their shortlist for their excellence awards next year as a successful low budget campaign.