Sunday, 12 October 2014

Where the Yes campaign went wrong

As the dust continues to settle in the aftermath of the independence referendum, the inevitable post mortems into both campaigns are well under way. I definitely don't want to sell the Yes campaign's achievements short, and while I appreciate that there's no such thing as a consolation prize for coming second in a two horse race, convincing 45% of the electorate to vote for independence, in the face of the most relentless bombardment of threats, scare stories, false promises and emotional manipulation I've ever witnessed, and with 99% of the mainstream media arraigned against it, is no small feat. To put that into perspective, if the referendum was held again tomorrow, only 1 in 20 of those who voted No would be required to change their vote in order to secure a Yes victory. As Alex Salmond put it the day after the vote, it's more productive to concentrate not on how far we fell short, but on how far we've travelled. When the referendum was originally announced, support for Yes stood at between 25 and 30%. On the day of the vote, we were only 5% short of victory. In other words, in the space of just over two years, we covered between three and four times the ground now required to close the gap in a hypothetical future referendum. That's amazing.

That said, I think it's safe to say that there were areas in which the Yes campaign's approach couldn't help but contribute to the defeat, and I'd like to focus on that in this rather long-winded piece. I'm not going to talk about the obvious stuff that was beyond our control -- e.g. the aforementioned media bias and the UK government's blatant abuses of its position, for instance using the Scotland Office to brief against independence in the international arena. I'm also not going to go into specific policy issues such as currency, which I feel weren't particularly well handled, due in no small part to the fact that we were essentially locked into the SNP's White Paper script on these issues whether or not we agreed with it. Instead, I want to focus on a handful of broad areas in which I feel the Yes campaign made mistakes that could have been avoided.

The echo chamber effect

Yes undoubtedly dominated social media, but I think some of us mistook online dominance for universal dominance. Wings Over Scotland, Newsnet Scotland, Wee Ginger Dug, Bella Caledonia... they were brilliant for deconstructing the propaganda issued by the No campaign and/or the press, they gave Yessers ample opportunity to talk to one another, and I'm of no doubt that they reached and "converted" a great many people who would otherwise have voted No. But they failed to reach a great swathe of people who never go on the internet, or at least never venture further afield than a handful of mainstream (and therefore most likely No-friendly, if they took any stance in the debate) pages. Days before the vote, there were people on Facebook and Twitter claiming that it was clear Yes was going to win 70:30 on account of the much bigger online Yes presence. Many of these are, I suspect, the same people who are now indulging in far-fetched conspiracy theories about vote-rigging and widespread electoral fraud.

A few days before the vote, I said, based on my own subjective impressions, that "Scotland doesn't feel to me like a nation that's about to vote against its own self-determination." Replace "Scotland" with "Glasgow", and you'd be right. Glasgow voted Yes by majority, and my perception of the state of play was, not unsurprisingly, primarily based on the feeling on the ground in Glasgow. If you weren't there, it's very difficult to describe with words the feeling of being in Glasgow's city centre in the week leading up to the vote. I've never taken drugs, but I reckon likening it to a great acid trip is the best way to explain it. The whole atmosphere was one of light-headed euphoria, with spontaneous gatherings of hundreds of people singing in the streets, George Square occupied for days on end by people partying and waving flags... Even the arrival of a hundred Labour troughers to attempt to convince us to vote No took on a carnivalesque air thanks to a guy in a rickshaw who pursued them all the way from Central Station to the top of Buchanan Street playing the Imperial March from STAR WARS. It really felt like we were on the cusp of a glorious, irreverent, peaceful revolution.

So in a way my perception was accurate, but it failed to take into account the bigger picture, i.e. what was happening across Scotland as a whole. I doubt there were too many people in the Borders engaging in hundreds-strong impromptu renditions of Caledonia and Flower of Scotland, for example. The success in Glasgow was mirrored only in three other constituencies: North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and Dundee, and the fact that these are among the largest in terms of population was still not enough to swing the vote in Yes's favour.

The "scary radicals" factor

The Yes campaign was admirably inclusive, bringing together nationalists, internationalists, socialists, environmentalists, feminists, trade unionists, human rights activists, atheists, Christians, Muslims, Scottish-born Scots, Italian Scots, English Scots, Asian Scots... in other words, people from pretty much every walk of life. I've heard it mentioned that some members of the world's press who descended on Scotland in the week ahead of the vote came expecting to find something similar to Golden Dawn or some other sort of neo-fascist movement, and were bewildered to discover people of every creed, colour, gender and background united under the broad Yes banner.

Still, in one respect, there was a broad level of consensus: Yes was very much a left-wing movement, and one that made Tory-bashing part of its daily rhetoric. The chief executive of Yes Scotland, Blair Jenkins, specifically stated that one of the best reasons he could think of to vote Yes was so we would never have to endure another Tory government ever again. As inclusive as Yes might have been, it nonetheless immediately excluded a substantial minority of the electorate: the comfortably off, socially conservative upper middle class who, rather than being filled with hope when hearing talk of wealth redistribution and a root-and-branch restructuring of the economy, were instead filled with dread and focused not on what those worse off than themselves might stand to gain but rather what they themselves might stand to lose. True, the SNP's official proposals, as laid out in the White Paper, were relatively conservative, edging the country's economic and social structures towards a Nordic-style social democratic model without doing anything particularly revolutionary, but every one of the most prominent voices that made up the grassroots campaign -- from Tommy Sheridan to Cat Boyd to Robin McAlpine to Lesley Riddoch -- was calling for revolution, not evolution. The Yes campaign lacked a prominent centre-right conservative voice, which could have reached out to the sort of people that were never going to give the likes of Common Weal or the Radical Independence Campaign the time of day.

Similarly, though not unrelated as there is some definite overlap in terms of demographics, the Yes campaign failed spectacularly to engage a majority of the elderly. The polling by Michael Ashcroft on the night of the referendum makes for sobering reading, suggesting that fewer than 30% of people over the age of 60 voted Yes. In fact, if those over 60 had been excluded from voting, then according to the Ashcroft figures, Yes would have won. In some respects, this was always going to be a tough nut to crack: the over-60s are the only generation that have any widespread residual sense of Britishness, and there's not much you can do to persuade someone of the benefits of independence when the very concept is an anathema to them. However, I think any future pro-independence campaign would have to look long and hard at how to reach older voters, because it seems pretty clear that it failed spectacularly in that regard. Relating back to the echo chamber issue, the majority of people above a certain age get their information from traditional sources, i.e. newspapers and the BBC. These people weren't, by and large, popping on to Facebook or Wings Over Scotland to see the Daily Record's latest scare story being debunked. For the most part, they were only hearing one narrative, and it was the unionist one.

How do you deal with that problem in future? Well, the most morbid answer is that this demographic not going to be around indefinitely, but I think most would agree that something more proactive needs to be done than simply waiting for a certain proportion of the electorate to shuffle off the mortal coil. I don't have any definitive answers here -- I'm simply flagging it up as an issue that needs to be tackled.

The Salmond effect

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are, by a country mile, the most popular political figures in Scotland. They have approval ratings that other UK politicians can only dream of. However, there's no denying that Salmond is a marmite figure. While a great many people respect and admire him, a great many also loathe him with a passion. Particularly in the Labour party ranks, blind hatred of the SNP in general and Salmond in particular is endemic, and I was shocked by how many people I encountered who articulated only a single reason for voting No: "Because ah can't stand that Alex Salmond." The media and the No campaign (and I really should stop referring to these as two separate entities) capitalised on this by seeking to portray the Yes campaign as Salmond's personal vanity project, focusing on him to the exclusion of virtually every other player (except perhaps Nicola Sturgeon) and essentially conducting a two and a half year long character assassination. And I suspect, incidentally, that they'd have been even more effective if they'd been able to unearth some skeletons from his past. The fact that, as far as we can tell, Salmond's personal life is squeaky clean to the point of being boring must have been a continual source of frustration for the No campaign's spin doctors. I'm actually surprised we didn't see some sort of fabricated "Salmond kicks puppies" scandal in the final days of the campaign.

It's easy to demonise a single figurehead. This was harder to do with the No campaign because it was like a Hydra. While Alistair Darling was nominally the head of the campaign, in truth plenty of other figures ratcheted up as much screen time as him, or more. Particularly in the final stages of the campaign, following his crushing defeat by Salmond in the second of two televised debates, Darling was sidelined almost completely, with the likes of Jim Murphy and Gordon Brown enjoying far higher profiles. It was far harder to run the sort of campaign against them that was run against Salmond, because frankly you'd have had to discredit at least a dozen of them. While that wouldn't be too hard in the case of Darling (i.e. the man who was in charge of the Treasury during the crash of 2008, who flipped his home four times to abuse the MPs' expenses system, and who somehow made the transition from Trotskyite radical to being warmly applauded as a guest speaker at the Conservative Party conference) the likes of Brown -- nasty, venal man though he is -- still inexplicably command a great deal of support and admiration from Labour supporters in Scotland. While to a certain extent it was the media that focused unrelentingly on Alex Salmond, I suspect the Yes campaign could have done more to push other, less divisive figures into the spotlight. This matter does need to be looked at, because in the hypothetical case of another referendum, I would imagine the press and Westminster parties will, given the opportunity, simply do to Nicola Sturgeon what they did to Salmond.

The smile factor

The No campaign's success proves one thing: fear works. If you bombard people with scare stories about their pensions, currency, EU membership status and even the bloody BBC every day for two and a half years, then a significant number will be brow-beaten into submission. Alex Salmond repeatedly claimed that the only way a negative campaign could win was if the opposition was equally negative. The result gives lie to this idea. Many of us on the Yes side spent a great deal of time laughing at the No campaign for constantly trotting out the same debunked scare stories regarding pensions, EU membership and the NHS, but the truth is that these scare stories were carefully chosen and deployed for maximum impact. As Alex Salmond put it in a speech in his constituency shortly after the referendum, frightening old people is a cheap, nasty thing to do, but it's not hard. The No campaign was the epitome of cheap and nasty, but it worked.

The Yes campaign spent a great deal of time on the defensive, rebutting the No campaign's threats and scare stories without offering up any of their own. It was only in the final weeks that the Yes side finally went on the offensive with a "scare story" (I use quotes because what they were warning about was and is very real, in stark contrast to much of the utter bilge Better Together spewed out) of its own: the threat of a No vote to the Scottish NHS. I think the official Yes campaign tried too hard to replicate the template the SNP harnessed in their 2007 and 2011 election campaigns to such great effect, setting out their stall on the basis of can-do positivism in the face of their opponents' can't-do negativity, but this wasn't an election and they shouldn't have assumed the same rules would apply.

I think the Yes movement can be proud of its campaign for a great many reasons, not least the fact that for the most part it refused to stoop to the level of its opponents. However, the unfortunate truth is that, if your opponent goes around telling lies about you and calling you every name under the sun, it does you little good to behave like a perfect gentleman, smile and say "I love you too." With the odds stacked so highly against it, the Yes campaign needed to be willing to fight dirty. I lost count of the number of times it seemed that, in interviews and debates, Yes representatives appeared to miss open goals out of a desire to appear "nice" and "reasonable". I'm sorry, but when the people you're up against include proven liars, war criminals and expenses cheats, who describe you as "a virus", Nazis and "not genetically programmed to make political decisions", who are willing to tell the elderly and the terminally ill that their pensions will be cut off and that they will be ineligible for organ transplants in the event of a Yes vote, then "nice" and "reasonable" go out the window.

That's about all I've got to say on the subject, for the time being. Obviously, this is still a raw wound for me, and there's little to be achieved by playing out an endless series of what-ifs. Still, I very much hope we're going to get a second bite of the cherry sooner rather than later, and if/when we do, it won't do us any good if we just make the same mistakes all over again. So let's be proud of what we did right, but realistic about what we did wrong, and start figuring out NOW rather than at the last minute what we're going to do differently next time.

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