The news that the Yes campaign has taken the lead in a You Gov poll just 11 days before the referendum on Scotland’s independence is worrying. Everyone is nervous and jittery. Yes campaigners, daring to hope that they are on the verge of an historic victory will be motivated and scared in equal measures. For those of us who don’t want to see our country split up, it’s, well, squeaky bum time. However there is another poll today which shows No slightly ahead. The news is not all bleak.
This is far from over, though. The atmosphere is tense and febrile. Yes supporters confidently display their badges and posters but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve spoken to enthusiastic No voters who say they won’t put up a poster because they are worried about it being vandalised. It was noticeable in Edinburgh yesterday that “No thanks” posters were appearing, but on the top floors of tenements, out of stone and egg range. People shouldn’t have to feel like this.
So how do pro-UK supporters regain the momentum? Only a month ago, after the first debate, we were 22% ahead in the polls. At the moment we are anywhere between 6% ahead and 2% behind.
I don’t intend to rehearse the many failings of the Better Together campaign. That can, and should, be done at leisure after 18th September. The on-the-ground Better Together campaigners are fantastic but they have been let down by strategic decisions and organisation which combine the worst of Yes to AV with the best of The Thick of It. They just don’t seem to be on the same wavelength with the Scottish public. How anyone could have thought the recent Party Political Broadcast featuring a woman’s clumsy and contrived monologue was in any way appropriate is beyond me. Robust analysis of the Yes campaign’s proposals was always going to be necessary but every bass needs a melody to make it palatable and that just hasn’t happened. Given that there is so much to inspire about our shared history, heritage, culture and achievements, that is a tragedy.
Find the passion
Yes Scotland says it’s a positive campaign but in fact, behind the froth on the top is something deeply negative. They tell us that we live in some sort of hellish wasteland from which independence is the only deliverance. Actually, we live in a wonderful place, with creative, inventive, industrious people. The UK has one of the strongest economies in the world, it leads the way on human rights, LGBT rights, is the second biggest aid donor in the world, has the finest public broadcaster and the best health service which is accessible to all. It isn’t perfect. More needs to be done to tackle poverty and inequality across the whole UK but independence is not the change that will make everything better.
This week George Monbiot told us that rejecting independence was an “astonishing act of self harm.” I’ve seen Yes people complain that No voters are stupid or too scared to see the advantages in independence and that in some way we’re psychologically flawed by not wanting change. Please don’t confuse my wanting to stay in the UK with an acceptance of the status quo. I’m a liberal. We shake things up. It’s what we’re for. We challenge established authority. We give power away. It’s our instinct. There is a part of me that feels that it’s slightly counter-intuitive not to go for the change. For me, the priority is a liberal, compassionate, caring society and that’s what I’ll continue to fight for whatever the result on 19th September. What’s on offer from the Yes campaign puts so much of what we rely on, a stable currency being the most obvious thing, in jeopardy without offering a realistic chance of creating that fairer society. Those who would suffer most if it all goes wrong are the most vulnerable. And given that the Institute of Fiscal Studies says that an independent Scotland would be £6bn short, those people would lose an awful lot of support and services.
Staying in the UK offers the further enrichment of our vibrant democracy in Scotland with more powers whilst spreading the risk in these globally turbulent times. One of the real tragedies of the last 7 years since the SNP have been in Government is that they have not used the powers they’ve got to anything like their potential. They’ve just moaned that they don’t have enough powers. During the first 8 years, the Lib Dem/Labour coalition showed off what they could do and brought in some revolutionary stuff, free personal care, PR for local government, the smoking ban, free eye and dental checks. We need to get back to that sort of reforming state of mind and make things happen.
In the next 10 days, I want to hear from people who can articulate that positive, reforming message and take people with them. Charles Kennedy is good at it. Jim Wallace has actually brought in some pretty bold reforms in his time. Nobody articulates the passion for social justice better than young Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale. She was fantastic in the last televised debate last week. There are still hard arguments to be won on currency because no option that the SNP has put forward is as good as using the pound from within the UK. I’m not suggesting we should abandon the facts completely. We can’t let Yes off the hook, but we have to inject some passion and fun into the campaign. Gordon Brown has also been more visible recently. He is more trusted by Labour voters than Darling according to the YouGov poll. One very interesting thing, as an aside, is that 75% of Conservative voters trust Darling, yet only 40% trust Brown.
How do you solve a problem like David?
In Quebec, when the pro-independence campaign was five points ahead at the end of the campaign, the Canadian Prime Minister intervened and made a game-changing emotional appeal for them to stay part of Canada. The last thing that Scots need is David Cameron, a man that most of us have no time for at all, doing that. I know he’s the Prime Minister and should be seen to be fighting for the UK, but there is a very good reason Alex Salmond wanted to debate him. There does need to be an emotional appeal, though and we should look to national treasures rather than anyone else to deliver it.
Emphasise the irreversibility
A Yes vote is for your life, your child’s life, your grandchild’s life and for centuries to come. There is no going back if it doesn’t work out. That message has to be hammered home at every opportunity.
Deal with the Yes Lies effectively
It’s only recently that the Yes campaign has made NHS funding an issue in the campaign. Part of their narrative, along with the Bedroom Tax, has always been an assertion, unchallenged by Better Together, that the NHS in England has been privatised. In recent weeks they’ve been saying that future NHS funding is threatened by the use of private services in England. The Scottish Government has full control over the NHS and can spend what it likes on it. Now who’s scaremongering? This line of arguing is so obviously not true yet it seems to be working for Yes.
I’ve also seen social media posts from Yes supporters which show that they think there will be no Work Capablility Assessment, no ATOS, no sanctions in a Scottish welfare state. Nowhere does the White Paper say this. It has some rather woolly language about a fairer system but doesn’t spell it out. Nor does it commit to restore the £2.5 billion cuts already made to benefits in Scotland.
Better Together needs to sort this out and make sure their people on the ground have the right arguments to make on the doorsteps.
Be visible and talk to as many voters as possible
One of the lesser known aspects of today’s YouGov poll is that it shows that Better Together is being comprehensively out-campaigned by Yes at every single level. Compare and contrast:
Almost 1 in 4 respondents had heard nothing from the Better Together campaign. The corresponding figure for Yes was 1 in 8. At every level, the intensity of Yes is significantly greater. So, I’d say for everyone who wants Scotland to stay in the UK, get out there. Knock on doors. Set up stalls. Talk to your friends and family. Make phone calls. We have a lot of catching up to do. The field work for next weekend’s polls will start in a couple of days time. We want to show that gap being closed. And we need stalls and noise and presence and visibility. Yes were everywhere in Edinburgh yesterday. When we were in the Highlands last week there were a whole load of them
The UK will be on probation if there’s a no vote
There is very little chance of this vote now being decisive enough to put the issue of independence to bed for a generation. If the UK doesn’t deliver on not just more powers but greater social justice as well, then Scots will insist on another referendum. Nicola Sturgeon has already talked about doing it all again in 5 years if we vote no. We need to get those people back who want a Federal UK but are voting yes. It’s important that these people believe that the chance of achieving that goal is better after a No vote. It certainly isn’t after a Yes vote which is irreversible. The likely narrow no vote is the option which gives people the most power. Voting yes would be handing it over to an SNP establishment which is very comfortable with power and for all the talk of a written constitution, is unlikely to want to cede much. The fact that it’s centralised everything that sits still for more than two minutes shows that. The very last thing I want to do is to trust them with more power. Imagine what Clear Desk Kenny MacAskill would do with counter-terrorism measures.
Osborne’s talk of an announcement this week setting out some sort of pathway to more powers is welcome but it’s no more than Alistair Carmichael and Willie Rennie have been saying for a long time. I’ve never thought it was a good idea for the three political parties to stitch something up between them. A constitutional convention which involves civil society and the SNP is, for me, vital. People need to know that they have a chance to influence the way they are governed if they vote No.
The Labour Party in particular will have to get its finger out and offer some real hope to the people who have been politically engaged by the Yes campaign. It’s been a long time since they have connected with these people. It is now essential that they work out how to do so, particularly if they find themselves in government next May.
A positive, reforming future
We have 10 days to convince people that Scotland has a promising future within the UK. We can do it. Let’s not fail.