Reading Between the Polls; Building a Majority For Scottish Independence

25/10/2012 16:46 | Updated 24 December 2012
  • Andrew Smith Anti arms-trade activist and political campaigner

In this article I discuss how the YES campaign can win the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. In a later article I will look at what strategy the NO campaign may consider.

Now that the ink on the 'Edinburgh Agreement' has dried and the real debate about Scottish independence can begin. There are still a couple of minor points to be sorted, but the focus is finally moving from the mechanics of the vote and onto the the question itself. The YES campaign has its work cut out, despite the odd rogue poll we can assume that the NO campaign has a 20 point lead and can win without having to win over a single new voter.

Bearing that in mind, the recent poll in The Herald made for particularly grim reading. The main finding was that support for independence has fallen 9 points in a year, from 38% to 29%. On top of that, it found that support for the union has increased from 44% a year ago to 53% today. The third, and possibly most concerning, point was that the number of people describing themselves as undecided has fallen from 25% to 19%. The results indicate that the arguments for YES are failing to resonate with undecided voters, the NO campaign has had a good summer, and fewer people consider themselves undecided.

In contrast YouGov's polling makes for more hopeful reading.

They recently found that 45% of people would vote YES if doing so made them materially better off, with only 35% saying NO. This is nothing new; the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2011 found that 65% would vote YES if it made them £500 a year better off. What is clear is that the vote will be as much about the money in people's pockets as it is about identity or democracy. In that sense support for both independence and the union should be seen as pragmatic rather than dogmatic. However, the most significant finding of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey was that 46% would vote YES if their standard of living was unchanged, with only 32% voting NO.

This final point is crucial to the debate, it suggest that there are as many people looking for independence to be stabilising as there are for it to be transformative. It means that in theory if the YES campaign can convince these people that they won't be financially damaged by independence then they will be more likely to vote support it than not. These findings point to the main issue being a lack of confidence in the finances of sovereignty, this is backed up by further polling that shows a majority of people feel independence would leave them worse off. This is supported anecdotally by debates with my friends and family. For example, my parents, who I consider to be a good barometer for the electorate, say their biggest concerns are about pensions and Scotland's relationships with the BoE and Europe. Their inference is that if there are clear answers to these big questions then they will vote YES. Unfortunately the campaign has been dealt a number of self inflicted blows, such as the controversy over the EU legal advice that never was.

There are still two years to go and of course polls need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the key point is that the campaign needs to interact with the electorate it has rather than the one it wants. In order to win they need to listen to people's concerns, no matter how trivial they seem, and focus as much on 'bread and butter' issues as grand narratives. In addition, the economic case for independence has to be articulated as something more than just an anti Tory vote. The Tories may be unpopular in Scotland, but I have trouble believing that people will vote for constitutional change on a party political basis. This is not least because by 2014 the coalition may be coming to its end. Furthermore, a number of Labour, Lib Dem and Tory voters who support independence, and a number of SNP and Green voters won't. One significant development is the formation of groups like Women for Independence, National Collective and Labour for Independence, all of which aim to engage with those who don't neccesarily identify with the vision of the SNP.

The YES case has been enhanced by the publication of Stephen Maxwell's excellent book 'Arguments for Independence' which provides a strong political and intellectual vision for the campaign. Maxwell writes with clarity and argues with a passionate and pragmatic voice which is all too rare in the current debate. The only drawback of books like this is that they rarely get the readership they deserve, yet this one has entered its third print run in as many months. What Maxwell's book does is help to raise the debate to a higher level.

So far Yes Scotland has rightfully focused on building local campaign groups across the country. A Mori poll in June found that 70% feel 'shut out from the debate', and it's easy to see why. People want to hear from campaigns that listens to their concerns and responds to them, and this has to come from the grassroots as well as politicians. The media/ social media operation will be important, but the strength of the campaign will come from its dynamism and breadth. Ultimately referendums are about numbers, and every vote is equally valuable, no matter where it comes from. On one hand the YES campaign needs to win over more people in two years than they have in the last 30 combined. However, another way of looking at it is that if everyone who supports independence converts at least one friend then they'll win by a landslide.

In a future article I will focus on the NO campaign.