The Blog

What Would It Take for Scotland to Vote YES in 2014?

With less than a year to go before Scotland goes to the polls it looks like game, set and match to the pro-union campaign. It's been over six years since the SNP was first elected to government, yet the polls on independence have barely shifted.

With less than a year to go before Scotland goes to the polls it looks like game, set and match to the pro-union campaign. It's been over six years since the SNP was first elected to government, yet the polls on independence have barely shifted.

As the big day nears the debate is heating up and it's all over the TV and magazines, and even on the streets, with the YES campaign hosting a succesful rally of over 20,000 on Calton Hill. However, at the moment the smart money would be on a safe NO vote; with even top American pollster Nate Silver concluding that the odds of Scotland choosing independence are almost non-existent.

Put simply, the YES campaign will need to win over more people over the next 12 months than it has over the past 40 years. More people are considering the case than at any point, yet the polls don't show that many of them are particularly convinced by a campaign that one of Alex Salmond's former aides has characterised as a mixture of "old songs and tired policies".

While the fat lady may be polishing up her vocal chords she is still to sing a note. There may not be long left and there are clear areas where the YES campaign needs to shift the debate if it is to have any chance of winning.

Foremost the focus needs to be on winning the economic arguments. The most recent polls show that 45% of Scots believe the economy would be worse in the result of a YES vote, with only 23% believing it would be stronger. This follows long confusing debates on currency, budget cuts and Scotland's relationship with the BoE, when it's fair to say the YES campaign hasn't communicated it's message effectively as it could have. This is supported by Angus Reid Global, who have found that almost 40% of Scots are not confident of being able to keep the pound without conceding monetary policy to Westminster.

As long as this is the case it will be impossible for the YES campaign to win next year. Undoubtedly the pound in people's pocket is the main issue, with another recent poll showing that 47% would vote YES if it made them £500 a year better off and only 37% would vote NO. This indicates that it is a 'cost of living' referendum as much as anything else, and that people's commitment to the union tends to be pragmatic rather than ideological.

Secondly the campaign will have to make a solid and coherent case for why independence is preferable to any form of enhanced devolution. There is a theory among much of the YES campaign that the only way to bring about any constitutional change will be to vote for independence. This view was epitomised by Nicola Sturgeon who has said that "A NO vote would relegate Scotland to the bottom of the Westminster agenda" and the idea that Holyrood would pick up new powers as a result would be "fanciful".

The main problem with this argument is that one of the pro-union parties has already spelt out their proposals for more powers (although the impact was reduced because it was the Liberal Democrats) and Labour and Tories have committed to doing the same. Even before the unionists have spelt out their proposals, the public is becoming sceptical of an 'all or nothing' type of argument that sounds like nationalist scare mongering.

A majority of Scots already believe that there would be constitutional change after a NO vote, with YouGov finding that only 35% believe powers would either stay the same or be reduced. All the evidence suggests that the public support greater powers, with a clear majority supporting control over welfare and taxation. However, unless the debate shifts to why independence is preferable to enhanced devolution, as opposed to just the status quo, then it leaves them vulnerable to a NO campaign which will be free to define devoultion on its own terms.

Finally, the campaign needs to focus on winning over 'middle Scotland'. Even the most generous poll, which was commissioned by the SNP afound that less than one third of 'C1' voters intend to vote YES, compared to 48% of C2 voters. The extent of this was brought home to me a few weeks ago at a family BBQ when we discussed politics and found that of the 17 of us who had gathered the only ones who supported a YES vote live in England.

Of course there are lots of things that can happen between now and 2014. A lot may depend on external events; such as how likely the Tories are to get a majority in 2015, or some kind of world event that we don't yet know about. There will also be major social media initiatives and ground campaigns, which can help to sway the momentum, but they tend to increase the audience for your ideas rather than translating directly into support.

The key point is that the campaign needs to engage with the electorate it's got, rather than a radical, socialist one that it would probably rather have. That is why the SNP is trying to tailor its message to look like a continuation of all of the positive aspects of Britishness, rather than any kind of revolutionary overhaul. Many Scots want to see change, but an overriding theme from the polls is that they want economic security and stability even more. Are their concerns insurmountable? Definitely not, but they won't be convinced by slogans, or the mundane and silly arguments about who paid what for an article in the Herald, or any of the other nonsense that's dominated the summer.

It's still important that issues like trident and bedroom tax continue to play a role. Not only are these good and popular issues for the YES campaign to hook on to, but they're crucial to mobilising a broad and dynamic campaign team and reaching out to other interest groups and those most hurt by the Westminster Government's cuts.

In comparison it may seem that what I am suggesting is far from the kind of exciting and transformative vision many want to be campaigning for, but in the end it'll be the everyday economic issues that decide the referendum. A YES vote is still possible, but it will require a breathtaking amount of work in a very short time, however with such high stakes to play for and such a motivated pro-independence campaign it's unlikely any fat ladies will be taking to the stage any time soon.