Sometimes it feels like the Scottish independence movement has forgotten that it lost the referendum. The huge success of the SNP in the 2015 elections, the continuing enthusiasm of the Yes movement, and the way pro-indy folk have controlled the Scottish political agenda since the referendum – all this makes it seem like we lost the referendum but won the story.
But we lost the referendum, and by a lot. 10% is a big margin. Although opinion polls are swinging since the Brexit vote, with more people coming on board the indy train, I think it’s unlikely that that alone will be enough. For one thing, we can expect the immediate Brexit panic to die down a bit and for the swing effect to decrease as things get more stable; for another, the new anti-independence argument has barely got started. Project Fear Mark One was nothing compared to what will come in a second campaign. Now that we’ve seen the chaos unleashed by the Brexit vote, the fearmongers can point to it and say “See! We told you this would happen. Do you really want more chaos? Scotland’s economy is already at risk from Brexit and now you want to make it worse?”
So we need to talk about why we lost indyref. Looking at the analysis of the vote, I think there are some important lessons to learn:
First of all, the areas with the highest Yes vote, Glasgow and Dundee, also had the lowest turnout. These are also the parts of Scotland with the highest levels of deprivation and unemployment. We know that the worse off you are in Scotland, the more likely you are to vote Yes, but also the less likely you are to actually vote. We had a record turnout, but it was a long way from total, especially in more working class areas.
Secondly, we lost the economic argument: we didn’t manage to convince people their lives would be better in an independent Scotland. Of those voting No, the most important reasons given were the pound, pensions and the NHS. Now, after the Brexit vote, we’ll be able to argue that these things might be safer in the EU than in the UK, but it’s not that easy an argument. We’ll have to make a better case that an independent Scotland can guarantee better lives for everyone.
Thirdly, we didn’t convince women. The YouGov poll after the referendum puts Yes support at 51% among men and 42% among women – a 9% difference. We need to work out what it was about the campaign that let women down and do a better job.
There are other things worth noting. Older and richer voters were more likely to vote No, and were also most likely to vote. 16-17-year-olds and 25-34-year-olds were the age groups most likely to vote yes, but also the age groups least likely to vote. “Disaffection with Westminster politics” persuaded the Yes most of all, but had almost no effect on the No. There are lots of other results worth picking over, but these are, I think, the most important.
IndyRef2 seems increasingly likely, with even Scottish Labour talking about it as a possibility, and all of the Scottish parties keen to find a way to keep Scotland in the EU. We thought it was going to be a long time before a second referendum, but it might come sooner than expected. The tactics that worked last time failed, so we can’t repeat them. We need something different. So here are my ideas for how, this time, we can win. They’re not the only answers, of course, but I think they’re a good place to start.
1. Register Voters
The groups that voted Yes voted less. There’s a reservoir of potential Yes support which we haven’t tapped, the biggest of all in those working class communities, especially Glasgow and Dundee, where turnout was 10% below the national average. Winning a second referendum is not just about persuading people that Yes is better, but persuading people who like the Yes to vote. We need registration drives and mass canvassing in working class communities, led by activists from those areas, and we need organised trips to polling stations to turn out the Yes vote. These projects also need to target younger voters: we need to find out what it takes to increase turnout among the young adults most likely to vote Yes, and organise. Achieving all this isn’t just a question of registering and transporting voters, though, but also giving people the motivation to vote. That’s why we also need to:
We live in a time of mass political discontent. People don’t trust politicians, and don’t think that politics can make their lives better. The poorer people are, the more likely they are to feel this way, and so the less likely they are to vote. Here’s a frightening figure: before 1997, UK General Election turnout was never below 70%; but after 1997, it’s never been above 70%. All this means that the people who don’t participate in politics now – who are also the people most likely to vote Yes, to vote for change if they do vote – need to have a reason to join in. And that means that we need to campaign with and for them now.
I’ve written before about some of the things you can do to be part of this: joining trade unions and tenants’ unions, supporting anti-poverty and welfare rights campaigns, organising locally. The point of doing this for pro-indy people, apart from making each other’s lives better right now, is that when you campaign with other people on one thing, they’re more likely to campaign with you another. It’s something Jeremy Corbyn is now reaping the rewards of, as the folk he’s marched alongside – disabled people, migrants, students and more – are turning out for him in droves, giving him power against his own Party. The best way of building campaigns for Yes is to grow those groups on other campaigns now. And the best way of proving to people that a new Yes can make their lives better in the future is for Yes campaigners to make lives better now.
3. Stop Diving Right
In the most recent Scottish elections, the SNP lost its majority and Labour was gutted, while the Greens and the Tories both increased their representation. There were lots of other reasons in play, but I think one reason for the SNP’s loss was that their manifesto took a dive to the right. Only the Tories offered a better tax deal for the rich and a worse tax deal for the working class than the SNP, and only the Tories offered bigger tax breaks to big business. It’s obvious what the SNP’s strategy is: to be a broad church, appealing to the biggest mass of centrist voters. It’s a strategy that’s served Labour and the Tories well since at least the 90s – until now. Now, centrist and especially centre-left parties all across Europe are taking a hit or outright crumbling, whether it’s Labour in the UK, PSOE in Spain or, most dramatically of all, Pasok in Greece. Can the SNP – and the Yes movement – really beat this trend? Is the idea of Scotland enough to hold the broad church together, even when it lost the referendum last time?
Look at those voter figures again: when Labour took a dive to the right under Blair, they got three terms in power, but at the cost of massive drops in election turnout while the Labour Party shed members and voters by the bucketload. Lots of working class people aren’t voting because generations of politicians have been responsible for making their lives worse, and nobody’s offering them something new to vote for. In England, that led to the rise of UKIP and the Brexit vote. In Scotland, some of that’s going to Yes, but not enough yet to win another referendum.
And yes, it’s tempting to dive to the right. Wealthier people tended to vote No, and you might want to offer policies to win more of them over. The first problem is that that might be harder than you think, especially in even more scary and volatile economic times, when the people with more to lose want to protect it. The second problem is that you can’t offer a good deal to everybody at once. Sometimes what we want is in conflict. You can’t offer tax breaks to the rich and social security to the working class at the same time. And you can’t make home-owners richer and help renters or first-time buyers at the same time. Maybe you think you can offer enough bits to enough people in different groups to hold enough of an alliance together, but I think that’s a risky balancing act, and one that’s failing across Europe. Why should the SNP or the Yes be able to buck that trend when no-one else is?
So I think that if we’re going to win Yes the second time round, we need to offer something actually different to the people who are most angry with politics, who most think nothing can change, who have been hurt the most by decades of centrist economics. Maybe that’s a tax policy that actually favours people on lower incomes properly. Maybe that’s big programmes of social housing funded by small rises in corporation tax. Maybe that’s massive ideas like Universal Basic Income and Land Reform. These policies don’t just benefit working class people, they also tend to favour young people, and remember,18-24-year-olds also voted No, and the pro-Yes young people didn’t turn out in large enough numbers. These policies also tend to favour women, who are hit harder on austerity. Whatever the policies, a future White Paper on independence – and a future Yes campaign – has to offer more this time round, because this time we need to persuade more people. And as part of that we also need to:
4. Be Truly Multi-Party
The first Yes campaign promised to be multi-party, but was always dominated by the SNP. It was dogged by divisions from the start, with the Greens walking out for a time near the beginning. Late in the campaign, inside stories from Yes Scotland workers told of bad-faith centralisation and campaign materials being produced by the SNP only. If we want to win then we need to do better next time, both in the Yes movement and in Scottish politics in general.
That means building trust between Parties, not just to the Greens but also – whisper it! – to past and present Scottish Labour voters. Labour are the demons of the Yes movement, blamed for letting Scotland down, and they’ve been punished in elections. But Labour still have the second largest number of voters in Scotland, in both Westminster and Holyrood elections. That means that a future Yes movement needs to reach out to those voters as well, especially with Scottish Labour sounding more sympathetic to independence by the day.
We’ve let too much resentment build up between different elements of the Yes movement, and that makes it harder to campaign together. Demands from SNP supporters that everyone get in line behind the Party are frustrating to those with other desires and needs, didn’t win the Yes vote last time, and lost the SNP its Holyrood majority anyway. “Get in line!” doesn’t persuade people who just don’t want to be. On the other side, those of us supporting other parties need to accept we have good allies within the SNP, folk working to change that Party from within, and folk we need to work with for independence. Coalition governments are normal across Europe, and campaigning together has to work better if we want to win next time. That means more respect, more co-operation, and more understanding that different political ideas are good for the independence movement. Our disagreements can be our strength, and many organisations working together are stronger than one working alone.
5. Stop Saying “Indy’s All We Need!”
Not everyone cares that much about the idea of Scotland as a separate sovereign nation. And if you don’t care already, it’s quite hard to make you think that the idea of Scottish statehood all by itself is worth voting for. Those who believe in Scotland’s statehood are already voting Yes: it’s everyone else we need to reach. That means that folk need to see an independent Scotland not just as a natural right but as something that can make their lives better.
Too often, if you talk about other political demands – whether that’s land reform, gender rights or tax policy – you get a chorus of folk saying “We can just sort it out after independence! Independence is the main thing!” The truth is, not everyone thinks independence is the main thing – in fact, last time, less than half the country thought that independence was the main thing – and just telling folk that it is won’t make them believe it. To make folk believe in independence, you have to take their political concerns seriously. People have to believe they might find an answer to their political needs in an independent Scotland.
And an independent Scotland isn’t a blank slate. Not everything is possible, and not everyone will get everything they want. That’s not how politics works. Who has power now shapes who will have power in the future. Most importantly, who has power when we get independence will shape how we write our new constitution. Indy people tend to agree that Westminster’s political system – with its First-Past-the-Post elections, two-party system and unelected House of Lords – is a disaster for democracy.
So, just as a start, when we write a new constitution, we need strong movements for a better democratic system, if we’re not just going to have a smaller Westminster.
So when folk criticise SNP tax policy or worry about local government, don’t say “We can sort it out after independence!” Take people’s political concerns seriously, talk to them about what they want, and talk about how that could happen as part of an independence movement. Maybe, just like building solidarity, that means winning some of their victories even before independence happens.
6. Stop Zooming
When I was campaigning for Yes, I got called out in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph as that dreaded thing, a “cybernat”. They called me “vile” and “obnoxious”. I wrote at the time about how annoyed that whole thing made me, and about how the right-wing media was using this idea of the cybernat to just dismiss a whole range of people with a whole range of views. “Cybernat” was used to cover up the fact that unionists could be just as abusive, if not more so, too. I hate that kind of politics that comes up with a silly name just to dismiss people.
But. Oh, but. It’s definitely true that if you argue against a big idea of the mainstream independence movement – if you criticise the SNP, for example – you can expect folk to turn up in large numbers to have a go at you. Mostly they’re not directly abusive, and only some are insulting, and then only mildly. But you do tend to get the same slogans and simple points over and over again, often going on for days, and that is very tiring. I like the word “zoomer” for this, because it feels like they’re zooming at you in a bit of a swarm.
This kind of behaviour is good for building friendships and connections between people who agree. Getting together to mock people who criticise you can be fun, and can be a relief when you’re campaigning against power. Ganging up can build strength in groups who already agree. And it really doesn’t matter if you irritate a few columnists. But the thing that zooming is terrible at is persuading other people. And the people who agree on this stuff lost the argument last time, which means they really do have to persuade other people. That means learning new ways of arguing. It means listening, taking other people’s views seriously, and talking together to find out what you have in common. The group hammer didn’t work, so try a different, more subtle tool.
I think this is also relevant to the independence movement’s gender problem, too. Most women did not vote Yes. And the zoomers in my mentions do tend to be men, in the vast majority, and this kind of behaviour is very, very macho. I can’t help but think that this works against the independence movement and makes it much less inclusive. A superior, dismissive attitude is encouraged in the angrier pro-indy blogs, where standard lines of attack are circulated in the echo chambers of their comment threads. This does not help build a broad movement, but encourages us to be narrow and insulated. Along with better policies to benefit women, there has to be zero tolerance of misogyny and much less of a tendency towards macho posturing in the way Yes people argue. There’s too much at stake to waste time and potential voters by being an arse on social media.
7. Fight What’s In Front Of You
Lastly, getting a second independence referendum isn’t a done deal. It seems more and more likely, but we don’t know when and how it will happen. It could be longer than we hope, or it could be sooner than we think. Either way, we can’t waste any time in building the connections, arguments and campaigns that will win independence the next time round. That means not waiting for the referendum, not expecting everything to get fixed after independence, but making Scotland better right now.
Find something in your local community to work for, and find some people to work with to get it. Take part in the national campaigns that speak to you. Get better at campaigning now so that we can win the vote next time. Making Scotland better right now means that we’re better able to win independence when the time is right.