Part 1 : What has been achieved.
Six weeks later, and time to take some perspective. There are many positives to take from the campaign. The age demographics (with a majority of under 65’s voting Yes) and the Yes votes in West Central Scotland and Dundee mean that the idea of Independence is now ‘normalised’ across large parts of the population. In many parts of the country and social circles Independence is now the normal view. Self-determination is no longer looked upon as a fringe minority opinion. The significance of this for future should not be underestimated.
The biggest positive of course is the increase in levels of engagement. Talking politics has become as normal as talking football, holidays or TV shows. While the intensity of debate in the bars and streets may have subsided for now in the post referendum period that willingness to engage is just below the surface amongst the general population. It will resurface at the next political ‘event’ provided things are not seen to be slipping back to the same sterile party political tribal conflicts we have seen in the past (the ones that deliver 50% turnouts for Holyrood elections and 30% for local elections).
Almost 100,000 people are now members of pro-indy political parties, and many more are actively engaged but haven’t made a decision to join a party. This gives significant reach into communities; it is now not unusual to know someone who is in a political party, very different from the situation that existed before.
The key challenge for the Independence movement is how to harness that energy and commitment. The political parties need to provide exciting opportunities for people to engage, both in policy determination, internal elections & selections and social events. I am sure Peter Murrell and the others are up to the task.
Outwith the parties other groups have a role to play. From local Yes groups working to keep their local hubs open as focal points for meetings and activities going forward to the Common Weal initiative with its plans for Common Spaces – physically and on-line – enabling the debate to continue in an accessible and interesting way. Many groups are organising ‘where next ?’ events – the circuit speakers who though they would get a rest after the 18th are finding their diaries filling up again. A variety of initiatives are moving forward in the media space – written and broadcast – some with the potential to significantly change the environment over time. Steps are afoot to provide a non-party/ all-party umbrella organisation actively involved in providing a co-ordinating focus for the plethora of local and sector groups that formed the Yes campaign.
So where does this take us?
The first point to note is that there is no short cut here. While the Catalunya experience shows that routes to Independence other than a referendum may make sense in certain circumstances that emphatically does not apply to the situation in Scotland. Those calling for parliamentary majorities declaring UDI are wrong on two counts.
Firstly given that the principle of referendum as the final decision making authority has been established it is not possible to ignore that result and go down a different route. The majority who voted No would not stand for it, neither would the international community. A Scotland that ‘became independent’ in those circumstances would not be recognised internationally. Secondly any party that proposed such a route would suffer at the polls, and electoral success is critically important for the next stages of the campaign. Recent history has shown without any doubt the road to independence lies in increasing the scope and quality of decisions made in Scotland. The smaller the gap between the future status quo and independence the more likely people are to vote for full self-determination.
It is therefore critical that the message is clear. Independence will only come about through a majority vote in a future referendum, and there won’t be another referendum until it is clear that the majority of voters in Scotland are in favour of Independence. Ideally the next Independence referendum will be like the 1997 devolution referendum, a significant majority for Yes reflecting the settled will of the Scottish people (unlike the experience of 1979). Our task is to create the conditions where Independence is seen to be the obvious next step, not to force another referendum which does not have majority support.
If we do the right things that may come sooner than we think.
The political timetable will drive the agenda for the next couple of years. Firstly the Westminster election in 6 months.
There is much talk amongst yes campaigners of ‘punishing’ or ‘wiping out’ Labour in Scotland.
Time for a reality check.
The Labour party in Scotland, despite all the guilt by association with the Tories in Better Together, and the current leadership travails, is still very well dug in across large parts of Scotland. In a ‘tribal’ choice between Labour and SNP the reflex of many hundreds of thousands of voters is to vote the same way as their parents and grandparents did.
Now this is not to admit defeat, or to accept that significant reduction in the number of Labour MPs cannot occur. What it is is a recognition that this task is more difficult than we might assume, the tactics to employ need to be carefully chosen and expectations need to be based on the reality of where we are, not where we would like to be.
Part 2 : The next step.
For the next 6 months the political focus will be on the UK General Election. What can we expect to achieve ?
The pro-independence parties winning 30 of the 59 Scottish seats is a bold, yet achievable, target. This would be significant in on three levels:
- It gives pro-Indy parties a majority of Scottish seats. Not important from a legislative point of view (as there is no way that this constitutes a majority for independence) but psychologically significant. Scotland standing up and wanting to be heard on its own account and not as lobby fodder within the UK party political system.
- If puts those Scottish parties in the position of having some influence on who the UK government could be in the event of a hung parliament (the most likely outcome in 2015). Given the expected LibDem meltdown 30 seats would likely be enough for a Scottish block of pro-independence parties to constitute the 3rd largest party at Westminster. Even if the balance of power is not held the dynamics of a small majority government in a multi-party system over a 5 year term mean that there will be many occasions where the voice of the Scottish block will be of significance.
- It shatters the illusion that Scotland ‘belongs’ to Labour in Westminster terms. Once that illusion is shattered it will be difficult for Labour for put the pieces back together.
However do not underestimate the challenge in winning 30 seats. It the tactics are wrong it is quite possible for the SNP still be to in single figures in terms of Westminster MPs through the next parliament – an opportunity missed. So what needs to be done to maximise this impact in 2015?
Scottish voters have shown their ability to tailor their voting preferences to suit the prevailing circumstances. For Holyrood they willingly back the SNP, supporting the ‘Scottish’ party to run devolved affairs in Scotland chimes. They can see an SNP government that delivers, and there are no risks in allowing Tory control in Holyrood as a consequence of ‘vote splitting’.
Westminster is different. The SNP achieved 20% of the vote in 2010, barely more than the Tories or Lib Dems and less than half of Labours 41%. The reasons for that are clear:
- The ‘First past the post’ (FPTP) system, punishing as it does those whose vote is thinly spread.
- The mantra that a vote for anyone other than Labour is a vote to allow the Tories back in.
- SNP MPs in Westminster are seen as ineffective at a UK level – not withstanding some fine performances in the Chamber they are not perceived as being able to influence in any meaningful way the big reserved policy areas that impact on Scottish voters.
Recent polling evidence has shown a surge in support for the SNP, one poll has support at over 50%, most are in the low to mid 40’s, but others have shown support in the mid 30’s. The wide range of support is of itself an indication of high volatility.
These leads may be maintained, or they could well fall back as the focus on the UK news channels moves to UK centric issues as May approaches. The lopsided leadership debate proposals won’t help.
Recent electoral performance contains more than a word of caution. The SNP achieved 20% in GE2005, earlier opinion polls had shown support in the mid 30’s. The Euro election performance of 29% (again compared to opinion polls predicting 35% or so) allowed UKIP to grab a seat. Performance in Holyrood by-elections and the 2012 council elections have been short of the levels required to make a breakthrough in Westminster terms.
FPTP does however offer some interesting potential outcomes.
The SNP on 32% could expect to gain perhaps 14 seats, benefiting mainly from the LibDem collapse but gaining few seats from Labour
At 38% the SNP achieves a tipping point and could secure as many as 33 seats.
So that extra 6% actually delivers more seats than the ‘core’ 32% SNP support, such are the vagaries of FPTP. Hence the value of gaining every last percentage point. The voting strength of the other pro-indy parties starts to become more significant. The main strength of cross-party cooperation however in 2015 doesn’t lie in shuffling votes around between alliance partners (voters dislike being taken for granted and the results can be counterproductive). The main strength lies in the signals it sends:
- The SNP would be indicating that its primary concern is what is good for Scotland, beyond any Party political focus. Many in the SNP will, with good reason, argue that this is always the case, but the lifelong Labour voter in Glasgow who voted Yes in September and have an historical tribal aversion to voting SNP for Westminster may see it differently. The ‘this is bigger than the SNP’ strap line in Yes Scotland was one of the most powerful tools and effectively ‘gave permission’ for Labour voters to vote yes. We can’t afford to lose that. Remember the Yes vote in September was 45%, to be electorally effective in May a pro-Home Rule alliance needs to achieve only around 38%.
- The levels of engagement in IndyRef were to a large extent because it wasn’t seen as party politics as usual. The UK parties will strive to return to ‘business as usual’ for the May election. Party tribal political plays into their hands. It isn’t inspirational in the way IndyRef was, turnout will again be depressed and people will revert to voting the way they always have done. Anything that can be done to re-frame that choice is critical. A pro-Home Rule campaign across party political lines gives us that opportunity.
- Sending a strong grouping of MPs to Westminster who represent Scottish parties (as opposed to Scottish members of parties whose policy platforms are set in London) is also a powerful image. Those MPs are our MPs. They are there to get the best deal from Westminster for Scotland, they were elected with support from a range of political parties, but they are all there to do what is best for Scotland, not to act as lobby fodder for the London leadership of UK parties.
Easier said than done. So what is the best way to deliver this?
PART 3 : How to deliver.
Winning a majority of Scottish Westminster seats for a Scottish block of pro-independence / pro-Home Rule candidates is the objective. The practicalities of co-operation are easy in theory, but work needs to be done at local level, constituency by constituency, to make it happen. The 59 Westminster seats in Scotland need to be ‘allocated’ between the 3 parties. The vast bulk will be SNP targets- either current SNP seats, LibDem seats in the North and North East or seats across the Central Belt where the SNP have been building towards success for many years. The key will be to identify seats where the non-SNP candidates can make an impact. There doesn’t need to be many of those but for the coherence of the campaign they are important and the buy-in of local parties, who see the improved chance of success at a local level, is key.
The message, and the policies that sit behind it, are critical to a successful strategy for 2015.
The key platform for the Scottish block candidates needs to contain the following:
- UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES will voting for the Scottish block MPs make the chances of a Tory Prime Minister getting into Number 10 by default any higher. This will be Labour’s principal line of attack in Scotland in 2015. A vote for anyone other than Labour will allow the Tories back in. Don’t take the risk.
This argument normally works at two levels. At the level of an individual seat where votes are split and FPTP allows a candidate to ‘come through the middle’. In the Scottish context that is a toothless argument. In the seats that the SNP will be challenging to win from Labour there is no chance of any Tory gains.
The second strand to this argument is that if the SNP win seats from Labour and therefore reduce the total number of Labour MPs at Westminster there is a chance that the Tories could end up as the largest party at Westminster (but still short of an overall majority). We need to be crystal clear that if we end up in the circumstances where both Labour and the Tories are short of an overall majority at Westminster, but the Tories end up as the largest party then the Scottish block of MPs will do everything they can to prevent a Tory entering Number 10. By extension that means offering support to a Labour Prime Minister – most likely on a ‘Confidence and Supply’ basis.
That message may be uncomfortable for those who see Labour as the ‘Red Tories’ and want to ‘wipe them out’, but the reality is that for the hundreds of thousands of Labour voters to voted Yes in September the Tories are the Tories and must be kept out of the UK government at any cost.
This argument, pursued effectively, destroys the logic of voting Labour in Scotland to keep the Tories out. The message is clear, whether you vote for Labour or for a Scottish block candidate neither will permit the Tories to enter number 10. If you vote for the Scottish block then what you get are MPs who will put Scotland first, if you vote Labour you will get lobby fodder who vote as instructed by London labour. Vote Scottish block, get the Best of Both Worlds.
- Policies on non-devolved matters also need to be clear – Macro-economic policy, taxation, welfare, the deficit, defence and foreign affairs. If Scottish block looks like holding some influence in the next UK government then the position on all these policies will come under severe scrutiny in the same way as the LibDems (and UKIP) will experience at UK level in the run up to May. Which Labour policies will you support ? which will you try to alter ? which will you reject and what alternatives will you propose? and what additional benefits (powers or financial) will you attempt to extract for Scotland to support Ed Milliband in number 10 ? (and you better be sure your numbers add up because the interviewer will have his calculator at the ready).
- Policy on devolved matters opens up another conundrum for Westminster. Scottish block MPs should of course maintain their position of not voting on rUK only matters (except where there are Barnett consequential implications). Will a Labour minority government be able to operate where they can’t pass policy in Westminster on Health and Education? The most likely scenario is they would be able to do so with LibDem support, so Ed may find himself having to do deals with the Scottish block on economic, welfare and foreign policy, but having to do separate deals with the LibDems on Health and Education. Different to how Westminster normally works, but perfectly operable (and a direct consequence of the mess that is the UK’s current unwritten constitution).
If Labour does end up in government, sustained there by Scottish block MPs, then a number of fascinating things follows:
- The rest of the UK will be in the position where they voted Tory, but got Ed Milliband in Number 10, sustained not by Scottish labour MPs, but by MPs from a group that favours independence. Didn’t get the government you voted for? Welcome to our reality. The reaction to that could be interesting.
- Scottish block MPs could find themselves in positions of influence in the UK government (Stewart Hosie sitting down with Ed Balls to negotiate economic policy, Angus Robertson likewise on foreign affairs, and who knows what role for Alex Salmond). The LibDem strategy in 2010 was to increase their credibility by being seen to be ‘grown-up’ enough to play a part in government. It all fell apart due to the Tuition fees and other fiascos but the credibility bonus from Scottish pro-Indy politicians being seen to be able to take grown-up decisions at UK government level should not be underestimated, destroying as it does many of the myths around our ability to manage our own affairs in the event of independence.
- NO won the referendum. The rest of the UK also wanted us to stay if polls are to be believed. Well we’re still here (for now) and while we’re here we are going to use our smart voting strength to exert our influence in the UK parliament.
All of this is there to be done, but the strategy and tactics need to be well thought through. There needs to be no under-estimation of the challenges ahead and the work that needs to be done to overcome historical inertia and move voters away from traditional GE preferences. The implications of campaign messages need to be thought through.
The prize is not just a much more powerful Scottish voice in Westminster, but one that can really influence UK government policy on reserved matter and build credibility in our ability to manage the ‘big’ affairs of state, while at the same time working to transfer as many powers as possible to Holyrood.
Let’s get to it.