Lessons from Yes
Reading through the Commonweal report “The Yes Volunteers – Capturing the “Biggest grassroots campaign in Scotland’s History” and responding to some of the discussions from yesterday, here’s some further points.
Some people have accused this of being ‘navel-gazing’ and seem confused that it is self-congratulatory. It’s neither. It is the first comprehensive analysis of a large sample of people about what was the biggest political event in our lives. If people want to debate or question its methodology that’s fine – but they need to be specific about where they think it’s flawed.
One complaint made was that ‘the task is to persuade voters not activists’. Which is quite right but also completely misses the point. The survey analyses how and why and when people were inspired to take part and what work they did. Any campaign on this scale, in the past and hopefully in the future requires mobilising large amounts of people to do a lot of campaigning. The reality is there was simply no equivalent of the Mass Voter registration campaigns on the Better Together side, and this work came (almost overwhelmingly) out of RIC.
The second complaint heard yesterday was that this represented a far-left perspective that would alienate small ‘c’ conservative Scotland, the ‘middle classes’ or people in Aberdeen, for example. I’m not sure how you can represent a bland unthreatening case for independence that suits all and ignores the socio-economic crisis we face. This seems both politically illiterate (as it ignores the motivations of people wanting real change) and strategically incoherent. It also feeds into the tendency to put-off all and every political discussion until after.
The political task is to engage people to see an entirely different future, not to stay within the current paradigm of political thinking. An example of this is desperate measures taken to persuade people that there would still be a massive employment in the military in an independent Scotland. There shouldn’t be and we shouldn’t make that case.
If you want to present a case that is based on ‘nothing will really change’ go for it, but don’t expect me to take part.
But the arguments is wrongheaded for another reason. The defining attribute of RIC, the National Collective, Women for Indy (or a dozen more such groups) was not that they were of and from the left, though they clearly were, but that they were self-organising. So they acted as we wanted to become: independent. They encouraged open and free thinking, from base principles and were open to tackling difficult subjects and were inclusive to all. These were the hallmarks of these groups, and it should be said, much of the wider sprawling chaotic Yes movement. It is this characteristic – self-organisation – thinking for yourself – which fuelled the movement.
As the report states: “As RIC, WFI, BfS and National Collective were grassroots organisations set up out with the official Yes Scotland campaign, this is evidence of the empowerment and
grassroots nature of the overall movement.”
The report asks:
Which Yes groups did they join?
• 71.8% were members of a local Yes group
• 66.2% of volunteers said they were active in more than one Yes aligned group
• 39.2% were active as part of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC)
• 67.7% of women were active with Women for Independence (WFI)
• 30.8% were active with National Collective
• 23.8% were active with Business for Scotland (BfS)
Within organisations certain groups were found to be more or less active:
• For WFI, RIC and National Collective, the 25-34 age group and those identifying as lesbian or bisexual were more likely to rate themselves as having been fairly or extremely active
• In RIC and National Collective, the under 25 age group were more likely to rate themselves as having been fairly or extremely active.
• Among Business for Scotland members, men saw themselves as more active
There is a ‘but’ to all this though. The case for winning hearts and minds of No voters through rational argument (and inspiration) is clear. But we also need to face up to the reality that whilst the campaign was inspiring for hundreds of thousands of us, the ‘spectacle’ of packed live events was mirrored by the sullen stay-at-home No voter with their empty window. We became enthralled to the phenomenon and detached from the others reality. That’s a challenge for any campaign and its one of many we’ll need to change for next time.
So we seem to have succeeded in ‘reaching out’ to the disaffected and the marginalised, to demographic groups who had been actively or passively encouraged NOT to participate, including women, young people and low-income groups to see common cause. What we need to do now is to inspire an even wider base of society that their interests are better served in a functioning democracy. That is not the same as convincing them that things will be exactly as they are now. They will not.