Scottish lessons for the general election and a referendum on Europe

When the Scottish National party won a second term in 2011, Alex Salmond said that independence was ‘as near to inevitability as anything can be in politics’. After a decisive ‘No’ vote and Salmond’s resignation, that confidence seems like hubris. However, that would underestimate both the challenges the ‘No’ campaign faced and the huge advantage the nationalists enjoyed.

Salmond chose the referendum date to coincide with events he believed would create a mood of national confidence. The Scottish opposition parties were all at political and organisational low points after heavy defeats. The nationalists were able to campaign against austerity, a Conservative-led United Kingdom government, and a political system at Westminster facing a deep crisis of trust. The SNP chose the franchise, opting to give the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds, who it wrongly expected to be automatic nationalists. Its campaign had deep pockets after a former SNP candidate won a £161m lottery jackpot. Little wonder Salmond felt that the planets had aligned to deliver his political prize.

Why then did Scotland vote conclusively
to remain in the union? What can Labour, and a potential future referendum campaign about Britain’s membership of the European Union, learn from the longest campaign in British political history?

First, focus strategy on convincing those who do not yet agree with you and resist the urge to talk yourself. We knew early in the campaign that 30 per cent of the electorate were unshakeable nationalists, people who would vote ‘Yes’ regardless of any rational or emotional argument we could make. Almost 40 per cent were firm ‘No’ voters. The battle was for the remaining one-third of voters who were most concerned with the economic risks of leaving the UK. The certainty that we had a deep understanding of the electorate, and that we had the right strategic message, gave us confidence to make the right decisions throughout the campaign.

The nationalists faced a dilemma. The simple message that has worked for them in elections was ‘We speak for Scotland.’ This time that simply was not true, so Salmond worked to manufacture a false sense of momentum.This inevitably led them to direct resources into mobilising the minority who already agreed with them, rather than reaching out to uncommitted voters.

While we went door to door targeting undecideds, the nationalists filled town halls with hundreds of ‘Yes’ activists. This encouraged them to talk about issues like Trident, the media and meaningless internal campaign process stories. This was a campaign talking to itself.

For Labour the job, as always, is to motivate existing supporters while aligning their interests with the swing voters. This is hardly
a novel insight, but the ‘Yes’ campaign reminds us that even skilled campaigners under pressure can slip into a minority strategy.

Second, fight your own campaign and do not fight your opponents’ campaign for them. We faced relentless criticism from columnists and commentators. We were told to stop focusing on the economy and to talk about ‘shared identity’ instead. We knew that emotional appeals would not work with undecideds. While just nine per cent of the undecided voters felt an emotional bond with people in the rest of the UK, 70 per cent did not want to lose the economic strength of the UK.

It is important to tell the columnists a compelling story but this cannot be at the expense of running the strategy you know will win. We made a conscious choice that convincing undecided voters was more important than courting commentators.

Labour needs to be confident enough to fight on issues where undecided voters view us as strong. Commentators want the election to be about immigration and anti-politics. We are a party that believes immigration is important for growing our economy, staffing our NHS and guaranteeing the pensions of
the retired. If we pretend otherwise we will not only lose the debate, we will damage
our country.

When it comes to the EU referendum, let’s not do the United Kingdom Independence party’s work for them. Salmond attempted to campaign against the political establishment, but he had been first minister for seven years. Nigel Farage will find it far easier to identify himself as ‘on the side’ of the British people against the arcane structures of the EU.

Just as Scottish swing voters were immune to messages on shared identity, appeals to the value of the European project are pointless. Those of us who want to remain in the EU are the defenders of the British people, not the institutions of the EU. Our relentless argument should be that EU membership is in the economic interests of the people of the UK. Why defend areas where the EU does not work well?

Third, do not make people choose between political reform and economic security. Throughout the referendum the nationalists failed to reconcile the need to offer continuity with the need to offer change. They could not offer enough reassurance to the insecure middle class and they failed to convince disadvantaged voters that the promise of change was credible. In the ‘No’ campaign we were able to more credibly offer both reform, with more decision-making in Scotland guaranteed, and the security of being part of the bigger UK economy.

In all the debate about the anti-political mood, many people seem to have forgotten that the context to this is economic. People are angry because they are under pressure. Shaking up the system is good, but Scotland shows that when presented with a credible campaign with a clear economic message, people will choose their economic interests over appeals to anger. Anti-politics is largely a symptom of a political failure on economics. We should spend as much time worrying about that cause as its effects.


Blair McDougall was campaign director of the Better Together campaign


Photo: Phyllis Buchanan