Scottish Referendum: a festival of democracy and the start of a trend?

This is just a quick posting with a few observations on the recent Scottish Independence Referendum where on an 85% turnout, the country voted 55.3% No to 44.7% Yes:

1. The Turnout. Impressively good. Getting 85% of the public to do the same thing at the same time is very rare in this more complex world. The question clearly mattered. Will any referendums on the future EU or English level devolution get anywhere as near? Will we see increased turnout in Scottish elections as people who never vote get into a habit? The parties will have a marked register and will know who to target in the 70%-85% cohort of voters in future.

2. 16/17 years old voting. Most did. School ballots and earlier polls showed most were No, but the Ashcroft poll showed they were 71% Yes on the day. However the final YouGov polling does imply a bigger No vote from the young. Was there a last minute switch? Perhaps the Electoral Commission or others will commission more research. How long will it be before 16/17 years get a vote for all elections?

3. Festival Of Democracy. It was sold as this both before the campaign and also by the Yes campaign after. This seems to have been borne out. perhaps there are lessons to learn for other elections?

4. Referendumania? Will we see referendums used more widely on important and focused issues at a local level? Will Scotland set a trend?

5. Opinion Polling accuracy. The last few polls averaged 52.3% No. The final poll from YouGov was 54% and the result was 55.3% No. The polls tended to cluster and in general be close to the margin of error.  Despite some arguing that YouGov had ‘gone rogue‘ with their 6 Sept poll,  the general view of pollsters was that they called the result broadly correctly. Those of us studying the poll in the last few weeks noted they got the 1997 referendum poll right. Follow-up polling may find the likely explanations were a small late swing and some ‘silent No’s’ but the numbers will in the end be small.

6. The No lead. Looking through all the polls. the No Lead was around 20% in 2012. 17% in 2013, 15% in 2014 before the campaign, then 11% before the first debate which Darling won, 12% before the second debate which Salmond won, then 4% before the final debate, 4% in the final 10 polls and 10.6% overall. Ashcroft polling showed that 39% of Yes’ made up their mind in the last month whilst only 19% of No’s did showing the last months swing to Yes especially over their NHS threat message as well as their hope and optimism message. However in the last few days the Party leaders offer and negative campaigning did shift the risk averse. so whilst hope is very much needed for any long-term campaigning activity, negative campaigning does help with the final votes and the Better Together No campaign do strongly believe this too.

7. Lesson for the Campaigns. I’m still evaluating this. There are a few articles here that are worth reading and I may add a few more in the coming days. A few issues and links to flag up:

  • Ground War seems to still matter. What was assumed to be a superior SNP contact rate according to some polls possibly contribute to the 39% of Yes votes making up their mind in the last month and contributing to a 3.5% swing. However the No campaign ramped up its activity in the last week and it may be more than matched Yes for GOTV – turnout was higher in No areas though they were more affluent too – thus seeing a 3% swing back.
  • Did Yes social norm Campaigning from Flash mobs to accusations of canvass scripts around “everyone round here is voting yes” to on-line social networks lead to allegations of intimidation also set out here too
  • Did the ‘patronising BT women‘ ad backfire for the NO campaign and did Yes win the battle of the ads?
  • The NHS is probably more powerful than even immigration in mobilising changes in voting judging by the high salience of the issue for voters in polling. Both sides raised the issue during the campaign with it swing votes to Yes at the start of the final months and back to No at the end. See more points on this below.
  • Was the No campaign too negative or is this all about a deeper long-term issue? For Labour in Scotland – the leading No Campaign party – this requires organisational change, research into communications messages and cultural change and new cultural messaging to be able to promote a modern UK union and a distinctive Scottish Labour offer as well as winning ownership back of the mantle of ‘Guardian of the NHS’  and other social justice issues
  • Did Gordon Brown swing a few per cent No at the end?
  • What are the wider impacts on the UK?

8. ‘Labour Yes’ and ‘SNP No’ Vote. The two biggest blocks of voters who voted again their party. There is some evidence from the 1997 referendum and this that some people do vote differently for their party compared to the National Question. It used to be recognised that some people who might be considered a Tory ‘unionist’ demographic were voting SNP in North east Scotland. This was joined by a large Labour Yes vote this time in Dundee and the Glasgow and its poorer satellite towns. Both Labour and the SNP will need to re-engage with those voters over the coming months to welcome them back. Before one sees this as a fully seismic shift, it should be noted that Labour already does poll very well in those middle class Scottish outer suburbs of Glasgow that would vote Tory in the South-East and which had a 90% turnout and voted No in the referendum.

 9. Voter Values in Scotland and the future. What happens in the 2015 General Election and the Holyrood elections of 2016? Whilst No mainly led by Labour won, they do face a tough challenge. The SNP are at 49% to Labour’s 31% per cent in polls in Scotland. Their governing record in the eyes of the public is strong – they’ve very effectively managed to deflect dissatisfaction with single issues onto Westminster and take credit for public policy differences with England. Likely new First Minster Nicola Sturgeon is also more popular than Salmond. The future battleground is probably across all values groups. Sturgeon is more consistently left wing than Salmond and will have a broader appeal not just with women, but also with newly energised young voters who will not have voted in 2010. This threatens Labour’s position with inner directed Pioneers (which Scotland has a lot of) and probably younger socially liberal Prospectors who got swept along with the last months’ mood music in their social networks and urban social norms. Whilst the SNP and UKIP are very different with UKIP appealing to Settler values and SNP more to Pioneer and Prospector values their variants of modern civic nationalism to those with certain values and identities does not necessarily mean a big fundamental political message difference as some others have also noticed:

UKIP – 3 key UK messages

  • Centre/periphery – Opposition to rule from a distance – Europe
  • The behaviour of Westminster politicians
  • Immigration

SNP – 3 key Referendum messages

  • Centre/periphery – Opposition to rule from a distance – Westminster
  • The behaviour of Westminster politicians
  • The threat to the NHS

The big difference here is that Labour could more effectively craft a rebuttal message on the NHS where it tends to get a hearing from voters compared to the issue of immigration where it is widely ‘blamed’ for the issue. Nevertheless on centre/periphery issues and on doing politics differently Labour or the Coalition parties still do not have a coherent message.

Due to the election being fought on quite a narrow electorate of Labour-leaning working class women, the SNP brand has now moved further to the left. This does leave an opening for the Tories to pick up some of the older, more Settler values, ‘tartan Tories’. However will Tory leader Ruth Davidson MSP – who seemed to have a ‘good referendum campaign’ – with a more ‘shrink the state, cosmopolitan and economically successful message be able to reach out to them?

10. The Devolution Question. Promises have been made by the party leaders and will now need to be kept. Whilst David Cameron initially linked this to English Votes, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander for the Lib Dems made it clear these were parallel streams that could run together but were not dependent on each other. Labour has so far resisted short-term UK English votes for English taxes and instead propose a constitutional convention which is picking up support from Lib Dems and Greens which could be crucial in a future hung parliament. Some options suggested by the Lib Dems have included a double voting lock for English laws of English MPs and Scottish MPs which would give English MPs a veto on current policy. Labour tends to talk more of devolution to the cities and counties and support for the Heseltine Report on city led growth but this would need financial devolution across the 4 nations by the Treasury of which there have been some suggestions and this does not depend on a constitutional convention. Failure to address this could lead us into instability and a further set of what have been termed as ‘Neverendums‘!

All in all we live in exciting times across the whole UK as a result of this decision

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer at The Campaign Company. You can read more about our behaviour change work here and our work into values here. I am grateful to my colleagues Daniel Jackson, Nick Pecorelli and Graeme Wilson for some very helpful comments that were added to the final version of this posting.