How to win a Scottish Referendum – ten iron laws…

Leaving aside the politics of the upcoming referendum, for a moment, however hard that is, let me explore the ten iron laws of referendum campaigning:

  1. Referendums are not elections – they encapsulate issues and ideas in theory, rather than people and personalities; that is why political parties find them so hard – because parties are irrevocably wedded by endless experience of promoting candidates to viewing them through that prism. It also explains why opponents are usually keen to pin a personality who isn’t so popular to the rival cause. That’s why the No2AV campaign targeted the flagging Nick Clegg last year and it’s why, this time round, the SNP is perhaps so keen to associate Cameron with the No voice, offering ‘to pay his bus fare’ to have his opinions promoted in Scotland, where they hope he carries less – or negative –  weight.
  2. Framing the debate – first mover advantage often goes to those who ‘frame’ the discourse most coherently, at an early stage; in Cyprus in 2004, after years of UN-brokered talks, leading to broad agreement, dissenting Greek Cypriot PM, Tassos Papadopoulos returned from Switzerland (location of the negotiations for reasons of distance) characterising the deal, as ‘The Annan Plan, after the UN Secretary General, playing up its external origins and exogenous nature; had it been called ‘The Cyprus Plan’, been signed on Ledra Street and promoted by the Yes parties together, it might have stood a better chance. Who has won the framing question so far in Scotland? ‘Independence’ or ‘separation’, ‘freedom’ or ‘unionism’, ‘natural destiny’ or ‘swimming against the tide of history’…
  3. Keep it Simple, Stupid – whilst all politicians understandably talk up their sophisticated electorate who appreciate what’s really going on, who won’t be gulled by this or that argument, and whose intelligence can’t be insulted, the reality remains that most voters pay scant attention (12 minutes per year, it is thought) to politics; they take their cues from what they catch from the news in the corner of their eye, kitchen or favourite newspaper or website. Body language is as important as the words spoken, accent as key as content, imagery as critical as imagination. In the failed referendum for a regional assembly in the North East (of England), the (rather dull) Yes Campaigners never recovered from the highly-visible and quirky inflatable White Elephant of the No side – the best £1,000 ever spent.
  4. Keep it united – voters like to see politicians working together, especially in plebiscites, where they see two sides to an argument rather than legitimate competition for an elected post amongst competing groups organised as parties. The SNP has the advantage of message control and internal discipline, being the only party on the Yes side, but alternatively, may appear monolithic and isolated from others; while the No camp (and I’m not yet sure those positions will persist – which is why control over the question, is in this instance so significant) must unite across Labour / Conservative / LibDem boundaries; tricky, but if they succeed, powerful and appealing; that’s what united the Yes side on the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement campaign in 98, and as I observed last month in the Scottish Yes-Yes Campaign of 1997, when the SNP consented to unity for devolution, alongside Labour and LibDems, thereby marginalising the Conservative / Unionist rump, and postponing prosecution of the independence case (until only 2014, as it has now emerged); in the earlier 1979 Scottish poll outing, I helped organise one of seven ‘youth for yes’  efforts – no wonder the voters were confused and disillusioned, failing to clear the fatal ‘40% Cunningham  tripwire’ of the whole electorate, although do remember there was an overall majority in 1979!
  5. Go with the Grain – voters are inherently conservative, in the sense of being risk averse, taking a chance, or plunging into the unknown; that’s both why most referendums are actually lost (albeit narrowly) and why, with the exception of during deep recessions, citizens are unlikely to gamble their economic interests for an untested return; change is threatening, unsettling and provokes resistance. Think Good Friday 1998 in N. Ireland that was cast as ‘the way ahead…’ although some bitter pills went with it; recall 1975 on remaining in the then EEC (the question was framed around maintaining the status quo of only two years, not ‘say No to leaving’; similarly, most EC/EU Treaty referendums passed contentedly across Europe, ‘because that’s what everyone else was agreeing to…it’s the done thing’, until Rule 6 applied.
  6. Voters tend to answer the wrong question – viz the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, where Irish voters used their franchise to protest against their flagging governments, expressing unhappiness about their declining economic circumstances; Scottish devolution was never going to happen in 1979, as the slow painful demise of the Wilson / Callaghan regime during the long Winter of Discontent was taking its toll, and the whole country was awaiting the Thatcher anointment only two months later; in 2011, it could be argued that UK voters were railing against MPs’ expenses, the ConDem coalition, the recession, the cuts – and very little about the intricacies of the preferential voting system. Even Charles de Gaulle who coined Rule 6, fell by it, losing a 1969 poll on governmental powers, as it turned into a referendum on the General himself; the danger for the SNP is in predicting the circumstances three years out – what question will Scotland be wanting to answer then?
  7. No campaigns are easier to run – because the Yes side has to be positive, maintain forward momentum in explaining the benefits of change, be consistent and be tested on their propositions; while No can scatter their hand grenades at liberty (decommissioning of weapons, terrorists in government, prisoner release, RUC disbandment, North-South concessions were just some of the time bombs lobbed during the Good Friday 1998 campaign; last year, the alleged (and subsequently-confessed ‘made up’ figure) £250million cost of AV, personified by the dying baby on a drip, hit the Yes side right in the solar plexus, from which it never recovered. ‘No’ can choose to alter the line of attack, change the line-up or introduce new canards; meanwhile, ‘Yes’ cannot afford to be distracted, but must decide whether rebuttal is required, if an attack line is gaining traction. Traditionally we suggest that Yes must be 2:1 ahead, with fewer than 30% ‘don’t knows’ as the campaign hots up, or else No and their unwitting allies in the media – who rightly will probe the Yes assertions with more rigour than the No allegations – will whittle away at that transient majority. Remember Yes2AV was 2:1 ahead – yet still lost by the same margin.
  8. The media don’t ‘get’ the referendum – partly because we don’t have a developed referendum culture in the UK, the media haven’t matured their understanding or approach. Their sense of ‘balance’ is ruthlessly efficient for elections, but correspondingly slack in plebiscites; in Wales in March 2011, for example, where the ‘going with the grain’ suggested overwhelming support for primary legislative powers, they insisted on 50:50 coverage for the all-party Yes side and the non-existent No side, who couldn’t even muster a claim on the Electoral Commission grant to run one! This results in ridicule. While the contest is already manifestly tighter in Scotland, the media obsession with ‘political beasts’ and Habermas’s ‘elite sources’ means that personality politics will likely persist. It will be well-nigh impossible for civil society voices to win a fair hearing – as already shown by the ‘Salmond-vs-Cameron’ leitmotif defined by the press. We deserve better.
  9. Civil Society Voices must fight to be heard – since our policy culture dictates strict demarcation between political parties (who may be partisan) and civil society (who may not), the referendum allows that space to be marked out differently. So far, the media and to some degree the political reaction, has been to paint say, the CBI’s Iain McMillan as a proxy for the Unionist case, and the SCVO’s Martin Sime as equally aligned with the devo-max groundswell effort, therefore ‘they aren’t to be trusted, believed or heard’. This nonsense must stop – these voices are especially important, as they were in N. Ireland in 1998, in Scotland’s debate leading up to 1997, in the Balkans during the 90s break-up of Yugoslavia, in the central Americas’ tumult of the late 90s, central Europe’s realignment, and in many other identity contests – let them be heard.  They represent the hallmark of a rich and varied society – if we are concerned about levels of political participation, why crush it when happens organically?
  10. National identity referendums are decided on emotions, not rationalities – while voters normally look to their economic interests as a guiding light as to where to cast their preference (EU polls, new taxes, prohibition votes) where the issue has cultural, identity or ethnic characteristics, all rational bets are off. Voters default to being thrawn, stubborn and proud, content to vote against their own interests if that is required to define themselves. In the Scottish case, what will that mean? Are you Bravehearts or Brits?

Lobbyist with Belfast-based Stratagem

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