Salmond should change the terms of debate now and focus on radical plans to make Scotland better, writes George Kerevan
THE leader comment in Scotland On Sunday was fair and to the point: “An increasing number of Scots believe the promises, made by the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, of more powers after a No vote … the Yes campaign continues to struggle with a lack of focus … post-Commonwealth Games, Alex Salmond will need a clear, compelling message that shifts polls.”
I see no point in disagreeing with this tough assessment. You don’t win battles by underestimating the enemy. Of course, this is not the same thing as saying that support for a Yes vote is shrinking, as some have claimed. Rather, as polling guru John Curtice points out in his non-partisan “What Scotland Thinks” blog, public opinion has remained frozen since May.
In percentage terms, the No camp is somewhere in the mid-to-high 50s and Yes in the mid-to-low 40s. How bad is that?
The Yes team is certainly a goal down and we are well into the second half of the match. But this game is not Germany v Brazil. With the likes of Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and even JimSillars back on the field as a late substitute, the Yes team still has all the best players on the political field. It also has by far the most enthusiastic fans. This game is still wide open if Captain Salmond can keep possession of the ball.
Consider the numbers. Scotland has about 4,219,000 voters, an all-time high. Assume a 75 per cent turn out, or 3,164,250 likely to vote on the day. With Yes polling at 45 per cent, the No vote is only 316,425 ahead. But to win, Yes only needs to move half that (plus one) over to its side: 158,214. That’s not a lot of votes to win over if you have the correct message.
As well as winning over wavering No voters, a final Yes surge of campaigning could also aim to bump up turnout another five points, to 80 per cent. It is likely that a majority of those marginal voters would come from poor communities where people rarely or never vote, because they feel alienated by the current political system. It is precisely in these areas that the radical wing of the Yes movement is banging on doors, day in and day out.
Folk living on low incomes in Scotland’s poorer housing schemes will not be swayed into a No vote by fancy promises of more devolution from Labour and the Tories. They already think that most politicians are in it for what they can get. But these alienated citizens might be tempted to vote Yes if they feel there is a once-in-a-lifetime chance of life getting better in Scotland. Which suggests the Yes campaign has to focus hard on persuading them this is possible.
Here is where the endless repetition of doom and gloom predictions from the No campaign has had an impact. Barely a third of voters think the Scottish economy will improve after independence. Yet if people don’t think life will be better, why risk changing the status quo? You can argue till you are blue in the face (I have) that it was the current selfish and incompetent Westminster system that delivered the first sustained fall in real incomes for two generations. But Scots are in a defensive mode, especially the young.
Yesterday’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that young adults have suffered the most from the failed economy bequeathed to us by Gordon Brown. Since 2008, the mid-point on the income scale of those aged 22-30 has dropped by a staggering 13 per cent. Home ownership among 25-year-olds has halved.
Once upon a time the young were the most enthusiastic supporters of Scottish independence. For now, young people have turned apolitical, with only one in four likely to vote in elections.
Against this background there is no use playing a defensive game any longer. The Yes campaign has to attack – by offering a radical programme of economic and social change. One that plays to Scotland’s traditional communitarian values. The Yes campaign needs to inspire hope. We need to know what radical fiscal initiatives an SNP government would take if it had the power. Are we going to tax the super rich and cut taxes on employment? Are we going to take a public stake in the oil industry to ensure enough investment in new production? Are we going to jail corrupt bankers, as they did in Iceland but not in London?
Even if there is a No vote, the SNP will remain in majority government until the Holyrood election of 2016. Which means that under new tax powers already bequeathed to the Scottish Parliament, John Swinney will be able to set Scotland’s income tax for 2016-17. To create electoral momentum and generate support we need to get Scottish voters thinking now that there is a world to win beyond 18 September.
Much of the independence movement has already begun to include the 2016 elections in its timetable; ie focus on policy, not the constitution. The growing Common Weal movement is significant because it is attracting elements from the old Communist Party and Labour left, not just the far left orbit of the Scottish Socialist Party.
In the SNP, Jim Sillars has now called for the election of an openly “socialist” administration at Holyrood in 2016. That should make the Labour leadership very afraid: across Europe, mainstream socialist parties that supported anti-austerity programmes have lost popular support on a dramatic scale.
The SNP wing of the independence movement – for very understandable reasons – has kept the discussion to date focused squarely in the political centre. Now may be the time for Captain Salmond to show what he would do if he got state power. Scotland needs a radical programme for economic expansion, not another eight weeks of wrangling over constitutional technicalities. Change the terms of the debate, Alex. The No camp’s goalmouth is wide open.