Comment: Better Together’s poll position falling apart

All smiles at Better Together's launch. But is the picture at activist level quite so happy? Picture: Neil Hanna
All smiles at Better Together's launch. But is the picture at activist level quite so happy? Picture: Neil Hanna
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Local elections are no place for the No campaign. But they do at least reveal its member parties’ inner divisions, says Natalie McGarry

IT WAS a particularly apt opinion piece from John McTernan which appeared in this paper on Thursday about the role and function of campaigners, as three local by-elections around Scotland served as a political call-to-arms.

Much will be, and is being, spun about how the results of these by-elections reflect on voting intentions for next year’s referendum without any seeming reference to its transcendental aspect. The lazy conflation of party politics as somehow synonymous proves a lack of imagination and cognisance in the media, in our political parties, and – increasingly – the Labour-filled ranks of Better Together HQ.

Local by-elections matter as stand-alone events, as an indication of the level of work undertaken by campaigners and the general attitude of the electorate, but an indication of voting intentions for anything else, they are not. By common consensus, the Scottish electorate is an intelligent, sophisticated and searching one which now distinguishes and votes differently according to types of election. The hegemony of one political party in Scotland has been broken irrevocably over time.

Given the low profile of council by-elections, and the low media impact, it was with a degree of incredulity that news was received that Better Together had inserted itself into a local by-election in Glasgow with a letter ostensibly about the referendum and jobs in the Govan shipyards, but which was targeted to land on doorsteps criticising the SNP in the two days before the vote. The questionable aspect of third party campaign funding aside, this was a cynical and deliberate attempt to flex the buying power of the Better Together stable to influence voter attitudes.

The letter sent to Govanites had all the hallmarks of Ian Davidson’s “doom and gloom” leaflets with which he has peppered the streets of Govan for months, but with more sophistication and far superior graphics. There can be no disagreement that this interjection was constructed at the behest of a Labourite stratagem. Their partners in Better Together, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, were clearly not the intended or targeted recipients of any benevolent Better Together activity – their vote shares were 4.5 per cent and 1.5 per cent.

The enduring conundrum is that Better Together operates as an extension of the Labour Party campaign team without any overt criticism from the Conservatives. Although the self-regulated six-monthly donations declarations have not panned out, it is clear that the majority of No campaign funding comes through a Conservative funding base.

The bitter irony for the Conservatives is that the Labour Party continues the self-evisceration of Better Together from the outside, concurrently spending Conservative money inside Better Together to further its own election aims. They must be laughing up their sleeves at the hopeless naivety of the Conservatives who have allowed Labour to stuff Better Together HQ with Labour apparatchiks, save a token Tory or two to keep the money supply open. Yet still the Conservatives cling to the Better Together liferaft as if they were in danger of immediate submersion.

That the Labour Party has almost completely distanced themselves as a campaign organisation from Better Together – especially in west Central Belt – cannot be disputed. Since the inception of United With Labour, the small number of grassroots Better Together activities across that constituency have declined exponential to the rise of United With Labour activities. There is no insignificant disquiet about this as Labour piggy-back on the Liberals and Conservatives in their own strongholds, yet in areas where an entente cordiale with the Tories to save the Union is in the Labour gift, they have abandoned the toxic relationship.

The sight in Govan on Thursday of activists donning United With Labour windbreakers to escort voters into the ballot booths demonstrates the strained and, at times, perverse symbiosis between the two major stakeholders in the Better Together project; Labour members emblazoned with branding outwardly rejecting the campaign which is being bought and paid for using Tory Party money, in a part of Scotland most left asunder by the free market extremism unleashed by Thatcher and her successors.

Given the unprecented nature of the referendum, there will obviously be times when the underlying differences between parties in both camps will cause friction. So far, despite the inherent difficulty of establishing cross-party and local organisations, the Yes campaign has demonstrated having a greater handling on the sensitivities of bringing former foes together as allies. Periodically imperfect, the growth and continued sustainability of a genuine grassroots campaign at local and regional level belongs to Yes Scotland.

At some time over the next 11 months, Better Together will have to embrace some uncomfortable truths; that the marriage of convenience between two political parties theoretically diametrically opposed, one campaigning for the interests of labour and the other the political wing of market capitalism, needs to be managed with a lighter touch than the high command of Better Together thus far seem capable of.

• Natalie McGarry is an SNP activist and co-founder of Women for Independence