Comment: ‘No’ campaign losing sense of togetherness

Former prime minister Gordon Brown speaks at the United With Labour launch. Picture: PA
Former prime minister Gordon Brown speaks at the United With Labour launch. Picture: PA
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The emergence of a new campaign group against independence exposes faultlines in Better Together, writes Natalie McGarry

The beginning of June saw the first public stirrings of real discontent in the No campaign as United With Labour was presented in the Southside of Glasgow as an actual and tangible campaigning organisation with branded balloons, leaflets, jackets and no less a person than Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont lending her credentials.

There is a degree of persuasion in the argument that the creation of United With Labour was born out of absolute necessity. From its more humble and stated purpose of crafting a Labour voice in the independence referendum just a few short weeks ago, it now becomes a direct competitor to Better Together as the organisational face of the No campaign. That it is in competition with Better Together is in no doubt; that is an inevitable consequence of sharing the same, limited numbers of activists who are mainly pooled from the few numbers that the Labour Party can motivate in branches.

The Better Together campaign has so far been a roaring success at being negative, static and, organisationally, a bad covers band as compared to the Yes campaign. It is also conducted, from the top down, as a collective of men – with few exceptions – who labour under the misapprehension that sniggering, sneering and sometimes childish and needless personalisation and finger-pointing at political opponents are the behavioural norms of post-pubescent grown-ups. This is all “masterminded” from a campaign headquarters which sometimes seems akin to a boys’ club treehouse on the hill.

It is inevitable that the campaign for the status quo will lack the momentum and creativity of the campaign for change because they are the default position. The No campaign does not have to motivate voters to make up or change their minds; it needs only strangle the debate to ensure dynamism is ditched. It is showing all the signs of being comfortable to sit back, throw a Beano-inspired stink bomb at the Yes campaign and hope, when the stench clears, people have dived for cover. For logic, you can’t really fault it, even if you can criticise the complete lack of originality or the absence of any attempt to provoke debate about how the status quo can be improved.

Given the preponderance of Blairite alumni appointees leading Better Together – whose contemporaries have struggled to produce any original UK Labour policy ideas since 2010 – the vacuum of alternative narrative is hardly surprising. What is more surprising is the vacuum of any original campaign strategy ideas.

The Yes campaign launched just over a year ago with great razzamatazz but, since then, has adopted a slow growth approach when it comes to the substantive core of messaging which will shape the real content of the debate. With the referendum still more than 15 months away, this is not necessarily an issue of concern; more an indication that considerable work is going on to provide the electorate with a comprehensive and compelling case for independence. A bold vision deserves more than instantaneous and derivative thinking.

More importantly at this stage, behind the scenes, the Yes campaign has been organising locally, anticipating and already driving the on-the-ground campaigning which will be pivotal in changing opinion polls and, far more importantly, shaping public opinion. In order to win, the Yes campaign recognises that it has to find the right method and message to motivate people to move from No or undecided to Yes. Since September last year, local groups in Scotland have launched scores of community-based campaigns; inviting local people, undecided voters and those already committed to the campaign, to interact with a huge range of speakers and supporters from a variety of backgrounds. These groups have been supported by the establishment of sectoral groups under the Yes Scotland umbrella encompassing older voters, trades unions and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender groups (LGBT) amongst others. This work has been enhanced by associated, but separate and distinct organisations like Labour For Independence, Women for Independence and National Collective.

The model for the Yes campaign has been grassroots and organic in development, and evolves continually as the opposition, challenges and opportunities change over time. Large area launches such as Yes Glasgow have broken down to more local campaigns which will devolve still further as the campaign broadens out.

The wholesale adoption of the Yes model by the Better Together campaign is clear to see. Perhaps pale facsimile imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Where the Yes campaign leads – in terms of organisation – the No campaign will follow: albeit six to eight months further down the campaign timeline.

Whilst the status quo campaign takes succour from the opinion polls, the superior on-the-ground Yes campaign has already begun. Labour Party membership is struggling to recover from serious decline, the SNP and Green Party membership continues to rise and those considerable numbers are boosted by campaigners of other parties and none who are motivated by the opportunity of a Yes vote.

The No campaign narrative rests on creating uncertainty, but it is clear that the counter Yes campaign message about the real uncertainty of a No vote is slowly beginning to resonate, especially with Labour voters who reject the coalition at Westminster, and those affected by their pernicious welfare changes. This creates problems for the Labour Party in Scotland as it eyes not just the referendum, but the 2015 General Election from within the Better Together clubhouse.

Waltzing hand in hand with the Conservatives in Better Together is affecting Labour credibility with Labour voters, members and, crucially, the Cooperative Party and the trades unions, who are the lifeblood of Labour Party funding. The independence debate is problematic for the Labour Party for – as the former party of home rule – it is not avowedly “unionist” and there is indication that a growing minority of members in the Labour Party will vote yes, and a potentially larger number who are considering it.

Campaigning as United With Labour in Aberdeen Donside and bringing the referendum to a local by-election may be just another indication of linear, not lateral thinking. Time will tell.