Lesley Riddoch: Better Together losing stardust

If JK Rowling and David Bowie can't help win it for No, how on earth will John Prescott fare? Picture: Rob McDougall
If JK Rowling and David Bowie can't help win it for No, how on earth will John Prescott fare? Picture: Rob McDougall
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While Yes campaigners take nothing for granted, the No camp seem to get it wrong at every turn, writes Lesley Riddoch

It’s been like waking up on another planet. The day after Yes broke the 50 per cent barrier for the first time in an official poll, independence campaigners have been simultaneously celebrating, pinching themselves and struggling not to appear smug. Far from TV sofas and academic debates, folk on the campaign trail have been witnessing a steady drift towards Yes which became a dramatic lurch after the last Salmond/Darling debate. Now the polling organisation traditionally most pessimistic about the independence cause appears to have caught up.

Beyond YouGov’s headline figure – 51 per cent Yes 49 per cent No (after Don’t Knows are excluded) – there are other equally important findings. Some 60 per cent of those sampled believe the Yes campaign has been largely positive while the same proportion feel the No campaign has been largely negative – and the gender gap has practically disappeared.

So far, so good.

But this momentous poll is still just part of the journey – not the final result.

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YouGov predicted a large vote for Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems in 2010 which failed to materialise. Neil Kinnock’s victory party before the 1992 General Election was premature and may have contributed to Labour’s shock defeat. The Parti Quebecois in Canada also lost a referendum despite being ahead the polls. I remember presenting Channel Four’s People’s Parliament in the 1990s where 80 Mancunians debated key issues during the parliamentary recess. The “left” tended to win every debate but lost almost every vote. Programme makers quickly learned silence did not imply consent with passionately argued left-wing positions. Opponents hesitated to talk in public about greed, fear, insecurity, suspicion or envy – but did not hesitate to act on these impulses in the privacy of the ballot box.

This is human nature. So is the fact that No campaigners will be galvanised by the gigantic wake-up call just delivered by the Sunday Times poll. And, of course, a Panelbase poll has No in the lead by four percentage points. But most will agree, the independence race is now officially neck and neck.

So the big questions are these.

Is 51 per cent a flash in the pan? Can Ed Miliband win back errant Labour voters? Will a new offer of “devo-something” work?

Firstly, time is on the side of Yes. The confidence-enhancing 51 per cent vote has been reached with 10 days still to go – time to recover from any inevitable resurgence in the No vote, new scare stories or fresh devolutionary offers. On the other hand, the close proximity of September 18th raises legal questions about the ability of UK civil servants to work on George Osborne’s “devo-more” offer and the fairness of such a last-minute change of policy when so many Scots have already cast postal votes. Meanwhile, with consummate bad timing, the Commons expenses watchdog has confirmed MPs’ pay will rise by 10 per cent next year, taking salaries to £74,000. By contrast all five political parties at Holyrood agreed to decouple their rates from Westminster pay scales so MSPs will get a modest 1 per cent pay rise this year in line with other public sector workers. The Scottish Parliament is evidently more in tune with public sentiment than the “Mother of Parliaments” – again. A new political party set up by doctors and nurses in England also made headlines on social media this weekend, even though broadcasters didn’t cover its first conference. The message of National Health Action is simple; “We don’t want to be politicians. We are fighting for patients against the dismantling of the NHS.” Yet more evidence that England’s despairing health professionals view privatisation as a real threat – no matter what politicians say.

All these English news stories have an impact on the Scottish referendum. And yet despite the historic nature of this weekend’s Scottish poll, most London-based Sunday papers were focused on a rather different threat to David Cameron’s continuing leadership. The Mail on Sunday headline read: “Panicking Tory MPs plot to do deal with Ukip – and demand Farage is made deputy prime minister.” Given his evident clout within English politics, it’s fitting that Nigel Farage will head north to campaign against Scottish independence on Friday – the day before 15,000 members of Scottish and Northern Irish Orange Order lodges and flute bands descend on Edinburgh for a No Orange March. This double whammy can only serve to accentuate the nature of some right-wing support for the Union.

There’s a second factor boosting the Yes case – Ed Miliband is a busted flush in Scotland. Within 24 hours of last week’s speech in Blantyre, Miliband was forced to deny striking a pact with Tory cronies to portray a Labour victory as inevitable and then creating a schism in the Better Together campaign by rubbing David Cameron’s nose in it a little too vigorously for party political advantage. This weekend, he capped this contradictory performance with a stark threat to introduce manned border posts if he becomes Prime Minister and Scotland backs independence which his press team promptly tried to retract. Does anyone trust this man to know his own mind or keep his word?

Thirdly, Better Together have fewer enthusiastic supporters on the ground and still believe stale authority figures, re-heated promises and a few scare stories will win the day. Prezza (former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott) and Carwyn Jones (the Welsh First Minister who vetoed a shared currency) are heading north to woo Labour voters this week. If David Bowie and JK Rowling couldn’t manage, it’s hard to see how this lack-lustre combination can succeed.

Meanwhile at the grassroots, Better Together seem wobbly. The No organisation pulled out of two local debates in Sutherland – though a prominent individual No campaigner has gamely stepped in to the Portgower event tonight. But undecided voters report that No activists seem reluctant to talk through issues and tend to rely on the same wooden slogans despite voter enthusiasm for deeper discussion and more wholehearted engagement.

So there are reasons for Yes campaigners to be hopeful – but they won’t alter our plans or outlook in the final days of this long campaign.

Those of us supporting a “hopeless” cause have never been in it for the glowing poll results – we’ve been in it because independence feels right.

So while 51 per cent is a great poll result, we’re keeping our workload high, our efforts local and our eyes on the prize.