Eddie Barnes: The missing million

Half of the electorate failed to vote in the landslide SNP election victory of 2011. Picture: Getty
Half of the electorate failed to vote in the landslide SNP election victory of 2011. Picture: Getty
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HALF of the electorate failed to vote in the landslide SNP election victory of 2011. But, if mobilised, they could swing the result in next year’s independence referendum, a fact both the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns know only too well.

THOMAS Hunter can’t remember the last time he voted. But the 50-year-old Glaswegian, doing the shopping on Friday afternoon in the centre of Easterhouse, is in no doubt that, on 18 September next year, he will be making a rare visit to the polling booths.

“I think the political parties are much of a muchness. Every party leader is just the same and I don’t see any difference between them,” he says wearily. But the referendum? “Oh yes, I’ll be voting in the independence referendum, absolutely,” he says. Which way, he adds, is not so easy to say. Twenty, 30 years ago, he says, he would definitely have backed independence. Now, with a family and money problems, he’s not so sure. “At least I’ve got 500 days to think about it,” he says.

Hunter, who is currently out of work but earns a living at catering events around the UK, may not know it, but he has already been picked out ahead of the big vote next year. For campaign strategists beginning the laborious process of building up support, he falls into the ­category of “the missing million”.

In the Scottish election of 2011, which gave the SNP its landslide and triggered the referendum, only 50 per cent of registered voters – or just under two million people – actually bothered to turn out. Next September, it is widely expected that turnout will rise to as much as 75 per cent, a level not seen in British politics since 1992, when 77 per cent of the population turned out to vote in John Major. In other words, another million or so people in Scotland who, perhaps for years, have sat out elections will decide it is time to find their way to the polling stations.

Last week, Alex Salmond finally revealed the planned date for the referendum next autumn. What was a hypothetical event in the distant future has now become a reality. What impact, if any, will the missing million have?

Easterhouse, where Hunter was shopping last week, makes a good place to start asking, as it is places like this where many of that missing million live. Turnout in the poorer parts of the country is regularly lower than elsewhere; the Glasgow Provan seat, which takes in Easterhouse, had the lowest turnout of all in Scotland in 2011, with only 35 per cent of people voting in Labour MSP Paul Martin (compared to 62 per cent in ­affluent south Edinburgh, Scotland’s highest turnout). Even in the UK elections, where turnout is higher than Scotland’s, barely 50 per cent of people headed to the ­polling stations.

A stroll through the streets shows up typical voter cynicism towards the ­political elites and their promises. “I won’t be voting, no,” says father-of-two Kevin Bennett, 31. “I don’t see any point. What difference will independence make to this area? Nothing.”

But others are far more passionate. “These people [the Westminster government] are running this country into the ground,” says Vivienne Hart, 60, smoking a cigarette outside a pub. She is on benefits, suffering from a twisted spine, and claims many of her friends and family also on benefits will be backing independence because they’re fed up with the welfare reforms. “A friend of mine’s 56. He’s been told that if he wants to keep his benefits he has to go and work in a charity shop,” she says, angrily. “What are they doing to this country? I hope we get our independence. And I can tell you there are a lot of folk around here who feel the same.”

Her comments echo an anecdote told by former SNP MSP Jean Urquhart. She ­recalls a visit to a father and son who live in another poor part of Glasgow. The ­father, she says, was entirely confident that people would back independence in the referendum. “His son then turned to him and said: ‘Well, it’ll be no thanks to you, Dad, because you have never voted.’ ” Urquhart continues: “His dad then looked at him very seriously. ‘What you don’t know son,’ he said, ‘is that I haven’t had anything to vote for before. I’ve registered to vote in the referendum already.’ ”

Urquhart and other pro-independence supporters claim that a move is afoot. ­Older, working-class men and women, who deliberately came off the voting register in the 1990s to avoid the Poll Tax, are now deciding to come back on for the referendum, determined to give the “Tory government at Westminster” some payback.

All of this is music to the ears of the leaders of the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign. They believe that, largely under-estimated by pollsters and by previous electoral history, the “missing million” voters are more likely to come their way.

A pro-independence campaign source declares: “Most people would accept that the vast majority of people who are either not on the register or who haven’t voted before are from the lower social-economic groups. And it is probable they are going to be most affected by welfare cuts to things like Disability Living Allowance, and the ‘bedroom tax.’ ”

The argument goes, therefore, that with many benefits being withdrawn or reduced, they may turn to independence as a rosier alternative. This explains why the Yes Scotland campaign has spent much of the past few months focusing on welfare reform. By contrast, an ­independent ­Scotland, the campaign says, would be more in tune with “Scottish ­values and the country’s social democratic ­consensus”.

The introduction of the bedroom tax in the new financial year, and further reforms such as the move from the Disability Living Allowance to new Personal Independence Payments, will provide further flashpoints that could tip more of the missing million towards independence, the Yes camp believes. Certainly, pro-UK campaigners are aware that the welfare reforms being enforced by Iain Duncan Smith at the Department for Work and Pensions, is potentially their weakest line of defence.

But opposition figures are preparing for a counter-attack. First, they will argue that independence is not the panacea it is claimed to be – a line made easier thanks to John Swinney’s leaked paper detailing the financial constraints which would be faced under independence. ­Secondly, they will point to the powers that SNP ministers already have to combat the cuts but which, they claim, are deliberately being ignored for political reasons. One MSP declares: “It’s the cynicism of it that gets to me. They have the ability to mitigate the impact of these cuts. But they are not doing that because they hope that, if people suffer, then it’ll make them more likely to back independence. Until there’s breath left in my body, we’ll be going after them on this.”

Of course, not all this extra chunk of voters can be easily categorised. New ­voters will include the 16 and 17-year-olds given the franchise for the first time, as well as people from all social classes pushed out the door due to the importance they attach to the referendum. For both campaigns, reaching them presents a massive logistical challenge.

The political parties affiliated to each campaign have their own databases mapping supporters – but they are insufficient for the task in hand. With as many as three million people to contact, the Better Together camp has set itself a ­target this year of contacting one million of them this year. Last week, as part of that drive, it ­issued 300,000 text messages, linking people to a video opinion poll. The details of those who respond can be banked for the rest of the campaign.

On the other side, the Yes Scotland campaign plans soon to send a personal newsletter to every single home in the country. Both sides are also building up grassroots organisations; Better Together says it has 130 local groups, and Yes Scotland 150, which will now be tasked with spreading the word in local communities. A Yes Scotland campaigner notes: “This might not be about social media quite so much. It’s about peer-to-peer discussions in the local benefit office or at pensioner groups.”

But when these missing voters have been found, cajoled and then have finally had their say, is there any evidence they are likely to plump for independence? The Yes side argues that logic is on their side. “It will be the side that enthuses and excites and motivates people which will win next year,” says one. “With us, people get the chance to vote for something, not against. It’s aspirational.”

Psychologically, they argue, people approaching the polling booth for the first time in years will be keen to give them a whirl. But the numbers at the moment suggest the missing million may beg to differ. The most recent Ipsos Mori poll – which showed support for independence at 34 per cent and support for the UK at around 55 per cent – already factors in many of them. The percentage of respondents who said they were absolutely certain to vote came to 73 per cent.

Meanwhile, though the 2012 Social Attitudes Survey – the country’s most thorough analysis of opinion – found some difference in attitudes between those who vote and those who don’t, it was not a huge gap. (Those people who didn’t vote in last year’s council elections supported the UK over independence by 57 per cent to 24 per cent, compared to the total figure of 65 per cent to 23 per cent.) It suggests that, for those scunnered with politics, the appeal of independence as an escape route from austerity Britain is not cutting through. Or, as one Labour MSP puts it: “People don’t link what’s happening to their benefits to the solution of independence. They’re just focused on how to get through today and tomorrow and next week.”

For the pro-independence side, the challenge is to spell out the case for a different path more clearly, for – in the words of a pro-UK figure – “a don’t know is a vote no”. The door is closing already, with so many people, even those who don’t normally vote, already having made up their minds. But back in Easterhouse, Thomas Hunter offers a glimmer of hope for Salmond and Co. “It’s difficult to know what to think. You keep being told one thing and then another. I’ll probably spend 500 days thinking about it and then decide on the morning itself.” It’s a comment to ­terrify the life out of the campaigns hoping to nail down support. The hunt for Scotland’s missing million is on.«

Twitter: @EddieBarnes23