Leaders: SNP targets converts|Compassion benefits

MSP Angela Constance and MSP Shona Robison during the SNP Conference. Picture: PA Wire
MSP Angela Constance and MSP Shona Robison during the SNP Conference. Picture: PA Wire
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AT THE moment there are two key groups of Scottish voters who, according to the polls, will decide the outcome of the independence referendum in five months’ time. Both those groups were directly targeted by Alex Salmond yesterday when he gave a clever and generally well-judged speech to the SNP’s spring conference in Aberdeen, the final formal meeting of the party before the historic vote thisautumn.

The first group is women. Given that they represent 52 per cent of the entire population it seems perverse to regard women as a segment of opinion – they are a majority of the population. But this is not a group of voters attracted by the idea of Scotland leaving the UK and becoming an independent country. In last month’s ICM poll for this newspaper, only 34 per cent of women said they were going to vote Yes, compared with 44 per cent of men. And yet this level of female support was up three points on the previous month, while the level of male support had flatlined, suggesting to Yes strategists that women are becoming less sceptical as the campaign moves on.

Yesterday Salmond tried to take advantage of this trend. He had little in the way of new female-friendly policies to offer – the party has already maxed out its promises on childcare. So he promoted two female junior ministers to full Scottish cabinet status. Here Salmond has left himself open to the charge of opportunism. Both Shona Robison and Angela Constance are competent ministers, but does anyone think they would have been promoted to an expanded cabinet had the Yes camp not been struggling with the female vote? And was it just coincidental that their promotion came just days after the loss of a woman from David Cameron’s UK cabinet? (Another independence theme yesterday was how superior Scottish politics was to UK politics.) In other words, was this an illustration of principle or posturing?

The second group that could determine the referendum outcome is Labour voters. Again, this newspaper’s polling shows them generally sceptical about independence, but with an increasing number moving to the Yes camp. In politics, momentum is everything. When strategists see a shift in their favour by a particular sector of the electorate, the sensible thing to do is to try to accelerate that in some way. This is political strategy 1.01. Why tackle a group of voters who are proving hard to budge, when another group is already moving your way, with more potentially to follow if you give them a wee nudge? So, as with women, Labour supporters have this weekend been given some gentle encouragement to join the Yes cause.

The SNP here is abiding by a useful political adage: be where voters are, not where you would like them to be. It is no use standing on one side of a dividing line, telling people on the other side how wrong they are to be there. That has been a flaw in far too much of Yes campaigning over the past two years. Far better to step over that line, sympathise with your opponent on what it’s like to be in their shoes, and then take them by the arm and try to guide them back to your side. Will it work?

There may be a question mark about how receptive Labour voters will be to this approach. If they are already resistant to the blandishments of Nicola Sturgeon and Salmond on party politics, will they really take this enticement at face value? Or will they see it as cynical and – again – opportunistic? Then again, if just a small proportion of Labour voters are persuaded by this message it could be enough to tilt the campaign in the Yes camp’s favour.

Alex Salmond pressed two important buttons yesterday. We shall find out shortly if these buttons work. If they do, independence day will be a big step closer.

Implementation of Bedroom Tax and work capacity assessments flouts common decency

BEFORE considering a link between the UK government’s welfare reforms and a reported growth in welfare claimants considering suicide, some perspective is required. At the risk of stating the obvious, there were poor people before this government was elected. There were desperate and vulnerable people too, some of whom considered suicide because of a sense of utter hopelessness, sometimes allied to financial problems. And there were people who, for a number of reasons, were denied benefits by the authorities. So it is, perhaps, too easy to point to new cases of suicidal welfare claimants and say their agonies are a direct result of this government’s policies.

That said, however, the report by the Scottish Association of Mental Health (SAMH) that we highlight in our news pages today paints a distressing picture of people driven to the brink of taking their own lives in the face of new reforms, such as work capacity assessments and the so-called Bedroom Tax.

Whether or not these cases can be reliably attributed to UK government policy is of primary interest to opposition politicians. Those of us not engaged in the political battle would be better examining these individual cases of awful despair on their own terms, and seek ways to prevent them in future.

Thankfully the effects of the Bedroom Tax here in Scotland have now been effectively neutered by a rare – but welcome – agreement between the SNP and Labour to ensure it will not lead to anyone being forced to move house. This Dickensian imposition has no place in a civilised society in 2014, and the sooner it is scrapped in Scotland – the likely outcome regardless of the result of the independence referendum – the better.

The government’s work assessments are a substantially different matter. There is no question that adequate checks are required to ensure those receiving incapacity benefits are entitled to that money, and that reviews are occasionally necessary to see if that incapacity still pertains.

But what the SAMH report – and other evidence from other sources – shows is that there has been a lamentable lack of compassion in this process, driven more by targeted outcomes than by concern for the individual human beings involved.