Matt Qvortrup: BP boss could boost Yes camp

Group chief executive of BP, Bob Dudley addresses the CBI. Picture: Getty
Group chief executive of BP, Bob Dudley addresses the CBI. Picture: Getty
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‘Elite’ people endorsing policies often backfires, as average voters know ‘stars’ don’t care about the same things they do, writes Matt Qvortrup

In 2003, while I was research director at the Initiative and Referendum Institute in Washington DC, I received a phone-call from a journalist from the Wall Street Journal who was writing a story about the Swedish referendum on the euro, which took place that year. It wasn’t going too well for those making a case for Swedish entry into the single currency.

“The former chairman of Volvo, Pehr Gyllenhammer, has said that it would create instability if Sweden votes no”, said the journalist. And, she continued: “Now it seems that people are more hostile than ever before. Why is that?”

Fast forward 11 years and I was asked if Bob Dudley’s intervention in the Scottish referendum would have the same effect.

Watching the news, Alistair Darling – if we are to believe media reports – took the businessman’s endorsement as proof that Scotland would be worse off outside the UK. And a similar statement by the outgoing Sainsbury’s boss Justin King seemed to many to suggest that Better Together had pulled off a minor political coup. The endorsement was reported as a hammer-blow to Yes Scotland.

Based on the evidence from Sweden and elsewhere, Better Together and their sympathisers should not uncork the champagne bottles just yet. Indeed, they should feel a bit concerned.

What happened in Sweden was probably this: Ordinary voters listened to the Volvo boss’s statement and reasoned that they had very little in common with the businessman. To be sure, Gyllenhammer was a successful and impressive entrepreneur, but he did not share the concerns of the common Swede. Gyllenhammer did not have to worry about his pension, his mortgage or his overdraft. So, his views were of no importance to the average “Svenson” – the Swedish equivalent of Joe Bloggs .

That voters vote against the positions taken by the captains of industry is so common that it almost amounts to a sociological law. American political scientists have developed a theory that suggests that voters in referendums base their decisions on “cues” or “information short-cuts”.

Voters do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the issues, nor have they got time to study the small print of policy documents. But they know who they trust and who they distrust. And the individuals the voters trust are not the rich and powerful.

Here is another example: In 1972 Denmark held a referendum on whether to join the EEC (the precursor of the EU). The Danish prime minister, the Social Democrat Jens Otto Krag, considered making an address to the voters, but thought the better of it. Instead the yes campaign put advertisements in the newspapers, in which a fictional housewife expressed her fears that prices would go up in the event of a “no” vote. The campaign was known as the “Price of a No” campaign.

Almost overnight the polls improved for the proponents and the result was a resounding “yes”.

Why? Probably because the voters could identify with and shared the same concerns as the fictional housewife.

Better Together should consider this before they line up more business leaders. For the evidence that endorsements by prominent business leaders alienate voters is not just a Scandinavian phenomenon.

In 1988, in a referendum on consumer rights in the American state of California, trial lawyers and insurance companies stood to lose if the regulations were introduced. One of the chairmen of one of the largest insurance companies expressed concern that a yes vote would lead to higher premiums and economic uncertainty.

What is also interesting in the Californian example is that the no side spent an eye-watering $41 million against a modest $1.2m for the yes side. And yet the latter pulled off a 60-40 win on polling day.

Surveys carried out later suggested that voters decided to vote yes when they heard that the captains of industry were against the proposal. The actual arguments were of no importance to the voters. What mattered was politics by association. By being associated with – what was perceived to be – out-of-touch businessmen who did not share the plight of the voters, the battle was lost.

The same could well be the case in Scotland. That an American CEO of an English-based energy company expresses his “personal opinion”, is not likely to convince the voters in Arbroath or Aberfoyle, let alone in Inverness or Inverurie.

Voters will be swayed by emotion, but if they are to listen to arguments these have little effect if they are expressed by individuals who are seen to be out of touch. That an English businessman like Justin King intervenes in the debate is almost a godsend for Alex Salmond. What better proof that Better Together is a front for “English” – read Tory – interests? Such a spin is crude, inaccurate and politically below the belt. But in the bare-knuckle fight that a referendum is, we can be sure that this argument will be made by Yes Scotland. The intervention by Bob Dudley – whether it was orchestrated or not – was ill-advised and will almost certainly damage Better Together.

One of the fatal mistakes often made in referendums is that well-funded and politically well-connected campaigns rely on elite endorsements. But members of the elite, whether they are pop-stars, footballers, politicians or businessmen have one thing in common: they do not have to struggle with the same problems as ordinary voters. For this reason, the support of the rich and famous is often a strong signal to the average voter that his or her interest is best served defying the businessmen’s dire warnings.

If one were to give advice to Better Together and to Yes Scotland it is this: the side that addresses the concerns of the average voters will win – not the side that happens to be supported by CEOs of large multinational companies.

• Matt Qvortrup’s book, Referendums and Ethnic Conflict, is published by University of Pennsylvania Press