Peter Jones: No campaign needs to be slicker

It is impossible to have tax cuts, more spending and lower energy bills without a rise in oil revenue. Picture: AFP
It is impossible to have tax cuts, more spending and lower energy bills without a rise in oil revenue. Picture: AFP
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Showing the benefits of the union, rather than what could be lost under independence, might be a better tactic, writes Peter Jones

Better Together’s campaigning, as nationalists continually point out, is wrong-headed. There will be nothing but woe, woe, and thrice woe if Scotland votes for independence, they say. And yet the opinion polls show that there has been a steady drift towards a Yes vote, despite all the warnings of doom. Time for a re-think, surely, which actually isn’t all that hard to do.

There are several reasons why the No campaign is not working. A prime reason is that it did not have much money until donations started flowing in January. Being a campaign, not a political party, Better Together could not get a bank to give them an overdraft and remains reliant on cash in the bank to pay the people it employs.

The money is now apparently rolling in and staff are being recruited. But that left it organisationally about six months behind the much better-funded Yes campaign whose team, while it went through some upheavals, has always had plenty of staff and appears to be functioning quite smoothly.

The Yes campaign, because it is backing a cause that stirs the blood and claims to offer the prospect of all sorts of exciting things, has very little trouble in assembling teams of people to do the necessary foot-slogging round doors and telephone canvassing.

The No campaign, on the other hand, is backing something which is taken by most people to be a fact of life. It is hard to get sufficiently worked up about that to get off the couch and go do all the long hours of face-to-face, or voice-to-voice, campaigning to match the Yes campaign, built as it is around the experienced activist army that the SNP has built up.

So I can’t help thinking that part of the reason Better Together has put out a lot of negative doom-laden warnings was to spur a lot of people to become activists. They claim that is now happening, but again, it looks to be about half a year behind the Yes campaign and struggling to catch up.

Interestingly, when you look at the No campaign literature, quite a lot of it puts out a positive-sounding message. A door-delivery newsletter, for example, puts on its front page a story based around Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis which says that as part of the union, every Scot benefits from higher public spending worth £1,200 per head more than the UK average.

That outbids the equivalent Yes newspaper promise of a “£600 indy bonus”. But the No message is buried in text under a dreary headline while the Yes message is an unmissable big black headline, a comparison which suggests that the No message is a bit diffident against a much more confident Yes assertion.

A second problem is that this hesitant Better Together positivity comes up against a media background which portrays everything coming from the No side as enormously negative. This stems from the Scotland Analysis series of papers produced by the UK government.

The papers are undeniably well researched and neither do they all make outrageous claims. They are, however, couched in negative terms. I put this to Alistair Carmichael, the Scottish Secretary, at a press briefing to accompany last week’s Scotland Analysis paper on energy.

He got quite hot under the collar at this, insisting the paper was entirely positive. Yet when you get to the heart of the paper, and you read that electricity bills will have to rise under independence in order to compensate for the loss of subsidy towards Scottish transmission costs and renewable generation from English and Welsh consumers, that is quite clearly a negative message.

It could be translated into a positive message – about how the union benefits Scots with lower electricity bills and a renewable energy industry. In fact, given that onshore wind power requires a subsidy per megawatt hour which is almost exactly the same as that which the UK government has agreed for new nuclear power, it is very hard to see how Scottish consumers or Scottish taxpayers could support a renewable industry as extensive as the Scottish government wants it to be.

This, however, is not what the paper says. And when you get a succession of these things saying that under independence, there will have to be spending cuts, tax rises, fewer jobs, less exports, poorer pensions, an emigration of big companies, higher food and energy bills, etc, credulity starts to be stretched.

People start to apply a disbelief discount to what they are being told. That doesn’t just apply to the latest indy warning, it applies to all of them. People start to think, if some of this is not true, it is probably all not true. The curious thing is that the same discount is not being applied to the Yes campaign and the SNP government. Their claims also invite disbelief. Under independence, there will be tax cuts (corporation tax and air passenger duty), spending increases (more childcare) more jobs (better economic management), better pensions, more exports (more support), no company will move out and lower energy bills.

But when you look at the overall background – a fiscal deficit which is now worse than that of the UK and likely to stay that way unless there is some magical increase in oil revenues which no non-aligned analyst is predicting – all of these things cannot be true.

The Yes campaign is not being disbelieved to the same extent because it has been much more selective in its detailed claims. Tax cuts and spending enticements are limited, the strategy presumably being that if you promise one cut, people will infer that applies to other taxes. The same applies to spending increases.

And they also stick to a few macro-economic messages, one being that an independent Scotland will be the 14th wealthiest country in the world, better than the UK at 16th in the OECD GDP per head tables. People hear that and think that the claim that independence will make everybody poorer must be wrong.

Better Together clearly has a lot of work to do if Yes is not to emerge the winner in September. A good start would be to turn round the negatives into positives about the benefits Scotland gains from being part of the union. That is, after all, what the union is supposed to be all about.