THEY are the hidden hands in the push for independence. Eddie Barnes speaks to the people at the helm of the campaign machine.
In the boardroom of the Yes Scotland offices in Glasgow’s city centre, leafing through a well-thumbed exercise book filled with scribbles and jottings, one of the campaign team is showing a simple graph which plots the 500-day path from now to the creation of an independent Scottish state.
It isn’t complicated. The graph charts a rising diagonal line from left to right. The top right-hand corner marks victory next year. The left-right axis of the graph, says Ian Dommett, the cmpaign’s director of marketing, denotes information that people will need over that time.
“People have to have the information on which they can make a decision. We have to create a campaign that delivers people to that point…” he points to the right hand side of the graph… “on September 18th.” However, information alone won’t win. The vertical axis, says Dommett, is “the emotional thing”.
And to win, the campaign needs to ensure that, based on the information they get, people are given the confidence to take the plunge. “There is no point in everyone saying, ‘Yeah, I got your information but it didn’t convince me to vote,’ ” he says. On the floor of the office is an example of the emotional case: a poster the campaign is working on which declares “Great Things Start With Yes”.
“We will deliver you all the information you need in order to vote Yes, but unless emotionally we have convinced you, firstly to believe it, and secondly to act upon it, we will lose,” Dommett adds.
The Yes Scotland campaign headquarters is on Hope Street – a symbolic home, as chief executive Blair Jenkins likes to say. A former BBC and STV news executive, he is not just leading his first campaign, he is involved in the first he has ever fought. He has had to contend with plenty of criticism that Yes is all a bit “nicey-nicey” as one SNP figure puts it. But his staff clearly like him. And one local pro-independence organiser who hosted him recently, notes: “People like the fact he isn’t a politician.”
Jenkins’ latest theme is prosperity (it is the third string of the campaign’s message, along with democracy and fairness). His message this weekend is that while Scotland is certainly wealthy enough to become independent, “what we need is the wherewithal and the self-confidence to take our future into our own hands”.
At HQ, the campaign is trying to do that. First and foremost, there is the ground operation. The aim is to turn the campaign into one that feels like “yours”, the team says.
Former SNP MSP Shirley-Ann Somerville, who is running Yes Scotland’s community effort, reels off the stats: 100 events last weekend alone, including nine public meetings, with between 100 and 200 people at each. “They’ve been standing room only and the interesting thing is we are reaching out to the undecideds,” she says. People are “wanting to understand” what’s going on. One event went on until past ten o’clock as the questions continued.
Social media is equally important. Digital head Stuart Kirkpatrick says that a graphic advertising Scotland’s economic health last week was viewed online by 160,000 people. He quotes a revealing statistic: more than two million Scots over the age of 14 are on Facebook. It is a remarkable campaign tool.
This ground war – which, the campaign argues, is running separate from an air war dominated by stubbornly low poll ratings and pressure on the SNP over what the plan actually is – gives them confidence.
“The tectonic plates are shifting,” says campaign strategist Stephen Noon – who is also referred to by colleagues as resident agony aunt (part of his job is to answer people’s questions on independence). The basis for people saying No, he argues, is “very, very weak” because people’s negativity to independence is based on flimsy assumptions. “Once you can challenge that belief by providing information then the anchor for the No vote disappears. That doesn’t mean that it becomes a Yes overnight but it means they then become open to the arguments,” he says The prosperity’ campaign right now is a way of opening those people up.
And open they are, believes the team. Dommett notes: “There are very few people who have fundamentally sat down and said there is absolutely no justification for voting Yes and you’d be a fool if you did it.”
Noon points to research he says the campaign has done which asks people to rank their opinion on a scale of one to ten, where one is an absolute No and 10 is a definite. Slightly more than 50 per cent, he says, are between three and eight.
“Those are people who are essentially undecided,” he declares. An SNP commissioned poll today shows that, if the campaign can convince people Scotland will be fairer and better off, 35 per cent say they will be more likely to vote Yes (though 43 per cent said it would make no difference and they’d still vote No).
A kind of herd effect is also depressing the potential support at the moment, they add. Somerville says that when they turned up at the recent Scottish Trade Union Congress conference, support was there – but few were willing to jump out from the pack.
It is back to Dommett’s vertical axis and the need to turn sympathy and open-mindedness into confident support. He compares the shift required to the SNP’s rise since 2007. “A lot of people around my kitchen table were not confident to say they were going to vote SNP [in 2007] because they had never done it before. In 2011 it was far more open.”
The independence bandwagon is back where the SNP was in 2007. “People who might have thought they were at the Yes end of the spectrum were not really confident enough around drinks at Christmas to say, ‘Oh I’m Yes,’ because you weren’t yourself confident that you might be the only one in the room doing that.” Hence the campaign’s ambitious attempt to recruit 10,000 “ambassadors” who, it hopes, can build momentum behind support for independence and each recruit 100 converts.
However, as the campaign says, they will only get near a win if the questions can be answered. The evidence of the last two weeks, when it has been so badly buffeted by the currency controversy and the failure of the pro-independence campaign to provide a single response, makes that a moot point.
But the Yes Scotland team aims to turn the uncertainty back on the other side by aiming fire back at the way the UK is run. It isn’t independence versus the status quo, it argues. It is two different journeys we are being offered. And the Union path, they argue, doesn’t look that great.
“We’re not trying to make people believe something that isn’t true,” says Noon. “We are saying to people think about your experience. And then make your judgment.”
Saltires pinned up on the wall just about out-number Union flags. A poster at one desk reads: “Loose tweets sink fleets”. There are cardboard boxes full of leaflets, racks laden with T-shirts and drawers packed with “Better Together” pens. With 500 days to go until people vote, the campaign to keep the 300-year old union between Scotland and England, based in an anonymous back room on the north side of Glasgow’s grand Blythswood Square, is humming with activity.
The campaign director is Blair McDougall, a 34-year-old Glaswegian who plied his trade in London as a special adviser with the former Labour government but who has moved back home to run this, one of the biggest campaigning jobs in the country. McDougall comes with glowing references within Labour circles: one figure recalls meeting him for the first time in the 1999 Scottish Parliamentary elections when he was cutting his teeth in political campaigns. “You could see him keeping close to people there like Douglas [Alexander] and Ed Miliband and watching them, learning,” the source notes.
He is professional in his analysis of the campaign: sure the emotional, positive case for independence is there to be made, but there is a “gateway” you have to get through if you want to be heard, he says. You only get “permission” to make that case once the detailed, practical case has been firmed up. His view, unsurprisingly, is that it hasn’t. “This isn’t a new debate. People are fairly pragmatic about independence and they are not going to join hands and skip over the Caledonian Bridge unless they [the pro-independence side] have done the detailed case.”
The surprise of the campaign for him so far, he says, is just how “ill-prepared” the other side have been so far.
Two things might surprise outside observers about the Better Together campaign. First is the fact that it is really small. Only seven regular staffers work in the office. Second is their youth. The greybeard in the office is 37-year-old Rob Shorthouse, the campaign’s communications director (it’s a mark of the smallness of the Scottish political village that he used to work at the Scottish Government with Susan Stewart, the YesScotland communications chief).
Shorthouse works alongside the 23-year-old communications officer Ross MacRae, who has come from Labour student politics to run the campaign’s social media presence and its youth outreach. The campaign has recruited 120 youth representatives around the country whose job it is to spread the word to their peers. Nonetheless, won’t young people be turned off by a campaign that urges them to back old Britannia?
“There are two myths in this campaign,” he declares. “One is that the SNP does social media better than anyone. The other is that young people back independence more. Young people are not overly convinced by the SNP.” He adds: “Young people are not different to everyone else. They know how tough things are worldwide. They don’t want to cut off opportunities, they have friends who may want to go to England or Wales. They’re asking; why would we want to make things tougher for ourselves?”
Campaigning by social media may be the new front, but doorstep face-to-face traditional methods are still the key battleground. Better Together now says it has 200 local groups across the country, often based on the organisational roots of local political parties, but which – it says – are involving people who would not normally get interested in politics. One recent “national campaign weekend” involved 258 events, and the issue of a million leaflets, the campaign says.
A recent event in Linlithgow – sparked locally – had 50 people attending; one in Aberdeen last week had 100; not small numbers in the context of modern political participation (the Edinburgh campaign launched yesterday with campaigners claiming there were 600 people in the room).
Rob Murray, 24, who is in charge of the community organising for the team, and a Conservative supporter, notes: “I’ve been involved in a number of different campaigns but this is the first one where we haven’t had to push people into getting involved.”
He tells the story of an ex-serviceman from Shotts, near Glasgow, who turned up on the doorstep recently, and demanded he be given leaflets to issue to his neighbours.
Victoria Jamieson, 29, who liaises with unions and voluntary groups, says there is already a basic understanding across sectors that this is not a judgment on the SNP government, but a massive “one-way-decision”. She is also organising the Better Together Women’s group, a key area of strength for the pro-UK campaign. Polls show women are far more likely to vote No next year than men. The reason? “Women are perhaps more hard-headed about it and they are not going to vote for something unless they have the evidence for it. They haven’t had that yet,” she argues.
McDougall says he expects the campaign to remain focused on the nuts and bolts questions around independence for the next few months. He believes the SNP has made a “big strategic mistake” in not publishing its white paper on independence (it will not come until November). “It’s just a political device for not answering questions,” he says. The mistake is being borne out because people are already demanding information. “We did some recent focus group work and we asked people loads of questions. We thought that there would be vague concepts coming through but actually people had an incredibly detailed knowledge of things like the EU row.”
He adds: “I think people are desperate for facts. They are focused on the debate much more than people give them credit for. They pay attention. They have an understanding that this isn’t an issue that someone else is going to make.”
The fact the SNP hasn’t answered questions, he says, means that the big, emotional, can-do appeal he anticipates it making may fall on deaf ears. And nor, he says, does he expect people to get carried away.
“I think it’s surprised me how pragmatic people are. I would have expected there to be a greater amount of identity and emotion. People are pretty hard headed which is pretty encouraging.” «