Labour big beasts ‘hauled No camp back from brink’

Gordon Brown made an emotional plea for the Union in the days leading up to the vote. Picture: JP
Gordon Brown made an emotional plea for the Union in the days leading up to the vote. Picture: JP
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THE decisive win for No comes less than a fortnight after a faltering Better Together campaign appeared to be heading for defeat.

When the No side surrendered what had been a double digit lead to leave the Yes side two points in front on 51 per cent, the unthinkable suddenly seemed distinctly possible and independence within Alex Salmond’s grasp.

Senior No campaign figures appeared to be in the throes of panic, with the leaders of the main Unionist parties at Holyrood accused of making last ditch and desperate offers of more Holyrood powers to Scots in a bid to stave off a vote for independence.

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Better Together, a cross party alliance, seemed badly rattled with less than a fortnight to referendum day and in an unprecedented move the UK leaders of the Westminster parties stayed away from Prime Minister’s questions in the House of Commons to allow them to make campaign visits to Scotland to save the Union.

Mr Salmond, by contrast, appeared as a self-styled international statesman in waiting, who was mobbed by fans rock star-style during campaign walkabouts at airports, shopping centres and factories.

But as the results of the historic vote became clear, Better Together had managed to come off the ropes and win so convincingly that the SNP has been thrown into crisis with the resignation of Mr Salmond and question marks over the party’s continued dominance of Scottish politics

Senior Conservatives in Better Together suggested the dramatic “late” interventions by Labour big hitters such as Gordon Brown and John Reid had helped save an ailing No campaign from defeat.

Mr Brown had made an emotional plea to Scots to “hold their heads high” and to “stand up and be counted” by rejecting independence as he delivered a passionate speech at an anti-independence rally in Glasgow on the eve of the referendum. Labour MSP Richard Baker - a director of Better Together - is in no doubt that the game changer was the shift in the campaign that saw figures such as Mr Brown taking on a greater role with a whistle stop speaking tour and “galvanising” his party’s supporters who were attracted by independence.

He suggested “Team Labour” had been decisive in turning around the campaign in the closing stages, when the No campaign had appeared to be haemorrhaging Labour support to Yes, with a real risk of defeat on Thursday.

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Mr Baker, who is also Labour’s Westminster candidate for Aberdeen North, said: “The SNP was absolutely relentless in chasing Labour voters and we had campaigns like Labour for independence. That’s why it was vital that prominent Labour figures took up key roles.

“There’s no doubt that Gordon Brown played a pivotal role and clearly his speech on Wednesday was a huge factor in galvanising Labour supporters. Behind the scenes, there was a real team Labour effort.

“There’s no doubt that both Better Together and Labour realised that the key battleground was Labour supporters. In the last couple of weeks that approach was really recognised.”

Mr Baker accepted that Labour had lost sections of its support to the Yes side, but said the party’s heavyweights such as Mr Brown had effectively rescued the No campaign.

He added: “Clearly there are some challenging results for us, but given where we were two weeks ago it’s clear that leading figures in the Labour campaign stepped up to the plate.”

The SNP and Yes campaign leadership repeatedly accused Labour of being in “bed with the Tories” in Better Together campaign in a series of attacks that appeared to have resonance with some left leaning voters.

Nationalists criticised Better Together over its Tory links and for promoting the UK government’s stance on issues such as opposition to a formal currency union.

Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said Better Together had needed to draft in Labour’s big beasts to prevent the “leakage” of the party’s support to the Yes side and pull back the poll deficit.

Mr Fraser said: “The YouGov poll that came out the weekend before last that showed Yes had a slight lead was a real jolt to the No campaign and in particular highlighted that many traditional Labour voters were leaning towards Yes.

“There was an urgent need for the No campaign to stop this leakage of Labour support and who better to address this but Gordon Brown - a politician who has a great deal of respect in Scotland.

“Gordon Brown’s late intervention and his powerful case for keeping the UK together was undoubtedly very significant in meaning Labour supporters fell behind the No vote.”

Tory MSP Alex Johnstone claimed Labour’s big names had helped turnaround the Better Together campaign in the closing stages, but said a speech by Prime Minister David Cameron days before polling day had also shifted opinion.

He said: “The dynamic of Scottish politics since the 2011 Holyrood elections has been about the SNP moving its focus into Labour’s heartlands and trying to outflank Labour.

“People in Better Together realised that Labour had to rise to that challenge in places like Glasgow and Dundee and the work done by Gordon Brown and John Reid, that had already been started by Alistair Darling, had a real effect in galvanising Labour support on 18 September.

“David Cameron was also not the toxic influence on the campaign Yes claimed he would be, which shows a Conservative prime minister can come to Scotland and be believed.”