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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The legacy of the referendum must be a fairer Scotland

It's at risk of becoming something of a cliche, but the independence referendum really was an amazing example of the power of democracy. As one voter put it, "It's the most incredible weapon for change you can have, being able to vote. Who needs a gun when you have a pencil?"

The depth and degree of political engagement has been unlike anything I have seen in forty years of political activity. In workplaces, pubs and caf├ęs you could hear snippets of conversations about economics, defence, banks, culture, identity and much more. It was facilitated by more analysis of Scottish issues than we have ever had. Governments and public bodies played a role, as did think tanks and academia. I would pay particular credit to the ESRC funded 'Future of Scotland and the UK' project that provided the most objective source of analysis.

The traditional media came in for a lot of criticism, largely unfairly in my view as social media always underplays the sourcing role traditional media plays in developing a story. I remember a discussion with the Editor of a national newspaper over a year ago, when we both wondered if his paper could keep up the level of content for a further year. They did, with a good balance of journalistic content and opinion columns.

What was new about this campaign, was the extent to which social media facilitated debate. The array of blogs and shorter discourse on platforms like Twitter and Facebook was remarkable. Of course there was a lot of complete nonesense here as well, but the same could be said of government publications!

In addition we rediscovered the value of a traditional form of engagement, the meeting. Trade unions, churches, community organisations and the campaigns themselves organised many events that allowed a collective engagement in the debate. This provided the basis for further conversations the following day.

For the campaign organisations it was a mixed picture. Better Together came in for a lot of criticism, but in fairness it was never going to be easy to enthuse activists for a 'No' message. None the less, the absence, until late in the day, of a more positive case for the UK was a huge mistake. Too many of their strategists addressed the campaign as if it was a normal election. Referenda are different, in this case with at least equal numbers of Labour supporters voting Yes as SNP supporters voted No. As many of us advised, Labour should have run their own campaign. It may not, as the PM put it, be about the 'effing Tories', but that was always going to be the Yes campaign's best card, and the creation of Better Together played right into their hand. In addition, as the polls narrowed, a few political leaders might have wished they had also taken the advice of the main trade unions that a second question on devolution would have enabled a more positive campaign.

Not that negative campaigning was limited to Better Together. The Yes campaign frequently rewrote UK political history and the NHS scare story was the lowlight of their own 'project fear'. While there were examples of abuse on both sides, twice as many No voters felt personally threatened as Yes voters. The enthusiasm for the cause on the Yes side got the better of many of their activists, particularly on social media. I'm always happy to have a debate, but all too often exchanges quickly degenerated into at best slogans and at worse personal abuse. In the end, as many of my non-political friends said, they did a lot of damage to the Yes campaign. Illustrated by a tweet yesterday from the Wings over Scotland blog, "Honestly, if you voted No yesterday, fuck you forever."

A real positive from the referendum was increased voter registration, at last getting us back to were we used to be in Scotland before the Poll Tax undermined the electoral register. And of course that led to a record turnout. At the outset of the campaign, I was sceptical of claims that the turnout would reach 85%. I am very happy to have been proved wrong on that point.

Much of that registration came from the most disadvantaged areas of the country. The wider Yes campaign did a good job here, even if their shopping list of policies were incompatible and contradicted each other. Every concern, every question was dismissed with 'we will sort that out after the referendum'. Or as Ewan Morrison put it, "The Yes camp have created an illusion of a free space in which everything you’ve ever wanted can come to pass – overnight". They offered no credible political roadmap to achieve even the few goals they could agree on.

It may not have been, 'all about Alex Salmond and the SNP', but that was the realistic offer on the table. The White Paper was strong on vision and process, but much weaker on substance. The exception was their best policy on Trident, but on issues like the currency, energy, pensions and taxation, it all looked a bit ill thought out. As one SNP strategist put it to me before the referendum, 'there has been an intellectual laziness in the SNP about what independence really means'. The biggest weakness was promoting a Nordic vision while claiming you could cut taxation. Scandamerica was never going to be credible.

For the No campaign, constantly harping on about the risks of independence sounded a bit thin to those who have little to risk. This is reflected in the Yes vote in areas like Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, West Dumbarton and Dundee. This is less about independence, but rather a reflection of an anti-politics that has shown itself in support for UKIP in England and the far-right across Europe. This is the big challenge for Labour who need to make tackling inequality the central objective of their policy in 2015 and 2016. When business leaders and the Governor of the Bank of England are talking about low pay and inequality, Labour needs to be radical in its response. Labour must campaign in 2015 and 2016 as insurgents and not as part of the political establishment.

Getting devolved powers right is an important part of the process and we will no doubt be discussing this in detail, not just in Scotland, in the months ahead. However, we should not lose sight of the political objectives. Powers for a purpose is where UNISON and others started this debate, and that remains the central issue today.

The lasting legacy of this referendum campaign should be the broad political consensus across Scotland on the need to create a fairer more equal society. If we can achieve real progress on that issue, then the time and effort so many Scots put into the referendum will have been worthwhile.



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