Can the Scottish Independence Referendum refresh the parts other political campaigns can’t reach?
The long haul of campaigning has begun in the Scottish Independence referendum. The YES campaign will be holding street stalls throughout Scotland over the coming weekend asking people to sign the YES Declaration. Alasdair Darling ups the negative anti of the No campaign (ok,ok I know it’s not ‘called’ the No campaign but the allegedly cuddly Better Together) by criticising the SNP currency union position.
The question though that interests me is, putting aside the political personalities at the head of each campaign, how will the debate and campaign reach out to the wider public? Will it reach those parts of the electorate that generally do not participate in the regular electoral process? And if it does will it refresh the parts other political campaigns can't reach?
The SNP cite evidence from the Quebec referendum to show turnout (1995 94%, 1980 85%) for that plebiscite was considerably higher than what was normal for both Quebec provincial (56.5% in 2008 Provincial elections) or Canadian Federal elections (Quebec 73% in 1997 Federal General Election). That suggests that the referendum campaigns both for and against motivated Quebeckers not normally engaged in politics. As an aside it suggests that people can engage with a constitutional question more easily than with a choice based on policy options put forward by differing political parties.
What form will that campaign to engage, communicate and motivate the usually vote shy electorate take? The SNP successfully used their Activate voter identification system to win a historic majority in 2011 and the YES Campaign uses the appropriately named NationBuilder.com platform to build a database of supporters, volunteers and funders. Lessons have been learned from US political campaigns from Howard Dean to Barack Obama. The No campaigners are to use another US developed online campaign platform - Blue State Digital - to build their campaign.
In this digital age with print media – newspapers – declining daily in their influence and reach online campaigning is the way to go particularly to engage with the mass of voters. However there are the digitally excluded and this is where it is likely to get interesting. With the YES campaign already embarking on a series of ‘street-stalls’ across our communities from Portsoy to Chesser (there were stalls at both the Leith Gala and the Meadows Festival) this essential face-to-face engagement has started. I’m sure that at these stalls people will pitch up sign the declaration and then tell campaigners that they have not voted before ever. They will be the tip of the iceberg. Behind them will be the 50% or so who habitually don’t vote and not necessarily for any political reason. They just don’t vote. They may sign up as a supporter of the Yes or the No campaigns but will they actually vote when 14 October 2014 comes round? The answer to this is unknown and will to some extent rely on two things 1) The media campaign and how that penetrates the world view of those generally disengaged citizens 2) The quality of the engagement and communication that the campaigns extend to individual citizens and in particular hard to motivate citizens and communities.
Now political anoraks who are signed up to the ‘scientific’ campaign model will know that political parties maintain campaign databases that tell them not only voting intentions gleaned from door to door and telephone canvassing along with survey returns but also who has voted in particular elections (note: but not how they voted). Through use of all this data targeting of campaigning is developed and used often with success. One concern that I’ve always had, while understanding the power and efficacy of targeting messages and resources, is that habitual non-voters are often excluded from campaigns and therefore part of the political process. It then becomes an electoral and participative vicious circle. Apart from a mass leaflet (and sometimes they won’t even get them!) these electors are largely excluded from campaigns. They are unlikely to ever see a political canvasser or candidate at their door as they are seen as hard work to engage and motivate. Political parties focus more attention on voters and areas where citizens are more attentive to their ‘democratic duty’.
While to some extent it is almost understandable that political parties act in such a manner when campaigning – they generally have limited finance for local campaigns (and there are limits on election spending which is a factor in campaign strategies) along with that they have only so many activists to get out there on the doors.
The kind of campaigning that could and should develop as we see the referendum campaign roll out has the opportunity to break out of the norms of electoral campaigning logic. As stated above the appearance of YES campaign ‘street stalls’ could be an early indication of that. Their purpose of recruiting supporters and opening dialogue with citizens on the issue is reminiscent of the Anti-Poll-Tax stalls I cut my political teeth on – while those had an aim in gathering signatures of those opposing the tax they also formed a bridge between the political activist and the citizen in opening a dialogue and from that engagement. Similar activity and engagement occurred during the 1997 YES/YES campaign for a Scottish Parliament. However the turnout in that referendum was not high, suggesting that the political parties did not really move out of their usual campaigning modes. I do remember as part of the local cross party Scotland Forward group a Labour activist declaring that they would struggle to work Granton and Pilton and could the SNP help out there. Needless to say Labour managed Trinity and Broughton. I have no criticism of Labour over this admission but it serves of an illustration of how some areas can become excluded.
Another issue to be tackled by the campaigners will be pockets of residents not registered for the vote. There has been a growing trend in non-registration in recent years and it is unclear whether steps like individual registration will make any change in this trend – my view is that it won’t.
What plans beyond ‘street stalls’ do campaigners have to reach out into communities dominated by the disengaged? Will these electors become engaged in this campaign? Will they cast their vote in 2014 one way or another? Will there be a surge in registration of voters? These are challenges to the campaigns on both sides of the argument to show that on this issue, which both sides agree is important and will change Scotland forever, they have the will and ability to reach out, engage with and motivate this section of the public. There could be a bonus for the body politic if they do.
Rob Munn has been a political activist since 1986 (do the maths!), a candidate in Council and Parlaimentary campaigns, a campaign organiser and has been a Councillor for Leith 1996-2003 & 2007-2012.