As Scotland’s decision day nears ‘undecideds’ hold key
The SNP is hoping that those who traditionally don’t vote will come out in numbers on September 18th
Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond holds a Q&A session with youngsters during a visit to the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow
For more than two years the debate on Scottish independence has raged: often bitter, frequently contradictory and sometimes confusing.
Over the last couple of weeks, it has, however, ebbed a little – partly because of the summer holidays usually prompted by the arrival of the Glasgow Fair holiday in late July. it has marked a moment of relative calm before forces are marshalled for the final weeks of campaigning running up to September 18th, when voters will be faced with a straight Yes/No.
Just one of the nearly 70 opinion polls – some of them frankly questionable – of the last couple of years has put the “Yes” side ahead, but the gap between the sides varies widely.
One of the most recent, a TNS BMRB poll published last week, highlights the key group to be targeted in the final weeks: the undecided.
According to the pollsters, a quarter still do not know how they will vote - an extraordinarily high figure, if accurate, so late in the campaign.
Some of these voted in the past for Scottish Labour but switched allegiance in the 2011 Holyrood elections when the Scottish National Party made significant gains. However, the most important group of all are those who have never voted. In 2011, just four in 10 voted across Glasgow with just 35 per cent doing so in Glasgow Provan.
On September 18th, however, the turn-out is expected by both sides – Yes Scotland on the pro-independence side, “Better Together” for “No” – to be twice that number. If so, polling companies will struggle.
Much of the elusive cohort live in “the schemes”, the council estates in Scotland’s central belt , Glasgow and Edinburgh and the places in between, that have often stood as a byword for poverty. Ignored by Labour for decades, which was guaranteed victory without them, the group lies at the centre of the Scottish National Party’s belief that “Yes” can win.
The argument is that they have nothing in the Scotland that now exists so they have nothing to lose.
On Thursday, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond made a Braveheart-style call to such voters, declaring Glasgow – once the Second City of Empire – as “Freedom City”.
Labour remains the largest party in Glasgow local government, holding double the number of council seats of the SNP. It should give Labour a reach that the latter does not have, but in this campaign it may not.
DisputeDivisions with Labour in London have not helped, partly the dispute over how much extra devolution should be offered if Scotland does reject independence. Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont wanted to offer more than Labour in London. Labour headquarters is fearful of the consequences more devolution could have on English opinion.
Equally, Labour leader, Ed Miliband’s decision not to distance himself from the British Government’s caps on welfare benefits has not gone down well in such districts.
The referendum is not simply a question about social class, or wealth, if both do partly explain the voting intentions of many. Support for independence, according to the British Election Study, is highest among supervisors, small business owners, assembly lines workers, along with waiters and cleaners.
By contrast, the No vote is strongest among so-called intermediate workers, secretaries or computer operators; while senior managers are the most opposed of all. “Voters. . . are divided by class, (but) they aren’t falling along the same working/middle class division that has traditionally structured party competition in the UK,” says Jon Mellon of Oxford’s Nuffield College.
The battle to get voters on the register, one that is being best fought by the SNP and others on the “Yes” side, is not over. People can sign up to vote until September 2nd. The deadline for postal voting – increasingly popular in British elections – runs out the following day; though such ballot papers will be sent out to those already registered from August 26th.
However, there is no guarantee that the SNP’s judgment is right. It believed that voters aged between 16 and 18 would form a phalanx behind the Yes vote. So far, the evidence suggests that they have not been persuaded; perhaps believing, as 18-year-old Shona Munro put it, that nationalism is “as outdated as dial-up Internet or cassette tapes”.
By contrast, their slightly older peers in their 20s and 30s are strongly on the Yes side; though support for independence trails off significantly among the older the voter questioned.
His self-denying ordinance not to trumpet the independence case during the Commonwealth Games – broken by his “Freedom City” remark – is one that few believed he ever intended to honour. If he is guilty, however, of some cheap flag-waving, Prime Minister David Cameron’s presence in Scotland this week highlights flaws on the other side.
He visited the Shetlands, the first prime minister to do so in 34 years. Margaret Thatcher came once in 1989. Ted Heath did so once in the early seventies.
Given the importance of North Sea oil to the British Exchequer over the years, the Shetlands could reasonably have expected greater attention. It is not the only place in Scotland that could say that.
Mark Hennessy is London Editor