The YES Scotland campaign was launched two weeks ago by an array of actors, politicians and grassroots activists. Quite possibly the most significant long term development has been the launching of a new petition/ declaration in support of independence. The target is to achieve one million signatures in advance of the referendum and to use the list as a tool to contact and motivate activists.
The database will be very useful, although personally I think that setting a target of one million signatures was a mistake. This is not least because it is an incredibly ambitious target and after one week there were only 15000, half of which came within the first 24 hours. The focus on attaining one million signatures is misguided also because it assumes all supporters have internet access and would be comfortable giving their details to a central campaign office. It’s also a misleading indicator of the levels of support for the policy. The main reason for this is because despite not having a vote I am able to sign it from my flat in North London. There is no block on people with more than one email address signing it multiple times (for example I have 4 functioning email addresses that I use for different reasons.)
The campaign has chosen to launch with over 2 years left to the referendum because this gives more time to focus on building a strong grassroots movement. This is vital because it will have to be inclusive to be successful. The relationship between the YES campaign and the SNP will be very important in determining how successful the campaign is. The campaign has to be broader than the SNP, even if every SNP voter supported independence (which is not the case) then that would still not amount to a majority of the country (less than 25% of those eligible to vote.) The response has been to ensure that Patrick Harvie has played a prominent role and to invite traditionally ‘old labour’ figures as Colin Fox and Dennis Canavan. How important are these people? The combined vote of the SSP and Greens may have only represented 4.8% of the electorate last year, 4.4% of which was the Greens, but in a referendum where every vote counts their influence could be decisive. Will the public see it as a genuine cross party and community based campaign? Only time will tell, although I’m not convinced that stunts such as the hosting of a vote on Scottish independence in the Scottish Parliament (in which all but 3 of the votes in favour came from SNP MSPs) does a great deal to show the breadth of the movement.
This is why it is important that Yes Scotland keeps a level of autonomy from the SNP. This will be hard to begin with as it was primarily instigated and funded by the SNP and it will be a while before it is able to function fully as a campaigning body. In contrast the NO campaign has every reason to ignore Yes Scotland for now and treat the referendum as a choice between the union and the specific policies of the SNP. One of the key tactics has been to raise a lot of structural questions about an independent Scotland and until now the SNP response has been a combination of uncertain assertions and a reminder that most policy decisions will be made after the next election. The problem with this is that when the SNP make claims on issues that most people deem central to the referendum (currency issues and relationship with the Bank of England) then they can be seen to be speaking for the wider YES campaign, at least for the time being.
At the moment the NO campaign is still functioning as a very loose party political coalition as opposed to a formal and structured campaign. The reason for this is obvious; the referendum is a numbers game and if the unionist parties communicate with their own voters and keep them onside then they will win. In theory the unionist parties do not even have to attract a single new supporter to win the referendum; all that they have to do is inspire and mobilise the ones that they already have. In this sense they would be well advised to keep the approach that they already have and avoid the obvious pitfalls that would come from the three parties routinely campaigning together under an overtly unionist banner. By keeping the structure as a loose collection of party political campaigns that is complemented by individual endorsements from figures as diverse as Alex Ferguson and George Galloway and stunts such as the release of well timed survey data they can attack the SNP from all angles.
Closer to the time the NO campaign will need to formalise a bit more, but unlike the YES campaign there is no imperative to do that yet. The smart approach would be for them to delay this as much as possible and to avoid having the campaign defined by any one person. The argument they should make should be based on the fact that Britain means different things to all people and therefore there is not one overarching reason for the union aside from vague premonitions of unity. There is also no need for any formal NO campaign to take one united position on devo-plus or to wed themselves to the status quo, instead they should take the firmly non committal position that all of these points will be open for discussion as soon as the referendum is over.
So this is where I believe we are. We have seen the emergence of one formal campaign that desperately needs to prove its breadth and one informal campaign which is more likely to meet in Alasdair Darling’s flat than it is to meet in public. I would expect this to be the case for some time. Expect the YES campaign to organise more endorsements from well known women and members of the business community (who were far too few at the launch) and to start trying to develop the essential grassroots networks in every town across the country. The NO campaign will continue to focus on the economy as opposed to any particularly emotional arguments. If the NO campaign can paint Yes Scotland as being a front for Alex Salmond and the SNP as a group of naive fanatics then they can turn the campaign into a battle of misplaced hearts against sensible and realistic heads and they will be half way towards victory.