Reorientate Part 3: The work to be done

by | 1 Dec 2022

This is a democracy so if we're not winning people over to independence we're not winning. So why are we so obsessed with what we want and not what they want?

In Part One I looked at the history of how Scotland won its Parliament. In Part Two I argued that the post-2014 independence movement went in a very different direction and ended up a blind alley. I want to finish by trying to reset, have a look at where we are now and work out what the work remains to be done.

This is absolutely not comprehensive for loads of reasons. Most obviously there isn’t space and there is far, far too much to be said. Partly because I’ve not changed by views much since I published Within Our Grasp in 2019, a much more comprehensive take on what we need to do.

But also because I’m tired of this movement trying gainfully to discuss and come up with ideas and strategies only to see them deliberately derailed or woefully misappropriated by the SNP leadership. I have specific ideas and proposals that I don’t want to share until the independence movement is led by people who are interested in listening.

So let me organise the basics of what we need to do using an irritating mnemonic (I hate them but they’re all the rage…). Let me call it the ‘PRICE’. But first let me explain the goal. This is a hyper-fast run-through of the broad task, based on careful public attitude research work (though it is a little out of date).

We have about 50 per cent solid vote. Of the remaining 50 per cent, about 30 percentage points are lost to us, people who are as committed Unionists are we are independence supporters. Everything is to do with the remaining 20 per cent. We’re not going to get all of them – some tend towards the stronger pro-union side (but are less committed).

That leaves us something like about 15 per cent who are theoretically winnable and about 10 per cent are distinctly winnable. The important thing about this group is that when you do a full profile of them they are much closer to Yes voters than No voters. I get frustrated with this – everyone and their dog thinks that our next cohort is like some alien species we need to track down in the wild.

They’re no such thing. They look almost exactly like soft Yes voters. In fact when you do qualitative research they will often tell you that they basically want to be Yes voters. The not-quite-there cohort (as you should think of them) will actively tell you that they liked the positive 2014 pitch and want to believe it can work. But they had doubts that were just too big to get them to cross the road.

Our task is to ‘get them across the road’. They want to, they want to believe Scotland can be a successful independent country. They want to believe the future can be better than the past. But they want a different risk-reward balance, not because they want less reward but less risk.

Currency was the proxy. When we were asked what was Plan B on the currency, we blinked. They read this as evidence that we didn’t quite know what we were doing. They were actively telling us that they wanted to be persuaded with an optimistic case. None of them (none) said the barrier was their desire for the status quo.

That’s our task. Our task is to listen carefully to this group and hear what they’re actually saying. We need to offer them the positive future but back it up with whatever it takes to make them think we can deliver. If anyone tells you its about ‘aspirational voters afraid of change’ or ‘its about playing on people’s pride in being Scottish’, please tell them they are definitely wrong.

Once there (and only once we’re there); once we get as many of that 10 to 15 per cent as we can and for a sustained period, then we are in a position to go for it. The unionists are making a big mistake now. They’re saying that this is the trigger for a new referendum because they don’t think we can do it. They’re wrong. They have unlocked the door to us.

If we don’t take an interest in our target voters, why should they take an interest in us?

But please, please, don’t mistake that for the door being open. It is not. We have spent eight years looking for shortcuts. We’re doing it again. If only we can force people into polling stations as fast as possible then we’ll definitely win so let’s not think to much about our target voters and what they feel and think…

We have been plagued with false promises of shortcuts to independence ever since 2014. The promise that we can ‘win without working’ by creating a single democratic event, diving straight into it and crossing our fingers and that ‘someone somewhere somehow’ will just sort out all the difficult stuff will waste us the next decade. That is literally the very last thing we need to do.

First, we need to get our hands on the handle of that unlocked door and get it open before we try to walk straight through it. This is how to do it – here comes my annoying mnemonic…

P is for prepare

It is possible to win independence without a detailed plan for what it means – but it’s a long shot. Every piece of available evidence suggests this is key task one. We should set up a National Commission and try to recruit the most august advisory board possible to give it strong credibility. It needs to develop a clear, coherent, tested, persuasive explanation of how we deal with all the issues.

And it should also be reaching out to as many stakeholders as possible. It probably can’t build a large coalition of support immediately but it can engage with organisations and sectors on the issues it is working on to create relations and gradually build trust. Some can be won over, others can have their doubts assuaged and hostility reduced.

Being seen to do the work, being seen to engage and be open, being seen to be able to answer questions, being seen to try and build coalitions is all about credibility and confidence. No. More. Bluffing. And for goodness sake, give up on the idea that more data to prove ‘Scotland is brilliant’ is the same as explaining how someone’s pension will be safe.

R is for research

We must properly, seriously gather knowledge on the many possible voters that we can win over. There is not one discreet group of voters who will move over in one go. We need to have a much richer and more complex understanding of the specific barriers of different groups of people if we are going to be equipped to overcome those barriers.

We must take an awful lot more interest in the people we want to bring over to support independence. Lazy guesswork will not prepare us to lower the real barriers and nor will the repetition of vacuous slogans. If we don’t take an interest in our target voters, why should they take an interest in us? We need serious, professional public attitude research to guide us.

I is for inspire

And this is why I hate mnemonics, because I don’t mean inspire but ‘motivate’ (which doesn’t create a word). In the headlong-dash theory of Scottish independence the only thing that mattered was the democratic event. That would force people into polling stations, force them to engage. The hope was that forcing them to engage would, in and of itself, make them independence supporters.

Unless we’re back to kamikaze ‘don’t think, just charge’ approaches where we go clattering into battle with no plan and no idea how it is going to go, there are a lot of things we need to do first

That was bad thinking, pure confirmation bias, not strategy. We’re not going to get a recognised democratic event to ‘force’ people into polling stations now so we need to motivate (inspire) them to get engaged. Softly-softly, nothing-will-change won’t do that. We can scare them into engagement (grrrrr, Tories a threat to your wellbeing) or we can give them a reason to get engaged.

We can’t win without engagement and we can’t expect to force engagement through long-shot proxies for a referendum. If we can’t give people a reason to be interested in talking to us about independence, they won’t. We need to motivate engagement. No shortcuts.

C is for communicate

Our communication strategy has been lazy. We have engaged with our target voters by standing at the side of the street at a street stall expecting them to come to us. We have parroted wafer-thin catchphrases at them over their TV. We’ve stuck the occasional leaflet through their door and I’ve not seen one of them that looked like we’d put much effort into thinking it through.

I will write more on a communications strategy soon. It needs proper explanation. But we need to get right down to the peer-to-peer level if we’re going to win people. We need to work through planned ‘journeys of discussion’ in which real people talk to real people, consistent and honestly.

There is a very strong platform for doing this built specially for the purpose inside the independence movement. It helps us to buddy with people who are potential shift voters and it helps the buddy to gradually find out what the barriers to support are and to work with the target voter to reduce and remove those barriers.

I realise that will seem opaque to many of you and I apologise for that. But unless we are getting into one-to-ones with people we’re just barking at them or expecting them to do the work. And if all our comms are ‘hit and run’ then we won’t achieve the sustained engagement which changes minds.

E is for execute

If we get a solid majority for independence for a sustained period, everything becomes possible. Section 30 Orders become possible, but so do a string of other ‘democratic events’ which can also close out this fight in our favour. So yes, a Westminster election could be turned into a ‘plebiscite’ (though that’s a very bad idea). So could a Holyrood election (a better idea but still very dangerous and very hard to pull off).

The point is that for now it doesn’t matter. Unless we’re back to kamikaze ‘don’t think, just charge’ approaches where we go clattering into battle with no plan and no idea how it is going to go, there are a lot of things we need to do first. And if we do those things and we still face a democratic ‘lock out’ we can also kick off a sustained pressure campaign (again, I’ve explained this more in Within Our Grasp).

As I’ve tried to explain, being independent just means having a negotiated agreement with the UK and getting them to the negotiating table can be achieved in various ways. This is how we execute our final departure from the UK. It is not how we become independent. We become independent because Scotland has a sustained majority of support among its population for being independent.

Yes, we need to execute our final departure, but we’re not there yet. Nothing would be better for the cause of independence than if we could all vow just not to talk about referendums or plebiscites for a while and, you know, persuade some voters.

And that is it. PRICE – prepare, research, inspire, communicate, execute. In that order. This is how political campaigning works. It needn’t take a long time to do this. If conditions change and we can move faster we can move faster. This could all be delivered in two years. But only from the moment when we start.

I am pleading with anyone who has read their way through the three parts of this. Please stop listening to people who are telling you there are shortcuts. We can try, but for as long as we do we waste more years to add to the years we’ve already wasted.

I know I’ve been repeating this all pretty well since the day after the last referendum. It’s because I remain as convinced as ever that this is what we have to do. None of this is complicated or magical, it just requires work. One day everyone is going to realise this is right. I just hope we don’t waste much more time until we face reality.

We’re in a democracy. There are no shortcuts. The people are sovereign, not us. If we’re not winning them over we’re not winning. I shouldn’t have to write those words. After eight years I believe I do.

The full series: Part One | Part Two


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