After Yes: new voters, new parties and a new constitution

Posted: September 16, 2014 in indyref, politics and ideas
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I think Scotland will vote Yes on Thursday.

In fact, I don’t think it’s going to be particularly close.

Readers who have been living through this remarkable period in Scotland’s history will scarcely need me to sketch out the likely consequences of such a result, at least for the first few hours. The unforgettable will merge with the un-rememberable, and George Square could get rather messy.

Then the major figures from both campaigns will, one assumes, sleep for a week.

But what will happen after the dust settles on a Yes victory?

I want to explore three themes which will, I think, characterise our political culture in the post-Yes landscape.

I’ll begin by discussing the characteristics of the Yes voting cohort, and it’s implications for the legitimacy of the new state.

I’ll then turn to consider the consequences for Scottish political parties of the referendum experience.

I’ll then conclude by explaining why the generation of a new constitution will bring the two sides back together again within a legitimate political community.

Why Scotland’s new state will rest on the assent of the disenfranchised

It won’t be the traditional electorate who deliver a Yes vote.

As has been widely and rightly celebrated in recent days, the Electoral Commission has confirmed that 97% of eligible citizens are now registered to vote in the referendum. 97%! The actual turnout remains to be seen at the time of writing but staggering numbers of citizens were added to the electoral roll in the weeks running up to the registration deadline.

Page 11 of this Electoral Commission report indicates that the registered electorate has been around 3.9 million for the four Scottish general elections since devolution, while turnout has been about 50% (just under 2 million).

Recent reports have indicated that almost 4.3 million citizens are registered to vote in the referendum. That’s 400,000 extra registered voters. And back in June (that’s years ago!), Ipsos Mori recorded 81% certain to vote, a figure which one suspects will prove conservative. So that would be about 3.5 million voters. It’s not a missing million, it’s a missing million and a half!

The electoral register now features the names of hundreds of thousands of citizens who have never voted before, or who have not voted for decades. This has been achieved in large part through the efforts of non-aligned activists including the heroic Matt Lygate (who subsequently rose to prominence with his detournement of the parliamentary Labour Party’s school trip to Glasgow), the Radical Independence Campaign, and many others across the Yes movement. The excitement of the referendum has created an atmosphere in which people have taken a greater than usual interest in politics, so the electoral register would have grown to some extent anyway, but these activists have given many previously unregistered citizens the tools to join the fun.

So who are these new voters? Many hail from the poorest sections of our poorest communities. The Radical Independence Campaign has been working tirelessly for years now, within and for the denizens of our housing schemes. Meanwhile, I was told a story recently about Patrick Harvie of the Green Party spending day after day addressing the dispossessed men and women in our homeless shelters. By speaking to them as citizens, he incorporated them within the scope of the referendum conversation. It’s only if you’ve never felt part of the citizenry that you can appreciate just how liberating that must have been for the people in the room.

(N.B. The Better Together campaign has not been doing any of this. Indeed, stories are legion of efforts by No campaigners to persuade homeless men and women that they are in fact not eligible to vote. We can only trust that these tales are untrue).

Readers will be familiar with the idea of the missing million (or 1.5m) voters who don’t usually vote but will influence this referendum. However I’m not convinced that the characteristics of these citizens, who have for the first time become enfranchised, has been appreciated fully by the media or by the opinion pollsters.

A significant proportion of these million voters are people who have never previously had a voice in any election. The very poorest in our society have never been a vote-winner for anyone. They have never voted in significant numbers, and as such they have rarely if ever attracted much coordinated political advocacy. After all, if you’re trying to win an election, why would you campaign on the basis of helping people who won’t vote?

Well they’re voting this time.

If Yes wins – and I think we will – it will be because thousands of previously disenfranchised citizens pushed Yes over the line.

There is a recent example of an election being swung by a new group of voters, albeit it’s from the opposite end of the political spectrum. The electoral renaissance of the US Republican Party under George W Bush culminated in 2004 when he won his second Presidency and first election victory due to the emergence of 4 million born-again Christians, for whom voting for anyone had previously been anathema on religious grounds. The success of the GOP in persuading these citizens to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s spared them the unseemly effort of arranging, for a second time, the collusion of the media and Supreme Court to defeat their Democratic opponent John Kerry.

Now, the newly-enfranchised citizens in Scotland may be expected to have rather different political priorities to the Republican evangelists. And they represent a substantially higher proportion of the electorate, too.

And – most significantly of all – this is no ordinary election.

Scotland’s poor, Scotland’s dispossessed, Scotland’s forgotten – Scotland’s disenfranchised – can deliver Scotland’s independence.

And so, rather than a government owing its majority to a particular section of the electorate, our country will owe its independence to the poorest in our community.

To be clear: Scottish self-determination will be achieved due to the unprecedented mobilisation of citizens who have never previously had a voice. So if Scottish sovereignty derives from their assent, then the ongoing legitimacy of the Scottish state will derive from their inclusion within a free Scotland.

Just let that sink in. After a Yes victory delivered by the previously disenfranchised, the very legitimacy of our Scottish state will rest on how effectively our political community relieves poverty, incorporates the marginalised, improves the life chances of those currently left behind and broadens the options of people without choices.

In short – the Scottish state will be illegitimate if the citizens who voted Yes are forgotten again.

On Thursday 18th September, the subaltern will speak. And their voices must continue to be heard thereafter.

***

Political parties after Yes

It feels slightly odd to talk about political parties immediately after my previous post, which was about how the political class has appeared fettered throughout the referendum campaign. But clearly, party politics and representative democracy will endure, even if they may change form to reflect new priorities.

So what will happen after a Yes vote? Well, I imagine the major figures from both campaigns will all sleep for a week. But when they waken up a number of shifts in fortune will become apparent.

I’ll focus first on the “unionist” parties, as we now know them, somewhat bizarrely. It’s appropriate to begin with them since the Better Together campaign scarcely appeared to exist beyond photo opportunities orchestrated by heavyweights from the major No parties for most of the campaign. This changed only late on, when Project Fear was “outsourced” to representatives of business and the financial sector, as Sky’s Faisal Islam phrases it in a typically lucid blog post.

The campaign was led by figures from Westminster, principally Alistair Darling and Jim Murphy. When the Yes surge became apparent, Better Together summoned the cavalry in the shape of the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown and other even less well-chosen figures. It’s unclear that the Scottish electorate has received the last-minute entreaties with gratitude.

It seems to me that the No campaign has been much better served by politicians from Holyrood, and no one has prospered more than the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.

Even two months ago I suspect Ruth Davidson would have done well to be recognised by her own party activists. But now, following a remarkable few weeks when the public’s appetite for referendum coverage was insatiable, she is surely one of the most recognisable figures in Scottish public life.

She has represented herself and her party with confidence and charisma, an achievement which is all the more impressive considering she has had to share a platform with a series of wildly unpopular figures, such as Douglas “the markets won’t like this!” Alexander and George “have you no decency, sir?” Galloway.

I used to get invited to be in the studio audience for political TV programmes, and I remember a televised debate between party leaders on STV ahead of the 2011 Scottish Election. Before they started filming, a succession of dapper men of a certain age queued up to garland Annabel Goldie, Davidson’s predecessor as Scottish Tory leader, with flowers. It was most amusing and really rather sweet, but it seemed to signal the widely admired Goldie as a charming but hardly relevant figure. By contrast, Ruth Davidson has appeared a contemporary and credible politician in recent weeks, unlikely to attract such a recherché fan base.

After all, the Tories that people in Scotland hate were never really the Scottish Conservative Party. As you’re probably aware, the Tories were the largest party in Scotland back in the 1950s and it was only the Thatcher Offensive that broke the party’s link with the Scottish electorate. I was astonished to learn that the Glasgow constituency I grew up in had returned the Tory Eurosceptic and Bob Marley fan, Teddy Taylor, to parliament for many years before my parents moved there. But that was pretty normal back then.

John Major famously oversaw the final eradication of Tory MPs from Scotland in 1997 and today there is only one Tory MP in the country. At the same time, the party attracted more than 500,000 votes (across the constituency and regional ballots) in the 2011 Scottish elections and were rewarded by Holyrood’s more proportionally representative system with 15 seats the chamber. The Scottish Tories are not some sort of fringe group in Scottish politics – they’re a sizeable electoral force.

The problem the party has to overcome is that Scottish conservatism still broadly resembles the one-nation conservatism of the pre-Thatcher years, while the party in Westminster has been captured by the financial services sector.

Much has been made of the potential for Labour to relocate its lost soul in an independent Scotland (of which more anon). As interesting to me is a parallel question: could Ruth Davidson project a renegade one-nation vision of conservatism in a free Scotland? Imagine she and her party was able to inspire fellow-thinkers in the rest of the UK in their struggle against the neo-Thatcherite wing of the Tory party on one hand, and the rise of UKIP on the other. Our brothers and sisters in the rest of the UK deserve that at the very least surely?

*excuse me while I try to get my head around the fact I’ve just written a lengthy section about the Tories without slagging them off. What is going on in this country?*

So who else from the No side has done well? The Scottish Labour Party has received a serious kicking throughout the campaign, but how many of its representatives have actually been given any airtime? With the exception of the leader, who isn’t worth writing about, the only MSP I can remember seeing on TV is Kezia Dugdale. She was in Team No on STV a couple of weeks ago and managed to outflank the SNP from the left. The fact that this is worthy of remark reflects extremely badly on the Labour Party’s recent record, I would suggest.

But maybe a chastened Scottish Labour Party, inspired by people like Dugdale and its social justice spokesman Drew Smith, can be honest with itself in the aftermath of a Yes vote. And whether or not the Scottish party is likely to be more or less left wing when liberated from London control, surely there are better representatives of the contemporary Scottish labour movement than Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown and George Galloway? Kezia Dugdale has looked like a potential star recently, but has been squeezed out by discredited figures from the Blair years. Surely the Scottish party would benefit from a new start, led by leaders who aren’t utterly toxic to everyone outside the party? Just a thought.

I would argue strongly though that the current Scottish Labour leadership has made a historic, disastrous error in backing a horse in this race. I remember having endless discussions three years ago with a Labour dissident when we simply could not understand why the party would take a side. The cause of the workers and the amelioration of poverty can surely be pursued both as part of the union and as an independent nation. Which is the faster route to equality? Arguably not the former, but there’s a case for both roadmaps. Do why didn’t the party let members and representatives make up their own minds?

The arrogance of the Labour leadership in dismissing independence still astonishes me as I reflect back upon it. So the party requires an injection of humility before the voters will give them another look. And you just have to look at the present leadership to know that’s not going to happen while they’re around.

But that’s enough about them.

As for the Lib Dems…no idea.

I’ll move on to the parties backing a Yes vote. And there’s only one place to start.

In the final decade of his life, Tony Benn achieved a level of popularity that I had never seen equalled by anyone else from a political party. But it had been three decades since he’d really held an influential political post.

It seems to me that Nicola Sturgeon is even more popular in Scotland now, while being Deputy First Minister.

There have been politicians that I and others have respected. There have been fewer who have been admired. But how many have been loved? Nicola Sturgeon might be too close to the referendum battle to have realised recently, but in recent months she has ascended to genuine hero status. People absolutely adore her. And rightly so.

What do people want from their elected representatives? Nicola Sturgeon. What a priceless asset to the SNP. And who better to welcome the world to Open Scotland than our inspirational first female First Minister?

Meanwhile, our current First Minister has swaggered through the campaign with his customary élan. To be honest, I think we take Salmond for granted these days. Imagine what viewers in the rest of the UK must make of him, for example when he did his global press conference and booted the BBC’s Nick Robinson right in the balls. He’s so far ahead of all of the other major UK political figures he’s basically playing chess against himself now. I personally don’t understand why Scottish voters profess themselves resistant to his personal charms – I could listen to him all day.

But never mind that – how will the SNP fare after a Yes? Well, they got about 900,000 constituency (first) votes in 2011 and Yes will get about 2 million. Everyone who is voting yes is apparently a “nat”, if you listen to the Labour Party, or a “separatist” if you believe the mainstream media. Now, either the SNP has more than doubled its support in a matter of months or Labour and the mainstream media are – brace yourselves – talking bollocks. I suspect it’s the latter. But at the same time, the SNP’s leadership have enjoyed substantial public exposure in recent months and they are such an impressive group. It seems unthinkable to me that they have not broadened their support base.

Returning to the point I was making about Nicola Sturgeon – people love Patrick Harvey too. I would doubt that any UK Green Party figure has ever enjoyed as much public exposure as Patrick Harvie has in the final weeks of the referendum, and he has excelled in every public appearance. Hundreds of thousands of voters have been given the opportunity to hear what the Green Party stand for, and to witness Harvie’s genuinely statesmanlike approach. I will be amazed if the Scottish Green Party does not quadruple its share of the vote at the next Holyrood election. The Greens have surely been transformed as an electoral force as a result of the referendum.

Who else has had a good campaign? Tommy Sheridan is a revitalised figure following his remarkable tour of the country in support of an independent socialist future. Will that spill over into growing support for his Solidarity party? There’s certainly space on the left.

In the same ideological area are the Scottish Socialist Party. I must be honest, I lose track of who is in and who is out of these parties so I don’t really know what they’ve contributed as a party. However the contribution of erstwhile SSP MSPs to the Women for Independence movement has been enormous. Again, no idea what the spillover will be in terms of formal party politics.

But that’s just the point. Yes has not been driven by political parties, notwithstanding the occasional confidence boost provided by Salmond and the coherence offered on TV by other senior figures. The energy, imagination and tireless effort has come overwhelmingly from non-aligned community groups and individuals, acting spontaneously and without a hierarchy directing their work. And it is in that pluralistic rainbow coalition that the great potential lies.

Can the broad Yes movement coalesce into a party after a vote for independence?

If so, what would it look like?

What would it want?

How would it operate and make decisions?

Who would lead, if anyone?

Would its very existence betray the values of the campaign?

These are, for me, the most exciting questions posed by a post-Yes political landscape. If the broad Yes movement could unite around certain common goals – and there are some that all would assent to, such as building a nuclear-free, socially-inclusive, egalitarian society – then Scotland could have a magnificent 21st century political party on its hands. The missing million-and-a-half might even vote for them.

***

Rebuilding the body politic

I don’t think anyone who actually lives in Scotland and who goes outside the house from time to time thinks we live in A Divided Society. The referendum has been beautiful because it’s been a conversation.

For me, the fundamental point is this: people who vote yes, and people who vote no, all want the best for Scotland. Bluntly, No voters think Scotland is better served by remaining within the current neoliberal framework of Westminster, within which certain themes have priority; such as the structural requirement for inequality, the lionising of wealth-creators, and the preference for deregulating the financial services sector.

Meanwhile, Yes voters think Scotland will pursue a different path after independence, which will be more equal, more sustainable and more fair. *N.B. This is not necessarily compatible with SNP policy, as every single Yes voter has realised – because this isn’t a fucking vote for the SNP*

The former vision may consign further generations to right wing Tory governments and food banks, while the latter may lead to ruinous inflation in lieu of a lender of last resort. But supporters of both positions are trying to do what’s right. No voters aren’t traitors, and yes voters aren’t crazy nats. It is possible for people to disagree reasonably about the best pathway for their country.

And as I indicated above, I see no sign in real life that people are falling out over this. But at the level of the political class this is war. And people are not getting invited to other people’s birthdays as a result.

So how so we heal the rift?

Or to ask the question in a format that will appeal better to the political class – how can the Better Together parties re-engage with Scottish politics after a Yes vote without looking like hypocrites?

The solution lies in the new Scottish constitution.

To offer a perhaps unworthy parallel, I remember my feelings after Manchester United beat Chelsea in the 2008 European Cup Final. That Chelsea side had been moulded by Jose Mourinho. He had been forced out early in the season following a power struggle, but it was widely believed that the Chelsea players had taken one look at the caretaker manager, Avram Grant, and agreed that the senior players in the dressing room should run the team themselves following Jose’s principles.

I hated Chelsea. They were defensive and crass. They had all the money (don’t laugh) and none of the pioneering spirit. Meanwhile, my beloved United were full of attacking intent and poetry.

(To over-extend the analogy – Better Together are also really defensive and still haven’t given us a positive argument for the Union – but Jose has taught us all that there is more than one way to win. And the dressing room takeover reminds me of the recent No campaign putsch by Brown, Galloway and John Reid. They’re just really crap compared to Drogba, Lampard and Essien).

Well we played each other in that final in Moscow and it went to penalties. The despised John Terry slipped and United won.

I should have been at my wit’s end with jubilation, but I wasn’t really. By the end of that rain-lashed 120 minutes I had come to admire the Chelsea players as warriors, champions and worthy rivals to my team. And I don’t think I was alone. There was an understanding between the clubs thereafter.

It might seem far away just now, but after Thursday’s vote we’re all going to have a serious comedown, followed by a realisation of our mutual respect.

Much has been written about the path to a new constitution after a Yes vote (although less than you’d expect). I won’t go into the detail of what our constitution should look like here. That’s a tale for another day. What’s more important at this point in our historic trajectory is that the constitution must be designed by hands from across the social and political spectrum. And clearly that must include the No parties.

Can you imagine a Scottish constitution that wasn’t informed by or assented to by the Labour Party? Or the Conservatives or Lib Dems? Clearly not. And that’s their way back in.

After all, about 2 million people are likely to vote No on the 18th September. They won’t all be supporters of the No parties, and surely none of them can be supporters of the catastrophic and hilarious Better Together campaign, but it will fall on the parties of the Union to represent their fears about a free Scotland.

And in the process of negotiating the text of a constitution (the thrill of which lies in inverse proportion to its importance) politicians will calm down again.

…Which is why we need the Yes campaign to inform the constitutional discussions too.

No harm to the SNP or Green Party, both of which I trust happily to design a workable framework. But a renewed SNP/ Labour squabble can only result in a constitution shot through with Old Politics.

Scotland is not voting Yes for more of the same. We’ve already got plenty of that.

***

So after a Yes vote: it is imperative that the disenfranchised – who delivered our independence – are incorporated fully within our political community.

And the broad Yes movement – which mobilised our country – remains alive.

And the constitution – that enshrines our shared values and offers a pathway to realising our shared dreams – enjoys the assent of all who have participated in Scotland’s greatest conversation.

After all, we’re going to have so much time on our hands after Thursday, we might as well get this right.

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Comments
  1. carole gillan says:

    Brilliant. You are right that no matter the result ( please let it be yes!)we have to work together for the common good
    and if we forget the poor, then shame on us.

    Like

  2. Kevin Mallon says:

    Hi Ian . Have now read essay 2 and 3. Well done ! Where do I start? You were honest enough to say the yes campaign did not do their homework. Salmond should have listened to sillars. Why make the currency a deal breaker? Like you I assumed 2 years ago, well we will have our own.

    The discredited position of labour …. Where do you start. I naively assumed labour would have a neutral position when this all started over 2 years ago. Let the people decide .. And then we will develop a labour position for the new Scotland . But no …. They become bedfellows of the Tories and the loyalist movement.!!! Can you believe it???

    So yes did not do their home work. Salmond was a bit blinkered . Plus why did they not take the opportunity to propose that the new Scotland should be a republic? I think I know the answer to that one.

    45% is not insignificant . As you say there is much to build on.

    Like

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