Lessons from #GUindyref

This article was first posted on the Fund Education – Scrap Trident website.

37% for independence, 63% against in #Guindyref. We lost, which is never good, but it’s hardly fatal: it’s more than Scotland-wide opinion polls have given ‘Yes’.

I’ve been involved in the campaign over the past month and rather than being disillusioned it has increased my clarity about what needs to be done to win in Autumn 2014. The following is an attempt to understand the demographic difficulties, take the positives and see it as a learning curve for the real thing which is just hotting up.

Firstly it was a higher turnout than any of us expected with some 2589 votes cast. This surprised most of us because there wasn’t a huge presence across campus in the run up to voting day. It’s clear that people take the referendum seriously; there’s an undeniable energy around the issue. This is important because it puts pay to the lie that most people see it as an irrelevance to their lives. It means that the raw materials of participation are there; whilst there is participation it is always possible to shift opinion polls.

Secondly, it was an objectively difficult referendum to win from an independence point of view.  The demographics of Glasgow University (GU) are significantly different from the Scottish population as a whole in two ways. 1. Whilst progress has been made, GU is much more middle class than Scotland in general. As Jamie Maxwell has pointed out previously time and time again the working class have voted for more powers for Scotland and are more likely to vote for independence than the middle class. The reasons aren’t difficult to understand:  the working class have much less to lose from breaking with the rest of UK because they have little stake in what is currently on offer. At Glasgow University, despite the recession, most people are either from a background in which they have a stake in society or are on a socially mobile path towards a stake in society.  2. Coming to Scotland as a student from the rest of UK leads towards an instinctual eagerness for unity. Whilst an argument can be made that Rest of UK students wouldn’t have to pay fees if Scotland was independent, this is somewhat too nuanced to capture the popular will of students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So in such a climate it’s of absolute necessity that an aggressive strategy is pursued to shake-up the demographic kaleidoscope.  Students from Rest of UK will need to be actively convinced of what is wrong with Britain and what is right with Scotland and middle class students who will need to be presented with a clear case for the moral bankruptcy of the UK and the progressive identity of Scotland. Sadly, the broader context of the independence debate has hardly tended in the trajectory of an aggressive argument. Emphasising caution, the SNP have sought to distance themselves from the idea that independence could be a vehicle for a fundamental shake up in the social, economic and geopolitical system. Instead they have limply responded to repeated attacks from the NO Campaign, tending to be on the backfoot against the mudslinging of the unionists.

This dynamic turned out to be too difficult to significantly shift in such a short space of time, but it’s worth looking at the way in which we tried to do so. Our approach was to take the one thing that most symbolises the wretchedness of Britain and the potential to change the way society works by changing our priorities. That one thing was Trident (see picture). Lying a mere 20 miles or so from Glasgow University, nuclear weapons that are twenty times as powerful as the ones that obliterated Hiroshima cost 100 billion pounds to buy. The argument is therefore both morally and economically compelling that Scotland could afford to fund more in education if it scrapped Trident and that independence is the only realistic opportunity of achieving this.

In addition to this we saw an opportunity to go on the offensive against Better Together by exposing their ‘UK OK’ t-shirt campaign. We produced stickers (see picture) that said ‘UK £9k’ to represent the up to £9000 a year that rest of UK students were being forced to pay for their higher education by the Westminster government. The thinking behind this was twofold: firstly to expose the idea ‘that Britain works’, as Cameron put it recently. The UK is not Ok, its a country racked by inequality and fees is an obvious, relevant example. Secondly, we thought that opposing the £9k that Rest of UK student have to pay shows the internationalist, egalitarian character of the independence movement we are trying to build, and is a counter to claims of a parochial Scottish nationalism.

Of course we pushed forward this approach as the Left of the independence movement on campus – those involved in the Radical Independence Campaign  – but its very important to understand a complicated but dynamic relationship developed between the Left and the centre-left in the official Yes Scotland campaign, predominantly SNP Youth members.

Yes Scotland’s official approach was politically in line with the Yes Campaign as whole, pushing an agenda of a Scotland that is progressive and for social justice but in quite a vague, limp sort of way which didn’t emphasise key issues like Trident and fees. They also approached campaigning in traditional SNP style with heavy emphasis on collecting data through getting people to sign the Yes Declaration so they could then have a base.

We both learned from each other over the course of the campaign: they began to take our leaflets and use our arguments around Trident and with the ‘UK £9k’ stickers, whilst we began to understand that the left has much to learn from their campaigning method which has longevity and builds a base, as our approach is too often short-term and not thinking. Two conclusions come out of this: 1. there is no reason why the Left and the Centre-Left can’t find constructive ways in which to work alongside each other, we proved that both can benefit from doing so over the past two weeks. Certainly, strong relationships have been built up at GU that will continue 2. we still retain major criticism’s of the political approach of the Yes Scotland leadership, as it once again failed to relate to the specific dynamics of the situation on campus and provide an aggressive strategy to win the vote.

Finally, the result does not make me feel downbeat at all about the potential of turning it round in the future, as long as we learn the right lessons.  Better Together did not win because they had an exceptional campaign, they won because they represent the status quo and the mobilisation of campaigners was to do no more and no less than remind people that the status quo is there to vote for. They don’t have another gear to get in to. The debates week after week in the Queen Margaret Union at GU where continually won again and again by the independence camp because when it comes to an actual argument and debate there’s only won winner. The trick is to learn how to translate this on to a Scotland-wide scale that convince the public at large.

I went into this referendum campaign looking at it as a testing ground for the wider independence campaign, rather than as a serious indicator of the potential of winning #indyref. I leave it no more or less optimistic about our chances of winning – but with an increased amount of information about how we can go about organising alongside others and taking on the debate. I’m looking forward to putting some new ideas into practise over the coming weeks and months.

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