Indyref postmortem I: What went wrong in Edinburgh and the North East?

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the first of several indyref postmortems.

The colour of each council area shows the difference between the actual indyref result and my prediction. Red means it did less well, and blue means it did better.
Map of disappointing results: The colour of each council area shows the difference between the actual indyref result and my prediction. Red means it did less well, and blue means it did better.
On the 18th of September last year, the good people of Edinburgh were basically asked “Would you like to live in the capital of an independent country?” and proceeded to answer No. How could they?

Also, the SNP has traditionally been strongest in the North East, but places like Moray that I had predicted would vote Yes by 60% instead voted No by a huge margin. Why are the people up there happy to vote SNP in local elections, but when they’re asked about the raison d’être of the SNP, they say No?

The map on the right shows the most disappointing indyref results in red. Some of the areas aren’t that surprising. I can understand that some people in the Scottish Borders would have worried about creating an international border close to home, and the fact that this area receives ITV instead of STV cannot have helped the Yes vote either. It’s also natural that people in Orkney and Shetland are worried that Edinburgh might be too far away to fully understand their needs.

"Let's become independent before 100,000 more children are living in poverty."
“Let’s become independent before 100,000 more children are living in poverty.”
I wonder whether there was a lack of local campaigning materials. Many of the posters, leaflets and TV ads produced by Yes Scotland seemed to have been designed to appeal to low-income voters in Greater Glasgow and similar areas.

Why didn’t anybody produce Edinburgh-only posters with messages such as “70 embassies will be built in this city, bringing a lot of money to the local economy” or “After independence, Edinburgh will be a real capital again, like London, Paris and Washington”? Where were the leaflets reassuring voters in the Scottish Borders? What was being done in Orkney and Shetland to explain to voters there that turning Scotland into a Nordic country would make them a central and crucial part of Scotland? Did anybody serious target occasional SNP voters in Aberdeenshire?

I was campaigning in East Renfrewshire, where we did more or less as well as one could have expected, and the only other area I visited frequently was Glasgow, which did better than most people expected, so I don’t know what exactly went wrong in other areas. However, my impression was that the campaign themes were the same all over Scotland, and if they were right here, they must have been wrong in other places. I definitely got the impression that a lot of the leaflets we distributed went down much better in the poorer parts of East Renfrewshire than in the rich neighbourhoods.

Did Yes Scotland suffer from a lack of regional campaign managers that could have identified a need for local campaign materials? Were local groups too passive, expecting to be given materials by Yes Scotland instead of producing their own?

Whatever the reason, it’s an error we can’t afford to make next time. Of course we need national campaign materials, but we must be better at targeting local areas with messages that matter to people there.

66 thoughts on “Indyref postmortem I: What went wrong in Edinburgh and the North East?”

  1. Much of Fife voted Yes. Those who voted no were worried about ; their pensions, could Scotland afford to be separate from rUK, what would happen to the armed forces, we need to keep Trident as a deterrent, would their investments be safe in Scottish banks. These are some of the reasons I heard, after the 18th. Mostly self interested people who are not poor and think they would have to pay more tax or cost of living would be higher with Independence.

    1. Indeed, but those worries were common to many people all over Scotland. Why did the benefits not outweigh the risks outwith Glasgow and Dundee? Surely deprivation is not the only answer…?

      1. The most effective campaigning, so far as energising new folk, getting folk who hadn’t voted before onto the electoral register, etc, was from the Radical Independence Campaign, NOT from the SNP. The RIC was particularly active in Dundee and Glasgow, both of which voted Yes. RIC Aberdeen was also active, as was RIC Edinburgh, but in both of these places there were difficulties. In Aberdeen some folk thought (mistakenly) that oil-based prosperity would continue with the UK. In Edinburgh, you had a particularly large population of migrants from other parts of the UK. I do agree more could have been made of Edinburgh becoming a real interbnational capital.

  2. Interesting take on the referendum here Thomas. You are probably right that more should have been done to emphasize the benefits that independence would bring to different parts of Scotland. I particularly liked your suggestion for Edinburgh. However I am still of the view that it was the economy what lost it. Allied to the doubts about our continuing membership of the EU. Local issues would have helped, but it was the big picture which we failed on. Look forward to the rest of your posts on this.

    1. Thanks, Alister! Yes, I do think the currency issue wasn’t handled well, but surely currency and the EU don’t explain on their own why Moray voted No in huge numbers. I would love somebody from some of the pro-SNP but No-voting areas to suggest how they would have run the campaign if they had been in charge. Would it have been very different? Would it have caused a massive No in Glasgow?

      1. I tentatively suggest two contributing factors. First, in general terms most of the pro-indy voting areas were part of less well off Scotland. Secondly, but related, most of the active campaigning in terms of canvassing was led by RIC and we concentrated solely on less well off areas. The question for me is who if anyone did this kind of mass canvassing in the North East SNP heartlands?

        1. Good point. Just as Glasgow needed the RIC, perhaps Aberdeenshire could have used a ‘Rural Independence Campaign’, and Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides might have voted differently if there had been an ‘Island Independence Campaign’, both campaigning with the same strength as the RIC.

        2. We in Radical Independence (Angus & Mearns) campaigned. But a small group with a few members scattered over a large area with small towns and villages obviously has a harder task than a group in a city with a concentrated electorate and a couple of universities! Nevertheless, in general, the RIC approach was right. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over this. The independence referendum campaign in Scotland saw the biggest, most enthusiastic mobilisation of people in a political campaign since at least the fight against the poll tax, and perhaps even since a lot longer ago than that. A crucial factor of the campaign was that, although it did of course include the SNP, the Greens, and groups like Labour For Independence, significant numbers of folk were mobilised on a non-party-political basis. People organised themselves without waiting for anybody to tell them it was okay to do so. The British State fought back with every dirty trick in the book, and some new dirty tricks to add to the book. Although the result announced on 19th September was a disappointment, let’s not lose sight of what was achieved. Both Dundee and Glasgow voted Yes. The MAJORITY of folk born in Scotland voted yes. That is worth pointing out. Not as an attack on immigrants. It is understandable if some folk who were not born here feel a bit less secure in the country, and are a bit more worried about their future in an independent Scotland. The way to deal with that, in future, is to make sure migrants do feel secure. But every time somebody says “the Scots voted No”, it is worth pointing out that, actually, the majority of us who were born here voted Yes.

  3. Helping out the local Yes campaign by distributing leaflets, knocking on doors and helping in the shop, I found the majority of non interested public were old age pensioners and people that were comfortable off. The pensioners seemed to rely on newspaper media and BBC programs and lacked interest in Social media and computers. At times I felt the campaign was going well because of the Social Media but then I realised we were talking to the already converted and people with the same interests as myself. We should have found some other method of talking to these other groups.

    1. I totally agree — I’ve met many of those pensioners and well-off people, too. However, that still doesn’t explain the difference between Greater Glasgow and for instance the North East of Scotland. There are pensioners in both places, as well as well-off people. Something seemed to be different. If it wasn’t local issues, I’m not sure what it was.

  4. Once you introduce the fear factor people belive they will lose to much to take a gamble this is the single biggest reason we lost. Project fear was well thought out and played to those fears with a lot of media and boardroom help

    1. Interestin — A daedna ken that. Dae ye mind hou made it, an hou monie? Whit wey war thay received? A wad luive tae see ane o thaim.

  5. Well said Thomas. I agree. I think strategic thinking was lacking everywhere, a dearth of specific community targetting as you say and no overall contingency – when we lost it all just fell apart.

    And it looks to me as if it could all happen again.

  6. I campaigned in the Scottish Borders. There was a physical proximity to the Border challenge, but you also have to factor in the politics of the region and identity – more people in the Scottish Borders see themselves as British, and if you look at the voting patterns you also see a very strong Tory vote. The turnout also played it’s part – 87% meant we not only got out our support, but we noised by theirs… On the point on the leaflets from HQ – a huge amount were useless in our region as the messaging was all wrong.

    1. Thanks, Calum, that’s very interesting and useful! It’s quite possible the Borders would never have voted Yes in huge numbers, but receiving huge amounts of useless leaflets from HQ is just unforgivable — at the very least, they should have helped you produce your own materials instead.

  7. I campaigned in Edinburgh central and I absolutely agree with your views on campaign material. I only saw one small leaflet, which was produced by the local ,unofficial Yes movement, that highlighted the potential benefits to the local economy if Edinburgh became a real , independent, European capital city.
    I raised the lack of locally targeted campaign material several times. Some voters may not understand the issues surrounding the economy, currency and defence policies, but they do understand the issues relating to local job opportunities and employment. We failed to highlight those issues to our cost.

    1. Thanks, Jim! Why do you think nobody produced the necessary campaign materials? Was it because Edinburgh was divided into smaller Yes groups so that nobody could make a decision for all of Edinburgh, for instance? Or were people waiting for a go-ahead from Yes HQ that never came?

      1. Many thanks for your response Thomas.
        Edinburgh was divided into many local Yes groups. But I saw that as a positive feature of the campaign which we did not exploit by failing to push local issues. The campaign focus was almost exclusively on national issues such as the NHS, which is of course very relevant, but we could have highlighted local problems as part of the bigger picture..
        If we can show that our movement can make a positive difference to peoples’ lives at a local level this will attract votes which can be translated to the national level. Too often during the referendum campaign I feel we got it the wrong way round.
        I will be campaigning in Edinburgh East in the run up to May and when I knock on someone’s door or speak to them on a street stall I want to be able to present them with concrete policies which are possible answers to local problems backed up by literature to reinforce the arguments.
        Local democracy is at the heart of my nationalism and I believe it is one of the foundations of our entire movement and yet it is ignored by the campaign literature that we produce.

  8. In Orkney, in my part, we were surprised at the appetite for campaign materials. We could not get enough ‘Yes’ badges – a lot of the stuff did not feel particularly relevant – and perhaps, now, we would be more confident about putting out more specific information ourselves without waiting for it to come from the South.

    1. Thanks for you comment, Tim! Aye, the Yes badges went down like a treat everywhere, I think. What kind of materials do you think you should have produced, with hindsight?

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