Sunday, 24 February 2013

The real significance of Glasgow University's mock-referendum

On Thursday Glasgow University held a mock-referendum on whether Scotland should, or should not, be an independent nation.

This allowed Yes Scotland, Better Together and large sections of the media opportunities to make much of the campaigning and the result itself, most of which is plainly overplaying the significance of a rather trivial event.  There was nothing particularly surprising or newsworthy about the mock-referendum or the outcome, in which 967 students (37.3%) voted "Yes" to independence, with 1614 (62.7%) voting "No".

The first - and most obvious - lesson to be learned from this is the obsession the media has with the independence vote.  It knows no bounds.  That is not to say that the media is actually aiding the facilitation of a mature, responsible national discussion on independence because the opposite is largely true.  But it is obsessed with polls and voting intention - and of course there can be no more representative group within Scottish society than Glasgow University's students - right?

Several leading headlines suggested this poll was far more important that, say, the UK losing its AAA credit rating, on which Better Together has invested so much energy (and its credibility) to hail as concrete proof of the advantages of the Union.  (We save billions, apparently, because of that credit rating we no longer have, and which Scotland might have should it be independent.  No, doesn't sound like much of a case for the Union to me either).

But I digress. Yes, back to the media. You would have thought that this student poll was the most important news of the day - perhaps even of the week, given the way the Scottish media behaved.  I suppose it demonstrates a lack of imagination on the part of the media: why attempt to grapple with the complex political and constitutional issues when instead there is the option to over-analyse a student poll?

Better Together have, understandably, been quick to hail the outcome and Yes Scotland, equally as understandably, have been keen to play up the positives from their own campaign.  On twitter, many observers became rather over-excited while drawing all sorts of conclusions and asking intelligent, and not so intelligent, questions such as "How many of the students were English?"  Certainly it seemed there were more people tweeting about the mock-referendum than actually took the time to vote in it.

I certainly don't accept that this rather selective opinion-poll should be taken particularly seriously, and I certainly see no reason for assuming that the views of Glasgow University's student fraternity in February 2013 are a better indication of what the actual referendum outcome will be in eighteen months' time than any other select group of people.

Rector of Glasgow University Charles Kennedy said, after the vote: "First and foremost, the real winners today are the democratic process itself and the historic reputation of the University of Glasgow in the lineage of the national debate down the generations. So my congratulations to the student bodies who showed such a lead here - and to the 2,500 students who voted. The real lesson is the extent to which students wanted to hear more of the detail and the arguments involved. Both sides need to campaign positively."

I don't often disagree with Charles Kennedy, but I will here.  There is one very real and serious lesson we should take away from this poll - and it is one that lays down a challenge to both campaigns but particularly Better Together.  It is the non-vote.

Turnout in the University's mock-referendum was high by its usual dismal standards, but doesn't disguise the fact that well over 80% of students were insufficiently interested or motivated to vote, were undecided or were unaware there was a poll being held.  The latter surely cannot be an option to any student who watches BBC Scotland or reads any Scottish newspaper, which suggests many simply don't care.

Apathy's a problem, so it's said, but who cares?  I'd suggest that in cases where the outcome of a referendum may be determined by those who for whatever reasons do not vote, everyone should.  In Glasgow's mock-referendum the most startling figure was the pitifully low turnout.  No doubt there are reasons for this peculiar to the strange world of student politics, but it's an important point nonetheless and the non-vote could have a significant influence on the independence referendum next year.

Opinion polls tend to put those who favour independence at around 35% of the electorate.  The naturally fluctuates but generally it's been reasonably consistent. What it is safe to suggest is that those in favour of independence are near certain to vote "Yes".  They're people who have made a decision to support change and who are by and large determined to do what they can to assure it.  On the other hand, while 70% of people might not support independence, this does not necessarily indicate that those people are inclined to vote "No" or even to vote at all.

A low turnout will probably not favour Better Together.  To date, Better Together has been cynically negative - a tactic that can often be effective, as evidenced by No2AV.  However, the situation is more than slightly different than in May 2011 and if Better Together want to secure a "No" vote it will have to work to persuade people of the need to vote.  Complacent attitudes and negative campaigning strategies could prove counter-productive, turning off many potential voters. Above all, Better Together must realise that voters need to be engaged with and that a lack of conviction of the merits of independence does not necessarily lead them to vote "No".

I've not been particularly impressed with either the campaigning or the political conversation to date, which I feel reflects poorly on Scottish politics and indeed on our media.  However, there remain eighteen months in which improvements can be made.  Certainly, to use Charles Kennedy's words, "both sides need to campaign positively", with increased focus on "the detail [of] the arguments".

That, however, is not the main lesson of the Glasgow University mock-referendum.  What needs to be observed, and has been neglected by the media, is that apathy, indecision and "independence fatigue" among the electorate have the potential to undermine a "No" vote.  The University's poll was decided, in part at least, by the large non-vote.  In spite of the media obsession with the poll in the lead-up to the vote, the majority of the "electorate" stayed away.  The voters of Scotland likewise are less interested in the campaigning and opinion polling than the Scottish media and political types and, unless they are given a reason to make their vote count, there could well be a similar story in 2014.


J Parker said...

There is a possibility that students deliberately stayed away from the polls. Recalling my own student days, even such events as the student presidential elections were treated as being for arts and #arts students, not for us scientists and engineers.

You make a good point though. Saying No to independence could be more wearing on he opponents than on the proponents.

Andrew said...

I was never involved in student politics much myself, although my reasons were somewhat different.

Of course there could be many reasons for the low turnout, and it is worth pointing out that this was an improvement on previous occasions.