Three key lessons for the Left from the Scottish referendum

by Ranjit Sidhu

It has been just over a month since the Scottish referendum, but it could have an eon ago. With the Heywood by-election now concentrating political minds of the Left, it would be a missed opportunity if Labour, in particular, did not learn from what was an astonishing 15% rise in a matter of months for the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum.

From the good natured debate on every high street to children asking you to do a referendum based questionnaire on the train, it was the kind of invigorating and surprising political debate I  thought had left the UK years ago.

And it’s resonance is still being felt. Last weekend, as was de-rigueur pre-referendum, on the local high street was a SNP table with a picture of Gordon Brown in a dunce cap and a queue preparing to sign up to them. So it was no surprise to me that the SNP has recruited 75,00 new members since the referendum. They may have lost the referendum, but they have picked themselves up and refocused in an instant.

Labour’s reaction has been somewhat the opposite: in denial would be the best phrase to use, but also something else, something that came across whilst the referendum was in full swing: a lethargy. As if the referendum was an unwanted insurrection that was put down, but whose soldiers, who had no real appetite for the fight, were happy to escape straight after back to familiar lands.

If lessons are not learnt the fear is not only will Labour be 20 Scottish MPs lighter come May, putting into prospective how Labour has got itself in such a tizzy about losing a possible 5 seats to Ukip, but have also missed the opportunity to learn some important lessons that could have reset Labour politics to a more positive paradigm.

So here are three interlinked, basic and positive lessons Labour can learn:

  1. The vision thing can still be a positive social agenda

The genius of the Yes campaign was how they were able to tie in the minds of the voters the independence of Scotland with that of a new vision of society for Scotland.  When ask what were the two or three most important issues for voting yes many did , indeed, mention disaffection with Westminster politics, but also NHS, public welfare and spending and better jobs were also high up.

It was the Yes campaign ability to move the debate to societal issues rather than economic ones which gave it a spurt in the polls. As Anthony Wells of YouGov puts it the change happened after the debate moved from  “Scotland’s currency to whether the NHS would be safe if Scotland remained part of the UK”

The demographic of those for who this message resonated are those very voters Labour needs to invigorate again, a YouGov poll showed those groups most moving to yes were:

◦ Voters under 40, up from 39% to 60%

◦ Working class voters, up from 41% to 56%

◦ Women, up from 33% to 47%

◦ And perhaps most pertinently, considering recent polls, Labour voters, up from 18% saying Yes to 35%

These key groups took on positively the social argument that was made not only in national debates, but also in every debate I attended where the issues of bedroom tax, NHS, better jobs and local infrastructure were when people were most passionate.

What the independence referendum in Scotland had shown is there is a very deep and committed section of society that also feels left out and are crying out for a positive message to gather around different to the normal anti-austerity diatribe. If they can be enthused by a vision they can become an army of activists:

  1. Mass Involvement and social media are as important as the traditional media

The Yes campaign faced a situation Labour often faces in national elections with all the traditional newspapers, apart from one, lined up against them.

The Yes campaign  were able to tie the traditional call of activism with the new medium of social media to create the powerful buzz of momentum that could take on the national media head on.  Something very reminiscent of the Obama first election victory in nature, and something Labour often talked big about doing, but have never achieved.

Being physically present in every main street I went to, the Yes campaigners were always outnumbering the No campaigners by the 3 or 4 times, this in turn validated the feeling of the campaign being a movement of the people, something all left wing politics must inspire to achieve.

The Yes recruitment was in one sense very traditional in gaining activists by having many more public meetings and debates organised locally, something that was once the bedrock of Labour politics.  However, they were also far more prevalent in Social Media, It was not just that the Yes campaign Facebook page had more likes then the Prime Minister’s, it was that every campaign area, be it Yes, Dundee or Yes Glasgow had thousands of Facebook likes and therefore public reach.

This not only made new media channels as important as traditional media, but helped build participation in groups that previously felt distant from politics:

  1. Bring us your disenfranchised and young!

After all has been said and done, the 85% voter turnout will be one fact that will resonate longest, with almost a quarter more people participating in the referendum than in the 2010 election. It was truly incredible that areas like Glasgow whose participation was in areas below 50% in 2010 election  reached over 75% in the referendum.

An electoral commission pointed out those disenfranchised tend to be “those experiencing social deprivation…. unemployment and low income, poverty, education, skills and training deprivation, health deprivation and disability”. So it must be noted it was not by chance that the areas that voted Yes the most, were not only the areas with the biggest gains in participation since 2010, but also were the areas of highest unemployment.

Labour strategy currently is to gain 35%+ of the 65% who voted in 2010. It must not forget the 1 in 3 that chose not to vote in 2010. The referendum has shown that those previously thrown on the disinterested scrapheap can be re-engaged with the right message.

The allowing of voting by 16 and 17 year olds was a resounding success, not just giving them a sense of participation and civic involvement, but also adding greater vibrancy and participation to the election. As a group whose top three concerns are  health, unemployment and education, surely it is only good news for Labour if their voice is heard at General Elections as well?

All in all, the one hope we must take  from the Scottish referendum is that it shown Labour it does not need to kowtow to the UKIP driven agenda of blame and hate. From it’s inception in the 19th century  Labour has always been about an agenda of hope and mass participation. Can the lasting legacy of the  Scottish referendum be to show us that old formula can still inspire?

Ranjit Sidhu is Director and Founder of SiD, Statistics into Decisions ( and blogs on tumblr here

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4 Responses to “Three key lessons for the Left from the Scottish referendum”

  1. paul barker says:

    One of the reasons for the sucsess of The Yes campaign was that so much of the groundwork had already been done by Labour. Labours promotion of the ideas that Scotland was much more Left Wing than England & that Tories were somehow Unscottish created a situation where Yes could appeal to Right & Left at the same time. Any Westminster Government involving Tories was automatically made illegitimate in Scotland, making Independence seem mainstream & natural.
    Labours lies about The NHS in England being privatised were a massive gift to The Yes Parties. Its hard to see how Scottish Labour can recover from its present despond, everything you have been saying for Decades leads logically to voting for The Yes Parties & not Labour.

  2. Robert says:

    The effect of the Scottish referendum has been wholly positive because NO won thankfully. It should result in higher turnout and a shift to the left in Scotland. This could mean more SNP MPs next year and that might not be a bad thing.

  3. Andrew says:

    The main thing we learned from the Referendum is that the response of the Labour party to a popular, grassroots, left-wing movement for social justice and the empowerment of ordinary people is to try and crush it by any means necessary.

  4. uglyfatbloke says:

    Pretty good assessment of the state of affairs I thought.

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