Nationalists for No: The Real Referendum Battleground?

Rather a lot of political excitement has been caused recently by claims that the Labour for Independence campaign was a front populated by current and/or recent SNP activists rather than a grassroots organization consisting of genuine Labour members – see, for example, these articles by Severin Carrell and Tom Gordon. Apart from casting aspersions on the integrity of the Yes campaign, the claims were seemingly inviting us to draw the conclusion that Labour supporters who back independence are few and far between.

Not quite.  Between them two MORI polls that asked the final version of the referendum question reported that while 77% of those who would vote Labour in a Scottish Parliament election say they will vote No, as many as 13% indicate they will vote Yes. Meanwhile three Panelbase polls have on average put these proportions at 62% and 16%. So while most Labour supporters are indeed duly signed up to the unionist cause, there is a non-trivial minority who are not.

Moreover, Labour supporters appear to be the most ‘flaky’ part of the unionist coalition; well over 90% of Conservative supporters say they will vote No, as do some 80% or so of the much diminished band of Liberal Democrats. It is little wonder then that the Yes campaign should have decided that efforts targeted at Labour voters were a good way of pushing its poll ratings up.

Yet arguably this is not the Yes campaign’s most immediate and pressing task. Rather it has weaknesses to address much closer to home – amongst SNP voters. Analysis of what happened in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election has shown that the SNP won its overall majority not because of some surge in support for independence, but rather because it was felt to be doing a good job of running the existing devolution settlement (see Scottish Affairs, no. 76, autumn 2011).  Two years on, that legacy is still with us.

According to MORI only 70% of those who would currently vote to keep Alex Salmond in power say they will vote Yes, while 17% indicate they propose to vote No.  Even Panelbase, whose figures tend to be rather rosier for the Yes side, report on average that just 68% of SNP voters would currently vote Yes and that no less 14% are backing the No side. For every three Labour supporters who are in favour of independence there are apparently four SNP backers who are opposed.

The Yes campaign simply cannot afford the continued existence of such a large phalanx of ‘Nationalists for No’.  Evidently they are not to be won over by arguments based on how good a job the SNP have done in the past six years. Rather they are going to have to be presented with a powerful vision of what independence will bring. Much could well rest on what this group in particular makes of the Scottish Government’s long awaited prospectus for independence due to be unveiled in the autumn.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.