Scotland’s referendum consultations farce

Petty tribalism has ruined two potentially useful consultations on the independence referendum.

A row was provoked last week when it emerged that the Scottish government’s public consultation on the forthcoming independence referendum was open to anonymous contributions. This prompted Anas Sarwar, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to suggest that the whole process had been “designed for abuse”, in that it allowed individuals to submit multiple responses, presumably with the aim of distorting the outcome.

In its defence, the Scottish government pointed out, correctly, that previous public consultations - including a recent one on same-sex marriage which received as many as 50,000 submissions - had been conducted according to similar guidelines and no-one had questioned their legitimacy. But Labour insisted, also correctly, that anonymous submissions should be discounted from the final official tally of total contributions. Eventually, the Scottish government relented and agreed to consider as valid only those submissions whose authors could be identified.

At this point, rather than fizzle out, the row intensified with the publication of the findings of the UK government’s own referendum consultation. Initially, they were seized on by Scotland Secretary Michael Moore as evidence of widespread support for the coalition’s position on the timing and format of the ballot (70 per cent of respondents said they wanted the vote to be held next year instead of in 2014, while 75 per cent said they wanted a single Yes/No question). However, it soon became clear that these figures were not a reliable sample of Scottish public opinion. This is because a quarter (740 of approximately 3000) of all the Westminster consultation responses were identical. That is, they had been copied word for word from a “standard text” response available on the Scottish Labour website.

The SNP immediately claimed that this discredited the UK consultation, with Alex Salmond expressing concern that it had been “flooded” by made-to-order Labour submissions. But the First Minister failed to mention that the SNP also provided a “standard text” response blueprint for the Scottish government’s consultation on its website. We won’t know what percentage of the total submissions to the Holyrood consultation (so far there have been around 12,000) are based on the SNP’s template until they are published in May.

Two things should be taken from this rather farcical episode. The first is that, under current conditions, government consultations in Scotland are not accurate barometers of the public mood and in fact invite party political manipulation, particularly when they are concerned with issues as deeply polarised as that of the constitution. The second is that Scottish politicians are apparently incapable of resisting the temptation to score cheap points off one another, even if it means engaging in embarrassing retreats later on.

It should also be said that instead of having a UK government consultation and a Scottish government consultation - both of which, if conducted properly, could have been helpful in bringing the Scottish constitutional impasse to some sort of resolution - Scotland now has a unionist one, tailored to unionist preferences, and a nationalist one, tailored to nationalist preferences. Even Salmond, Sarwar and Moore would have to concede this renders the whole exercise of “consulting the public” more or less futile.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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