Electoral Commission ‘neutral’ guidance booklet contains partisan referendum claims

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  By Martin Kelly
 
A referendum voting guide, published by the Electoral Commission and set to be delivered to every household in Scotland, contains partisan messages from both sides in the independence debate.
 
The guide – The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum Voting Guide – is designed to inform voters on the steps they need to take in order to be certain they can vote in September’s referendum.

The voting guide, being sent to over 2.5 million households, contains factual information on how to register to vote and the different ways of casting a referendum vote.

However Newsnet Scotland can reveal that the taxpayer funded pamphlet also contains messages from both campaigns.  In what will be seen as a controversial move, the electoral watchdog invited both campaigns to submit arguments in favour of their respective stance.

The Yes message was broadly positive, with generic visions of a Yes vote.  However the pro-independence campaign message also contained what many would view as a partisan view of past and present Westminster Governments:

  • A No vote means a future stifled by the repeated failures of Westminster governments, governments we didn’t even vote for.

However the message from the No campaign is certain to raise eyebrows due to what appear to be several demonstrably false claims.  The Better Together message also appears to be designed to dissuade people from voting – precisely the opposite of what the booklet is intended to do.

In the booklet Better Together says:

  • We don’t need to choose between the two. 
  • Voting for separation would be a huge leap into the unknown.
  • If we leave then we lose the strength of the UK pound. This would mean we would pay more for our mortgages, credit cards and loans.
  • If we leave we are putting our pensions at risk.
  • If we leave we are risking big companies being forced to move south and Scottish jobs being lost.

Newsnet Scotland contacted the Electoral Commission to ask why campaign literature had been allowed to appear on a booklet aimed at encouraging people to take part in the referendum.

A spokesperson said: “When we tested the referendum question with voters in late 2012, many of them told us that – as well as factual information on how to take part in the poll – they also wanted more information about the referendum issues including the pros and cons of independence.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for voters to access all the information they need to be able to take part confidently in the referendum, therefore, we offered each designated lead campaigner a page in our voter information booklet to be able to communicate directly to voters.”

A document provided by the spokesperson revealed that research had been conducted by polling company Ipsos Mori in order to determine what effect the booklet had on voters. 

It revealed that only fifty four people took part in the research, of which the biggest group was 16-17 year olds (20 people).  The age ranges of the other groups group were 18-35 (13 people), 36-59 (14 people) and 60+ (7 people).  Some of the group had never voted whilst others had taken part in previous elections.

On the ‘third party’ messages from both campaigns, the research concluded:

  • Some of those who were already confident about the process, but had not been certain to vote, were more motivated to do so having read the Third Party content.
  • Overall, participants tended to feel that Third Party sections contained the most interesting and useful information in the booklet.  It was clear that, for some 16-17 year olds and others who had never voted, the inclusion of this material engaged them in the process and made them consider the importance of voting in a way they had not done previously.
  • Although many participants did not pick up on exactly who had produced the Third Party content, they nonetheless tended to feel that the booklet overall was impartial – either because it was all produced by a neutral source or because the arguments for and against were balanced.

The study did not appear to take into account the referendum voting intentions of any of the group or whether the booklet had influenced those who took part in the study to vote Yes or No.  Newsnet Scotland understands that neither campaign was offered the opportunity to vet the other’s claims for accuracy.

There will be fears that by allowing literature from both campaigns to appear on neutral material, the Electoral Commission is running the risk of being seen to ‘endorse’ the validity of the claims and has inadvertently compromised its own integrity.

Newsnet Scotland has asked the Electoral Commission to answer the following questions:

  • Can you confirm if either side were offered the opportunity to vet, or respond to, one another’s statements?
  • Who took the decision to allow campaign literature to be included in the booklet, and was it compulsory?
  • When you ‘tested’ the information supplied by each side, did Ipsos Mori ask those who took part whether they backed Yes or No?
  • Did the Electoral Commission question Ipsos Mori to ensure their voter research was fair and balanced?
  • Did the Electoral Commission carry out any checks to ensure claims made by either side were not demonstrably false?

As yet we have no response from the Electoral Commission.

[Newsnet comment – We are generally surprised that taxpayers’ money has been spent on this and we would anticipate Yes supporters will take issue with the fact that highly questionable, and very specific, claims from the No campaign are to be found on the official Electoral Commission guidance.
 
Whilst the Yes campaign makes a claim that is pejorative and questionable: “A No vote means a future stifled by the repeated failures of Westminster governments, governments we didn’t even vote for.”  It is a generic claim and quite non-specific.
 
The statements from Better Together though are alarming:
 
On the booklet, which is aimed at encouraging people to register to vote, Better Together say: “We don’t need to choose between the two.”  There are people who may be influenced NOT to register if they read a statement like this.  The referendum very much IS about choosing between two options.
 
Better Together also say: “Voting for separation…”  No-one will be voting for or against ‘separation’.  Again, some people may find this term off-putting and fail to register.
 
Then there are a string of claims: “If we leave then we lose the strength of the UK pound.  This would mean we would pay more for our mortgages, credit cards and loans.  If we leave we are putting our pensions at risk.  If we leave we are risking big companies being forced to move south and Scottish jobs being lost.”
 
We understand the Electoral Commission cannot vet campaign literature being distributed by both campaigns, but to allow these claims [some of which are demonstrably false, others very highly questionable] to be published alongside official referendum guidelines is quite unacceptable.  People will now believe the Electoral Commission has accepted these arguments as fact.

In our view, allowing campaign literature from both sides to be included in official Electoral Commission material is absolutely not acceptable and bordering on outrageous.

It also should not be ignored that the No campaign is struggling to find volunteers to distribute its material – something that the Yes campaign has no problem with.  Taxpayers’ cash is thus being used in order to address a weakness in the pro-Union campaign.]