Wooing the undecided voter


  By Lesley Riddoch

UNDECIDED — unsure, uncertain, doubtful, dubious, unresolved, indecisive, irresolute, hesitant, tentative, wavering, vacillating, oscillating, equivocating, dithering, uncommitted, floating, shilly-shallying, wobbling, vague, hazy, unclear, ambivalent, in two minds, torn and split.

You’d need the self-esteem of a vole to be Undecided in Scotland and yet Don’t Knows still form a quarter of those surveyed in every independence poll. How come — especially after the voluminous White Paper?

  By Lesley Riddoch

UNDECIDED — unsure, uncertain, doubtful, dubious, unresolved, indecisive, irresolute, hesitant, tentative, wavering, vacillating, oscillating, equivocating, dithering, uncommitted, floating, shilly-shallying, wobbling, vague, hazy, unclear, ambivalent, in two minds, torn and split.

You’d need the self-esteem of a vole to be Undecided in Scotland and yet Don’t Knows still form a quarter of those surveyed in every independence poll. How come — especially after the voluminous White Paper?

The Very Decided find the Don’t Knows baffling … even infuriating.

“Why can’t they see Scotland’s better off making its own decisions? If they want more “information” why don’t they come to Yes meetings and ask – we’ve got answers for everything.”

Very true — and completely off-putting. Certainty may work for square-jawed, chisel-featured all-American screen idols. But not for fellow Scots.  Indeed the characteristic absence of all questioning, debate or hesitation amongst Yes supporters may be a barrier to winning over waverers. If God-like certainty and resolute optimism are required to become a Yes voter, the bar has been set o’er high for mere mortals.

Reasonable folk know that change makes some things easier and some things harder in the short term. They know no scenario brings guaranteed, unmitigated happiness and they know there isn’t a quick answer for everything. They understand the ambiguity of change and expect to hear it reflected in political debate. They don’t. So they remain distanced from the cast-iron certainty that emanates from all “proper” Yes supporters. They remain Undecided.

“Things can only get better” worked for New Labour until reality set in – now that slogan rings hollow. And yet a tartan version has flown over the independence campaign since Day One.
So the first counter-intuitive thing to say about Undecided folk is that their indecision may well be the mirror image of the unnatural conviction about the future they see all around.

Certainty amongst some creates indecision amongst others. After all, unless you are rock-solid certain about the merits of independence you don’t sound like a Yes supporter.

Of course there are other reasons why closet Yes supporters prefer to remain “Don’t Knows.” An undecided friend drew up a small list;

a. They are independents not nationalists. They can’t bring themselves to be perceived as SNP

b. Life is too short to get sucked into the tedious, grinding public debate.

c. They fear the backlash from No colleagues

d. It’s professionally awkward

e. It’s a source of family division

f. There’s a “how would I do without…” factor in which losing the BBC is the most common anxiety.

Because these fears sound relatively trivial they don’t get mentioned – so they don’t get resolved.  Indeed, I’d add another category to my pal’s list.

g. Closet Yes voters fear the claustrophobic love of newly-found Yes colleagues and the insistence they too become uncritical, born-again supporters of the Independence campaign.

The only hostile questioning I’ve had after a Blossom event has been from Yes supporters. Some are irritated I’m even raising Scotland’s unresolved problems of poor health, inequality, weak local democracy and concentrated land ownership. A vocal few insist all these problems arise solely from Scotland’s membership of the Union.

They are annoyed with the observation that Scots have been half-hearted in creating the structural change needed to tackle these social ills under devolution and they are particularly hostile to the notion that independence alone will not change Scotland.

I may be completely wrong, but judging from the response of more mixed meetings I’d guess a great many Undecided folk want to talk about just such deep-seated concerns.

I intend to vote yes on September 18th because I despair of the UK ever creating a fair society and because hitting the reset button in Scotland may be the best way to create deep-seated change here too. And by gum we need it.

Without a big change in top-down Scotland, the same folk will be in charge with the same resistance to structural change. Scotland has the weakest local democracy in Europe. We have the smallest number of people owning the largest number of acres of land, lochs and rivers. We have one of the worst health records in Europe with premature mortality in Glasgow accounted for by much higher than average suicide, violence, alcohol and drug abuse.

Scotland has been run for centuries by elites – only some of them based in London – and we have hardly dented a prevailing macho culture that prompts many talented women (and New Men) to leave or stay and underachieve.

All of those issues could have been tackled in a devolved Scotland as a matter of national urgency — but they have not. And that mind-set – that tendency to pull punches, avoid conflict, stop shy of structural change and settle for sticking plaster solutions – that mind-set may simply be carried into independence if we aren’t careful.

If independence is born in a climate of denial about the deep-seated need for change and the capacity of Scots to deliver it themselves – if independence begins with such low expectations of their fellow Scots amongst politicians, the Establishment and professional Scotland – then what good will all the new powers and economic levers in the world do?  

I suspect something like this is the Elephant in the room for many Undecided folk. Certainly when I’ve voiced it at recent meetings almost every female head in the room is nodding, then looking round quickly to see if partners are nodding too.

I’d also guess many Undecided folk want a bespoke conversation that recognises their own unique personal history and life experience – not a generalised “conversion” job.

I have two “undecided” friends who hold down decisive and left-leaning jobs. One has spent a lifetime in the labour movement, connected to other union colleagues the length of the UK. He worries that the forces of democracy in Scotland may not be strong enough to resist Establishment capture after independence.

Another friend works in the women’s movement.  She observes that campaigners for independence have a shared goal but not shared values and socially conservative forces like John Mason or Brian Soutar and abusers like Bill Walker worry the hell out of her.

These lives are not identical so their worries are not identical – nor are they lightly dismissed.  You could say every political party is a bit of a mixed bag. But that’s not much of a consolation is it? The prospect of being walled up on the small boat Independence navigating stormy seas with an “auld enemy” is not a very cheery one.

These two friends are not ditherers by nature.  They just don’t hear their deepest worries being discussed by supporters of independence – never mind answered. The general response – “it’ll be alright on the night” is an insult to their intelligence. So they remain Undecided.

Many “Don’t knows” may actually know too much to make a quick decision about independence. They are not binary people. And that’s not to criticise those who found the choice easy – those the pollsters call “heart supporters” of independence or the Union. It’s just that others must weigh things up and hear the things they most fear brought into the open and discussed – honestly and without aggression.

Who will run Scotland if Scots vote yes? Will one top-down government in London be replaced by a new one in Edinburgh? Will the largest local authorities in Europe get bigger? Will Scots vote for independence only to hand massive power to an unelected cabal of money-men and senior politicians?

These are real fears of mine. And that’s why I’ve been stotting round Scotland doing Blossom gigs in any community that’s interested. The more Scots visualise the kind of society we could have after independence, the more we take control of the process and the less party-led the whole campaign becomes.

There are some ways to counter deep-seated fears about independence. But only if those fears are raised in the first place. The recent hostility dished out towards Sarah Smith – coming back to Scotland to head a replacement programme for Newsnight Scotland — is a case in point. I’d guess many Undecided women have been quite appalled at the tiny number of belligerent comments posted on social media – just because Sarah Smith is former Labour leader John Smith’s daughter. Please.

If the new Scotland is based on “I kent her faither” most modern women will not feel any motivation to votes yes – no matter how many adventurous woman-friendly policies are announced by Nicola Sturgeon.

Happily the prospect of independence has unleashed vigorous questioning about everything that’s ae been in Scotland. So the Undecideds also include a new set of independent-minded folk (especially young people) who are not inclined to accept tablet of stone style explanations from anyone.

The BBC conducted research in the 1990s which found that over 50s expect opinion to be delivered from on high by authority figures. But under 50s expect to be offered a range of opinions and will identify with the most like-minded speaker – be they a Queen, Prime Minister, janny or school-girl. 

The Yes Campaign has yet to truly understand this dynamic.

The status of the speaker doesn’t matter to independent-minded folk who don’t want to be fed a line and won’t accept business as usual after independence.  They are hearing some noises they like – but not enough. Yet.

Finally there are Undecided folk who simply aren’t Evangelical. By temperament the Scots are neither effusive Italians nor razzamatazz-loving Americans. Back-slapping, tub-thumping self-congratulatory rallies scunner the average Scot and make the Yes campaign sometimes appear un-Scottish – especially to outsiders. Just as Neil Kinnock’s presumptuous pre-election victory party scunnered undecided voters in 1992.    

Put bluntly, the average thinking, undecided Scot does not want to hear simple slogans like “Just say yes” or “Independence is the normal condition for a country” (tell that to the happily devolved Lander of Germany or the federal states of Canada) or “Independence gives us the chance to decide Scotland’s future” (when devolution’s gave us a stack of choices we didn’t opt to use) or “Decisions made in Scotland are better than those made in Westminster” (they probably will be eventually but in the meantime Edinburgh trams and the Holyrood building spring all too readily to mind).

It’s not that these bald assertions are untrue. They just aren’t enough. Repeating formulaic arguments won’t cut it in this debate. “Heart” supporters of independence are already signed up. The majority of Scots want grown-up, credible reasons to up-end the constitutional arrangements of several lifetimes.

And they aren’t likely to get their own, long experienced and quite particular demons laid to rest in a public meeting – however well meaning, inclusive, cheery and open.

None of this is to criticise folk who’ve poured energy into Yes events. Some of the Undecided are borderline voters and genial folk – who want to feel part of an agreeable crowd. But they are just one amongst many different types of Undecided.

It’s time to change tone and style to communicate with the rest.  The opinions of important men who don’t necessarily shape the views of ordinary Scots.

Matt Quordrup argued in this week’s Scotsman; “Voters do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the issues, nor have they got time to study the small print of policy documents. But they know who they trust and who they distrust. And the individuals the voters trust are not the rich and powerful.”

That’s borne out in everyday life. Trip Advisor and Which are the most trusted sources of “information” because they are genuinely impartial, feature ordinary opinion-givers with first-hand experience and present the good and bad aspects of each product fairly and matter-of-factly.

As with holidays — so with independence.

Let’s lose the all-knowing cast-iron certainty about independence and create a more realistic vision of how everyone (not just a political elite) can build a Better Scotland. Fast.


Lesley Riddoch is the author of ‘Blossom – What Scotland needs to flourish’
Blossom can be bought in bookshops, online at www.luath.co.uk/blossom.html or on kindle http://t.co/0A0J52IP1R