How Better Together almost lost the Union

Posted on 21/09/2014


There are three vital statistics from the Scottish referendum.

1) The result. 55% to 45%. A definitive result. And there’s more than enough analysis of this on the internet.

2) The turnout. 85% and in some areas as high as 91%. Record breaking and proof that when an issue really matters, people will vote.

But the third is the most interesting.

3) 71%. This was the number of Scots planning to vote No in May 2013.

So just how did the ‘No’ campaign go from a massive lead to coming perilously close to disaster?

The answer is that it fought, quite possibly, the worst PR campaign in modern politics. The Better Together campaign, helped along by some ill-judged help from an ad agency, was lacking in hope, optimism and vision – and it ended up relying on threats and a major last minute concession.

In fact, the Better Together campaign failed on multiple fronts:

  • It didn’t fulfil its brand promise
  • It didn’t get social
  • It panicked

The brand promise

No campaigners needed to bring to life the words Better Together – making them mean something.

The second word was easier for the No camp to achieve. All it had to do was reassure people of the benefits of staying together. With much of the Yes campaign rhetoric based around the principle of ‘wait and see after the vote’ this was easy.

But it needed to do one other thing as well. It had to paint a picture of a Better Scotland within the Union. No threats, no bribes, but a vision for what the United Kingdom could become.

This was totally lacking from the campaign and was clearly exposed by the message of optimism and hope shown by the Yes campaign.

In fact, even in the rest of the UK, the campaign delivered a plea to retain the status quo, when it was becoming clear Scotland wanted change.

Not getting social

The Better Together campaign was utterly trounced on social media. Its campaign errors – from the patronising Better Together Lady to the Lego fiasco – were laughable, had it not been for the seriousness of the cause the No camp were fighting for. But worse than not getting social media, they didn’t get social communications as a whole.

The Yes campaign out manoeuvred and out organised the No camp on every level. The Yes-sers set up more than 100 affiliate groups to spread specific messages in specific audiences and bypass the No-leaning mainstream media. It was a campaign which was handed over to the campaigners themselves and the it had impact on discussions in pubs, clubs and among family and friends – as well as on social media and in local newspaper letters pages – demonstrates the power of social communications.

Most importantly, the vast majority of Yes campaigners were optimistic. They saw a better future ahead of them.

This lasted right through to polling day, where several voters reported seeing Yes campaigners singing outside polling stations while the No camp had dour protesters with ‘not worth the risk’ placards.

This “masterclass” in community engagement was head and shoulders above the ‘Volvo’ like No campaign and a month out from the vote, Labour started to wake up to the real threat of a Yes vote, started to panic and brought in more support to patch up the campaign.

Panic stations

This Labour-led response to the success of the Yes campaign, was supported by the wider Westminster village in a last minute panic that demonstrated just how badly the campaign was doing.

As the FT’s editor confirmed on Radio 4, business leaders were press ganged by Downing Street into threatening redundancies, a board director at the Department for Work and Pensions (and boss of B&Q) organised a letter claiming price rises would befall an independent Scotland. Tory high-flyers even saw their former employers in the consultancy and finance industries issue a cavalcade of reports threatening impending doom on Scotland (but oddly not the rest of UK) in the event of a Yes vote.

Political and business classes deployed their media contacts books to the full and the BBC became a Pravda-esque mouthpiece for the No campaign, with presenters going native. The flagship Today programme often failed to even put Yes arguments to their guests with the business team especially guilty of throwing up patsy questions to No bosses. [Sign this petition if this concerns you]

ITV’s Good Morning Britain were apparently so concerned that the presenters may declare an opinion that it even banned them from using the word haggis on air. Sky’s Kay Burley even called Yes campaigners ‘knobs’.

Then there was the emotional blackmail. More reminiscent of a partner pleading with a spouse to stay with them, Team Westminster politicians took to pleading with Scots in highly emotional terms.

But at least the No camp had the sense to adopt a carrot and stick approach in the final days, deploying Gordon Brown as the carrot-offerer in chief.

Yet the last minute bribe to concede to Scots a form of Home Rule, which Salmond had asked for on the ballot paper but Cameron had rejected, was the final recognition of desperation.  And it demonstrated what an abject failure Team Westminster-backed Better Together were.

Having to concede a rushed through devolution policy and the No campaign’s dismal 15 percentage point poll collapse in 18 months, should be the ultimate humiliation to Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Darling, Alexander and Better Together chief executive and former David Miliband leadership campaign boss Blair Macdougall.

Yet they are able to claim they won.

In communications terms, nothing is further from the truth.

While we wait to see what legacy this failure, desperation and panic will leave in terms of the 2015 General Election, constitutional change and long term impact on British politics, campaigners will at least be able to use the No campaign as an arch lesson in how to almost snatch defeat from the open jaws of victory.