It’s often said that the SNP lost the referendum because they failed to convince the people of Scotland that they had a plausible vision for independence. There is certainly a lot of truth in this. Their arguments were at times perplexing and self defeating. They wanted independence but not independence from the monarchy; independence but not independence from the Bank of England; independence but not independence from NATO. This was the SNP’s undoing and something I hope, but don’t expect, they will address for any future independence referendum.
It is, however, overly simplistic to say that the SNP alone lost the referendum. There were many groups campaigning as part of Yes Scotland, and SSP and RIC activists were easily the match of their SNP counterparts in terms of commitment and input to the cause. Importantly, these groups were anti-monarchy, anti-NATO and in favour of a new Scottish currency (although perhaps in the long term rather than immediately after indy). So while the SNP’s self defeating stance would certainly have cost the YES vote considerably it can’t be the whole story. On the left we must also look at what went wrong and what we need to address for any future vote.
The reasons are of course complex and many of them have been discussed at length elsewhere. There is one problem with the left’s campaigning during the indy ref that hasn’t been discussed much, and that problem was the over-reliance on young activists. On the left we don’t enjoy large donations from millionaires from which to finance our campaigns. This is just a fact of life, and during the indy campaign as with any other it meant that we had to work with what we had; and what we had was a lot of excellent motivated and intelligent young activists. Every party in the country would love to have our activists, it’s the one thing money can’t buy. Just look at the Scottish Labour Party, funded by millionaires but during the recent election had to rely on paid staff to deliver leaflets through the doors because of a total absence of activists.
An over-saturation of young activists becomes a problem, however, when they are required to talk to older generations. Many of them just haven’t developed those skills yet. It’s a combination of a lack of life experience and that irritating habit teenagers have of thinking they are right about everything. We’re often told that the current politicians need to be replaced because they are out of touch with real life. That argument isn’t very convincing if it’s being made by a 16 year old who has never had a proper job and doesn’t intend on getting one for about another 10 years (once he gets his gap year, uni and post grad out the way).
This isn’t just an exercise in hindsight; it has become a genuine problem for the left that a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge. Within a couple of weeks, the Scottish Socialist Party, with a handful of other individuals, will officially launch a new left wing alliance for Scottish elections. As of now, the SSP are the only credible group in this alliance but we hope to attract more to it as time goes by. Indeed, we’re already talking with some other groups. There are a number of things that need to happen for this alliance to be successful, but one of those things is that we must not inherit this “youth fetish” from RIC and the left of the YES movement.
During the indy ref the strong youth element that the left brought with it certainly won the argument among the younger generations. The statistics show that young people voted for independence. On the other hand, the older generations voted overwhelmingly against and we have to accept that the reason for that is our message failed to resonate with them. It failed to do so primarily because it was being delivered mostly by teenagers and young people, who were just unable to connect with the older generations.
The challenge for the left in the future, not just for any future indy referendum but in general, is to ditch this youth fetish. On the left we have a lot more to offer than just a lot of young faces, but a belief has crept in from somewhere that all we need to do is connect with the “youth” and we’ll be victorious. The result of the indy ref should have ended this belief but for some reason it still persists. Let’s just quickly examine the demographics here: the youngest generation eligible to vote is also the smallest in terms of numbers (and therefore potential votes). Further, it is the generation whose members are the least likely to vote. So while there are undoubtedly votes to be won in that demographic, it isn’t hard to see why pinning all your hopes on the youth vote isn’t exactly a strategy for success.
I should point out that I am not anti-youth. In my younger days I was the youth organiser for my branch of the SSP, so I can totally appreciate the hard work all our young activists put in. I’m certainly not calling for an end to their activism or criticizing their commitment. We can’t, however, expect everyone to be convinced by them. In a recent debate about the EU I was told by a teenager that I just don’t “get it” because I’m too old but that if I listen to him he’ll explain it to me. Now let me get this off my chest. I’m not too old! I’m 34. Older, but not old. Am I to seriously accept that someone who believes being in your mid-thirties is akin to having zero intellect is somehow “more in touch with real life” than New Labour or Lib Dem MP’s? I can’t believe many in the electorate will be convinced. That approach (the “thinking you know best about everything just because you’re a teenager” approach) might work when speaking to other teenagers (who of course share the belief that teenagers know best about everything and that no one else’s life experience is ever relevant to political debate), but it only annoys older people. Older people who, let’s not forget, make up a much bigger proportion of the electorate than the youth.