By Kate Higgins
It garnered a lot of unwarranted media coverage, both in the run up to the vote and on the result itself.
In a mock referendum for students, organised by the quaintly named Dialectic Society at Glasgow University, the nos had it. 62% or 1642 students voted to stay in the United Kingdom with 38% or 967 voting for independence. What was most remarkable was the paltry turnout of 10%: only 10% cared enough to cast a vote. That hasn’t stopped us all umming and awing and looking for signs of relevance to the real thing.
Somewhat predictably, Better Together seized on the result with glee, pointing out that it matters because Yes Scotland invested time in the campaign. Why, the Depute First Minister even deigned to visit, ignoring the fact that as a former Glasgow university student and a current Glasgow MSP, she might have been expected to show some interest. Damned that she did and she would have been damned if she didn’t.
I’m not sure Yes Scotland threw the kitchen sink at this one, as some have claimed, but it would be odd if the main protagonists ignored mock referenda like this. What both sides will have to work out – because Better Together will take a few knocks on the road to 2014 eventually too – is how to gee up campaigns and ensure materials and messaging are reaching prospective voters without being seen to be all over such mock events like a rash. That’s a tough one and maybe Yes Scotland has realised it needs to be less overt in its approach if only to avoid unnecessary negative commentary. Of course, less overt should probably translate into building well organised, strong supporter bases in obvious places for such activity well before the event.
Some have also surmised that because Glasgow is a more working class university with more Scottish students than its ancient peers, the result would have – could have? – been more damaging for the yes camp if held elsewhere. But the idea that Glasgow is a working class yooni is a relative concept: more home-grown than Edinburgh or St Andrews certainly, but not nearly as populated by young people from less well-off areas than Dundee or even its near neighbours, Strathclyde and Glasgow Caley. Nearly 87% of its student population might hail from state schools but I’d hedge a bet that many are from local authority top-performing schools, most of which are located in better off areas. And perhaps people who have the opportunity to make it in life within our current political and institutional structures are more likely to want things to stay as they are. Why rock a boat which doesn’t need rocking?
However, until we have a mock poll involving all higher education establishments, we cannot really rely on one result from one university to tell us anything meaningful about how different demographic groups will actually vote, even within the student population.
Perhaps of greater interest is the turn-out. People have thrown their arms up in horror, metaphorically, at how few students bothered to turn out and vote but is the low poll for the referendum representative of student apathy in political polls more generally or did they specifically reserve disdain for the great constitutional debate of our times? Probably a mix of the two.
What it tells us is that many have yet to awaken to the charms of voting yes or no for independence. While there is a veritable cottage industry of forums, seminars, events, debates and conferences on the constitution, in truth, it is operating in a parallel universe. The issue and its consequences might be of significant interest to the chattering classes – and to political anoraks like me and thee, dear reader – but for most of the population, there is plenty time to get excited with the vote still some eighteen months hence. This is not the dominant political issue of the day for ordinary folk, who are more likely to be concerned about more mundane matters like jobs, fuel bills and horsemeat. The lack of interest displayed by Glasgow students is perhaps a microcosm of a wider indifference at large in the electorate.
But when put beside the recent IPSOS-Mori poll findings which showed a remarkable leap of faith among voters aged 18 to 24, then the failure of the Yes camp to win this one is possibly more startling. That poll suggested that a firm majority of young voters would now vote yes, yet when put to the test among a significant body of voters in that age group – and most university students are aged between 18 and 24 – then they shied away. And while Yes Scotland was quick to trumpet this shift as a sign of something more momentous happening, the Glasgow university result should sound a note of caution, for if it is to rely on the votes of young people to carry the day come autumn 2014, then it needs to actually get them to vote in the first place. Giving an opinion for market research is apparently a much easier, more palatable option than getting out of your bed or out of the bar to physically cast a vote.
And all those traditionalists in the SNP – and there are plenty – who have resisted the march of technology on voting, preferring instead to adhere to the safe, manageable option of making people go in person to a specific place to cast a vote using a pencil and paper might come to rue such incomprehensible adherence to the good, old ways.
The opportunity to reform the voting system in time for the referendum might have passed us by, but there is still plenty that can and should be done to encourage more young people to participate. Students, in particular, have always been a thorny voter group to reach. Many are registered nowhere, some are registered both at university and at home, and many of them despite having the choice of where to vote, choose not to. Over the years, many’s the time I’ve been on polling day knock-up and enquired about the third or fourth person in a household marked down as “one of ours” only to be told they are away at university. All the parties could tell the same tale.
While potential campaign advantage might prompt Yes Scotland to seek to plan and implement a voter registration and turn-out process by itself – and for Better Together to leave well alone – neither camp should be left to its own devices on this one.
Pete Ramand has already highlighted why a voter registration drive should be one of the pro-independence campaign’s priorities – and he’s bang on. But actually the job should sit with the Electoral Commission. Because this is a once in a generation poll, it needs to involve everyone and enable everyone to vote. And if the referendum is treated like just another election, there is a big risk that young people – and others who traditionally do not register to vote, particularly poorer people – miss out.
We need a mass voter registration drive, co-ordinated and driven by the Electoral Commission, which is adequately financed. In recent times, the electoral body has been given paltry amounts with which to engage voters: that must be rectified. Given that the power to hold and manage the referendum has been transferred to Holyrood, then the Scottish Parliament can provide additional funds for this purpose. At the very least, it would put pressure on Westminster to match it. Additionally, we need widespread voter engagement and education activity, with the Electoral Commission supporting charities and organisations which can reach the voter groups least likely to participate, to conduct it. People need to be persuaded in this vote, above all others, why their vote matters and such activity would have the bonus of ingraining a voting habit in people and parts of society where previously there was none.
Why? Because it is vital that all of Scotland takes part in this decision and that we all own the outcome. Consequently, turnout at the referendum matters, almost as much as the reckoning does. To achieve a high turnout and an engaged and informed electorate requires a non-partisan, mass participation and registration programme to persuade people of the necessity and desirability of voting, however they choose to do so. Who knows, such an approach might even manage to double turnout at Glasgow university.