The Power of Indecision: The Undecided and the First Debate

I confess that I am one of those that would like to make voting (in elections, not just this Referendum) compulsory. It is a right that has been fought for by so many, that I find the idea that people would choose not to vote kind of offensive – and yes, I know that is highly unreasonable. But I think that people should engage with the politics of the world that surrounds them, and never just sit back, because when you do that, somebody gains from your complacency – sometimes even is relying on it. And the beneficiaries are usually not the people around you.

But very different from the ‘won’t participates’ are the ‘don’t knows’ in this Referendum.

In a similar way to the broad rule of thumb at the start of the campaign (a third for No, a third for Yes, and a third for DevoMax), a third of the electorate have generally been undecided since the Westminster parties decided that there would be no second question for DevoMax (or any extended devolution option) on the ballot paper. The Undecided have always – unreasonably – been a source of frustration to me, as to many who found the choice of either Yes or No quite an ‘easy’ one to make. To us, it is so straightforward (whether Yes or No) that it becomes increasingly unthinkable that people have not come to a decision, as the campaign has continued. It’s important to take responsibility – avoid being one of those citizens who declares themselves to be ‘apolitical’ (what exactly does that mean, in a world where politics governs every single aspect of your life?), in the hope that it is some kind of panacea, an absolution of responsibility or guilt, the biggest school sick note – ‘he is excused politics, miss, so doesn’t have to think about the decision that he has to make, Ok?’

The ‘No’ campaign has done well to deny airspace and maintain a mainstream media illusion of a paucity of information to make a decision, and their strategy of not participating in the many local debates being organized is a strand of the same tactic. Similarly, their attempt to tar ‘Yes’ with the same brush as themselves, to sustain the fiction that both sides are the same, in terms of abuse, mudslinging, counterclaims… They know that this provides fertile ground for another great lie – ‘they are all the same, so why bother?’, as a justification for not engaging. I despair of people who try to tell themselves they can stand by and let this ‘little local piece of nonsense’ rumble by – especially when they have kids, and therefore a huge personal stake in the Future, not just the Here and Now of their own lives.

But this is not a general election, and increasingly people are realizing that this is a more difficult vote to avoid – polls of likely turnout are sitting at 75-80% for the Referendum. Which brings me to the debate last night.

Beforehand, I had two thoughts on what might possibly occur – one was picking up on an exit poll idea from another poster, in terms of getting No voters to pretend they were undecided or Yes beforehand, then switch – however I don’t believe that such an analysis was undertaken. The other was whether AS would be lower key in the hope of yet luring David Cameron into a live debate after all…Having watched the debate, I am not convinced that the latter was a deliberate strategy – but it yet might happen.

Both speakers seemed subdued compared to what one might have expected based on their previous form, AD not quite as apoplectic as he has appeared in some interviews, and AS not so confident. AD exemplified the No campaign’s tactics of repeating questions (one in particular) that were answered a long time ago (as always, the pound sterling will be the currency, regardless of whether Westminster say they will ‘allow’ it or not – in fact, there are some distinct advantages to using Sterling without a formal currency union with Westminster). AS did not appear to have the same impact, although did make AD look flustered on refusing to agree that Scotland could be a successful country and his vagueness on ‘more powers’. In some ways, the chair, Bernard Ponsonby, managed more apparently successful and revealing attacks on AD than AS did, throughout the evening.

I came away somewhat disappointed – the veteran politician of his generation had simply failed to turn up, and I was concerned at a possible opportunity lost.

But IPSOS-MORI, the hosts for the evening, had a somewhat surprising story to tell in their polls of the audience. Firstly, as has become standard for debates surrounding the Referendum, support for Yes increased (from 45% to 47%) over the course of the broadcast, despite what was interpreted as a below par performance by AS. Similarly unsurprising was that ‘Yes’ voters thought AS had won, and ‘No’ voters went for AD. Going beyond those of their group that were already decided believing that their own representative had ‘won’, and looking into those who were undecided when the debate began, 55% thought that AS had won. And for those who remained undecided by the end of the debate, they broke 74% for AS having won the debate as against 26% for AD.

This is of course interesting for those of us wondering about the likely way that the Undecideds will eventually break, and trying desperately to read whatever runes or entrails are to hand that might give us some indication. Thus far, as the block of ‘don’t knows’ has diminished from a third to just over 10% of those surveyed, the proportion has been roughly 2:1 for Yes:No. Although Yes strategist Stephen Noon’s survey data does seem to indicate a continuing positive shift within this group, there is, of course, no guarantee that the last 10+% will continue that 2:1 trend, and indeed it may well be that they are waiting for some event, some mishandling or PR disaster in the last two weeks, that will make them emphatically jump one way or the other.

Undecideds commenting on who won the debate last night does not mean that they will vote that way – especially as it is not exactly a huge sample – but it does suggest that, on a moderately even footing, they were more receptive to the Yes arguments than those of the No. And that reminds us that last night was not a boxing match for last man standing, but about seeing who could win over the Undecideds – and on that basis, unlikely though it felt by 10.45pm, AS seems to have won the real battle last night.

“What we are witnessing is a mass outbreak of independent-mindedness as motivated Yes supporters set up their own online papers, mass canvassing movements, arts festivals, speaking tours, books, badge and T-shirt slogans, local groups and TV channels.” (Lesley Riddoch, broadcaster)

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