By Roger Mac Ginty
As someone who is involved in the Everyday Peace Indicators project, and someone who has just lived through the referendum on Scottish independence, I have been thinking about how informal and anecdotal indicators helped me gauge the public mood in the run up to the referendum.
The referendum, which was held on 18 September 2014, asked people if they wished Scotland to become an independent country. The suggestion was rejected by 55 percent to 45 percent. The referendum campaign saw lots of traditional ways in which observers and voters could see which way the political winds were blowing. There were multiple opinion polls by news organisations, public rallies, and editorials and commentary pieces in the newspapers. But what about on-the-ground indicators? What were the informal indicators that could help observers gauge the political mood?
The following are my personal reflections as a resident in Scotland, rather than as a Professor of Politics.
The first and most obvious indicator was that people who did not normally talk about politics were talking about politics. On the morning dog walk or in the queue at the post office, conversations about the weather were replaced by conversations about the referendum. The magnitude of the possible constitutional change energized people on both sides. The conversations were usually informed and betrayed passion. Electoral turnout in the UK varies enormously from constituency to constituency, but averages in the low 60s (percent) in general elections. Electoral registration shot up for the referendum. In my village 94.7 percent of people voted. People who were going away made sure they voted by post. This is quite remarkable given the sense of disillusionment with politics felt by many electors. There is a strong democratic deficit, yet people felt that this was not ‘politics as usual’ and so it required a different approach.
So simply listening to people talk in the street or in coffee shops allowed me to gauge the mood. It was by no means scientific. There is no way that my sample was in any random or representative. It was heavily influenced by the area I live in and the cohorts of people I was able to mix with. But I was able to pick up that people were energized, that turnout was likely to be very high, and that it would be close.
A second indicator were the number of signs and badges that people had on their homes, cars and person. The public display of political affiliation in the UK is quite rare among the vast majority of the population. It is not a society with a political bumper sticker tradition. But as polling day got closer, it was possible to see more and more signs in windows and cars, and on lapels. Again there were problems of representativeness of the ‘sample’ but it reinforced the notion that something significant was occurring on the political landscape.
A third indicator was to listen to local opinion formers. By this I do not mean elected politicians or those with a regular columns in the news media. Instead, it was interesting to see how different cohorts of the population were intending to vote. By speaking with people on during my daily business, but also by looking at the energized letters page in the local weekly paper, and by conducting a badge, sign, sticker ‘census’ I was able to gauge the attitudes of different groups. Again, this was unscientific, but it was interesting to split people up by gender, age, low/high social capital, small business owners, state employees, retired etc. My highly anecdotal survey chimed with recent analysis I have been reading on the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party. This suggests that UKIP are popular with the ‘left behinds’, those who feel left behind by the knowledge economy, globalization and transculturalism. In other words, they see many of the developments associated with modernity as a threat rather than an opportunity. Many of those who were prepared to vote No seemed to have an overall negative outlook on life: they seemed to be older, often were in small (but precarious) businesses, and had not experienced third level education. On the other hand, many of those who were preparing to vote Yes were younger, had transferable skills, and were educated to university level.
And within these cohorts at the local level, there were leaders and followers. The leaders often had some form of prominence in the local community and greater levels of social capital (family and friendship networks, active in the local community).
All of this reinforced my belief in the simple research technique of talking to people and listening to what they have to say. It sounds terribly scientific and unstructured. A Political Science methods text book called “Talking to people and listening to what they have to say” would be unlikely to make it onto the reading lists in many institutions. But oddly, my technique – and doubtless a huge amount of luck – allowed me to predict the referendum result with absolute precision: 45 – 55.