I try to maintain a perspective that reflects that of an ordinary voter. This is almost certainly a vain attempt, since ordinary voters are not SNP party members, or indeed members of any political party, nor do they expend a considerable amount of effort on writing about politics, and although I am no sense a political or legal expert, I have acquired an awareness of the main political issues that is greater than that of most voters, but falls well short of political sophistication.
So what about the voters – how do I see them? A politician or a psephologist will see them through a web – or a prism – of demographic tables, social groupings and with the benefit of research, questionnaires, focus group, etc. and I can only offer a perception. Here it is …
A core group comprises party activists, not necessarily party members – voters who have a very tangible allegiance, understand the issues, the options and the policy differences and who make a fundamental contribution to our democracy in a range of ways. This group entertains few doubts as to how they will vote in any key political event, be it election or referendum, unless of course a major policy rift opens in their party, or a crisis of confidence creates the possibility of a change of allegiance, e.g. disaffected LibDems. (I myself was such a disaffected Labour voter, and jumped the dyke in 2007.)
There is also a highly aware sector of the electorate who know what they are talking about in certain areas, including some who are clearly professional in their fields, and can claim authority for their views, and some who are not and cannot, but are nonetheless well-informed. In almost any day’s letters in the Scottish press I can find correspondents who seem to be ordinary voters, but who are better informed than I am on aspects of the political debate, whether it be legal, constitutional, scientific or economic.
Among my range of friends, relatives and contacts, there is a clear majority who give little attention to politics or world affairs on a day to day basis, unless or until a major event impinges on their consciousness, or, significantly, when a major political decision point is imminent, such as a local election, a Scottish Parliamentary election or a general election – or a referendum! Then they focus, and try to make up lost ground and evaluate the arguments. I cannot claim that my range of contacts in any way constitutes a representative sample, but I suspect this may constitute the majority group of voters.
Within this group there are those who are essentially apolitical, holding no party allegiance, and who would not place themselves anywhere on the left/right spectrum. Nonetheless, they do occupy a position on that spectrum – and a few key questions rapidly establish it – but they simply do not label themselves as such, and conceive of themselves as pragmatists. Members of this group are sometimes described as floating voters – they must by definition exist, or governments would never change and MSPs and MPs would never lose their seat nor new candidates be elected.
I have to reluctantly face the undeniable fact that there are also political primitives out there who know little, are not well-informed, but nonetheless hold strong opinions. This group, always an uncomfortable one for a democrat to contemplate – and the malleable raw material of the demagogue and the anti-democrat – nonetheless have a vote, and most of them probably exercise their right to vote. They may also have long-term, fixed party allegiances. This is the group that terrifies the Labour and Tory Parties among whose support they are concentrated, lest they defect – and they have, notably in May 2011. As a democrat, I must respect this group’s right to exist and to vote, and fight down my elitist instincts to patronise or even despise them, if for no other reason than the fact that most of the people I grew up with and loved were part of this group, and in a sense so was I.
And of course there are those who have opted out of the political process – or say they have – the “Politicians are all the same, out for themselves – I wouldn’t vote for any of them …” brigade, a group for which I have mainly contempt, leavened with a little pity – but not much. My fear about this group is that when the chips are down, in a big political decision point, such as a referendum, they do actually vote, and for the most reactionary option they can find.
What messages are coming across to all of these groups on independence?
You’ll have to wait for my answers to that, if indeed I have any – I’m still sorting my thoughts out on it …