News analysis: Yes Scotland independence campaign takes the underdog approach

Can the Scottish independence campaign leverage its grassroots network to swing the vote its way?

Yes men (and women): Yes Scotland followers are more active than their rivals
Yes men (and women): Yes Scotland followers are more active than their rivals

As the referendum on Scottish independence approaches, conventional wisdom dictates that those fighting to go it alone have a major challenge on their hands.

Polls suggest that more than 60 per cent of Scottish people are pro-union and a large swathe of Fleet Street is attacking the idea of separation ahead of the vote on 18 September.

Ian McKerron is one of a three-strong PR team at Yes Scotland, the umbrella organisation fighting for independence led by ex-BBC executive Blair Jenkins and which represents groups ranging from the Scottish National Party (SNP) to local businesses. His team is up against the Alistair Darling-fronted Better Together which, as part of a broad coalition of interests, is backed by the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour.

"Most mainstream papers are not sympathetic," says McKerron. As a result, Yes Scotland is ploughing its energies into broadcast and digital media. This strategy was evident at the start of the year when Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond challenged David Cameron to face him in a televised debate ahead of the September vote. Cameron declined.

It is, as Weber Shandwick Scotland MD Moray Macdonald notes, the "strategy of an underdog": make the opposition look arrogant, uncaring and unwilling to debate the facts.

The campaign group’s online efforts seem to be paying off; recent University of Glasgow research suggested followers of Yes Scotland were more active than Better Together’s.

But while it will be intriguing to watch the media contest – likely to involve trotting out of celebrities by both sides – Yes Scotland’s best chance is likely to be the battle on the ground. With polls indicating that a third of the electorate is undecided on the issue and pundits predicting a turnout of more than 80 per cent, getting on doorsteps will be more crucial than ever.

Both campaigns are targeting youngsters, in part due to the voting age being lowered to 16 in Scotland last year. Each camp boasts about 300 local groups.

Macdonald believes Yes Scotland has an advantage because of the SNP’s grassroots network. "There have been impressive efforts in gathering huge amounts of data about people on the issues they care about," he says.

This groundwork is not being wasted. The SNP peppered its November white paper on independence with crowd-pleasing pledges, such as childcare reform.

Better Together, however, has been effective at raising questions about the potential negative fallout from independence, particularly concentrating on the uncertain future of the pound in Scotland.

Speaking of a strategy some have dubbed ‘project fear’, Rob Shorthouse, director of comms for Better Together, says: "Until now the two objectives have been to tell the story of the tangible benefits from remaining in the UK, and secondly to go after the case for independence aggressively and point out its faults. It would be crackers not to ask questions."

Yes Scotland is starting to bite back, with Scottish First Deputy Minister Nicola Sturgeon claiming this month that many questions of what would follow a ‘no vote’ have "gone unanswered".

Although speeches by ministers may gain coverage, playing the party politics game is a risky one, especially on the  doorstep.

Both campaigns have entrenched political interests, but Yes Scotland is striving to be seen as more than just an SNP vehicle – something that could prove a turnoff for voters cynical about politics.

Acknowledging that he co-ordinates with SNP comms head Kevin Pringle, McKerron is adamant: "Better Together is a political coalition. We are a grassroots community campaign involving a wider sphere than just politicians."

For Yes Scotland to have a chance of overcoming the odds, it must make this underdog message stick fast.

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