Help prevent the Million from becoming Missing again (1)

On the last day to register to vote before the independence referendum – Tuesday 2 September – a group of Yes campaigners visited Edinburgh college with their stall at lunchtime. We didn’t actually manage to set it up.

Instead, we spent the next hour and a half registering people to vote. Almost a hundred of them, men and women, young and old, of all nationalities and backgrounds, from all over Scotland, the EU and the Commonwealth.

And the whole time I kept thinking, what if we hadn’t come? No one else – neither the college management, the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) nor even NUS Scotland – had bothered to do a voter registration drive with a group that was clearly vulnerable either to not being registered at all or being registered in the wrong place to actually vote on 18 September. They would have missed out on participating in Scotland’s historic vote.

That day, I ended up handing in over 100 registration forms in an 11pm dash to the registration office. Forms of people signed up at bus queues, on buses shuttling to and from some of Edinburgh’s most deprived schemes and by hanging about outside bingo halls, libraries, schools and delapidated shopping centres. Over the whole of the campaign, I alone supported hundreds of people to register to vote – and there were many like me.

Highlights included the 16 year old registering on his birthday, the Latvian woman who’d lived here three years and whom no one had told she could vote as an EU national (who came and said hello when she voted) and the twin 15 year olds, whose 16th birthday was two days away and in typical teenage boy fashion, faffed around with it all so much they nearly missed their bus. They made for fitting last registrants of the campaign.

Then there’s the woman who took an age to be persuaded to do so, partly because eyeing up the form, it was clearly a literacy step too far but also because she feared someone – whoever he was – knowing where she now was. Whether or not she actually voted, she gave herself the choice to do so, taking an empowering step forward in asserting herself and her sense of self as a person with rights. Actually, there were a lot of women like her.

There’s also the young woman who lived at the top of a block of flats who reckoned she didn’t know enough to be voting. When asked to say what she thought the referendum was about, she gave a powerful and eloquent explanation about power, control and responsibility. Not things I’d hazard, she’d had a lot of in her own life. I talked her through the form which she completed herself and then by arrangement, went back on Referendum day to walk her to the polling place. Although only in her 20s, her capacity had clearly been compromised by some sort of trauma in her life and if I hadn’t gone for her, she wouldn’t have come out to vote.

It wasn’t just registering people to vote. On that floor of those flats alone, we helped four people keep their right to vote by giving them postal vote application forms to complete. We also posted them for them.  And I went back to check if they needed their actual votes posted for them too. Why? Because the lift in the flats was often broken and when it was they were captive in their own homes, unable, either through ill health or age, to use the six flights of stairs, and reliant on neighbours to run messages and errands.

When I appeared with my pile of forms an hour before midnight, the helpful ERO sighed in exasperation. They had had people in these areas earlier in the year, knocking on doors, trying to persuade people to register to vote, he said.

But therein lies the problem. People in areas like these don’t open their doors to men – and women – in suits. They don’t trust them, they mistake them for suits they are trying to avoid. Folk in these areas have acute antennae, they smell officialdom a mile off and have spent most of their lives avoiding it. The missing million aren’t just missing from the voter roll or from actually voting, they are also missing from day to day life as we know it.

The Electoral Commission’s proposals to tighten the Code of Conduct for campaigners to prevent folk like me from handling completed registration and absent voting forms completely misunderstands the reasons why traditional registration campaigns have failed and why efforts during the referendum campaign succeeded. I’m trying to work out if this is accidental or deliberate.

What is being deployed is a sledge hammer solution to an acute but minor problem of electoral fraud. The changes are a knock on requirement from the introduction of unique identifier requirements to such forms. The chosen unique identifiers of date of birth and National Insurance number are the problem here. There is no doubt this is highly sensitive personal information which requires careful handling and it is indeed highly valuable to potential and actual criminals, because it provides a gateway to identification theft.

But had the authorities decided to use our other unique identifier – the National Health Service number we are given when we are born or when we register with the NHS – this would have been less of a potential problem. Stealing that number might get you a hip replacement but there’s much less potential for monetary fraud. So now, we are getting the wrong fix to the wrong problem, which incidentally potentially exists within officialdom as much as within political parties.

In any event, we already have laws in place to protect against such fraud: using them more effectively to capture the tiny minority of political campaigners who abuse the system would provide more of a deterrent.

I’m not sure people in the Missing Million were asked for their opinions in the Electoral Commission’s research. But the conclusions drawn and the measures proposed also suggest an attempt by the establishment to pull up the drawbridge on those who, for the first time ever, managed to breach fortress entitlement through the participation process.

Until and unless we invest far more resources than we do currently in citizenship at the earliest age – primary, not secondary school – and in voter registration and education, and at the same time, simplify the process with plain language and procedures, then these proposals take us back, not forward. The Million will become missing once more, which might be in their interests, but it certainly isn’t in ours.

The Referendum has effected change that we cannot allow to be unmade and attempts like this to do so must be resisted strenuously. So, here’s something for the 45% to focus its pent up energy and enthusiasm on. It might not galvanise quite as much as a rally with flag waving or a tub thumping speech made from a platform, but then it might also just have some practical effect.

The Electoral Commission’s consultation runs until Monday 20 October. Please respond. 

Can we discern anything meaningful from the #guindyref?

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.

Business and unions: the bedfellows bankrolling Scottish Labour

In recent years, Scottish Labour has liked to decry the SNP as the party of big business, pointing an indignant finger at the eye-watering donations from Brian Souter.  They personalise the issue of donors and donations in a way no other party does.

So it’s time to turn the tables.  FACT:  Scottish Labour received more donations from businesses and companies in the run up to the Scottish elections than the SNP did.

One of the biggest was the Co-Op, or to be precise, the Friendly Society that is Scottish Midland Co-operative Society.  Known locally as Scotmid, it exists in local communities all over Edinburgh and the Lothians, these supermarkets service the convenience market and those who are too poor, old or disabled to be able to make it out to a bigger store for their weekly shop.  Nice to know that the extra pennies (the convenience premium) they charge on every pint of milk and loaf of bread sold convert to donations totalling £10,000 for Edinburgh and Lothian CLPs.

Here is the full roll of donors and donations, as recorded by the Electoral Commission:

Peoples Ltd donated travel, presumably cars, to the value of £3,993.66;

Moorpost Ltd gave administrative services worth £3,500 (this may in fact have been take away meals as this is Moorpost’s line of business);

ScottishPower plc provided sponsorship in February 2011 to the tune of £2,937.50;

Chivas Brothers Ltd provided more sponsorship worth £2,850.00 – that will be the whisky company in Jackie Baillie’s constitutency which opposed minimum pricing, saying it threatened jobs;

Thompson solicitors donated £2,500 in February 2011 and a further £7,000 in April – the firm that is supporting John Park MSP to draft a member’s bill on the living wage;

Holland House Property Investment Ltd gave £2,000;

G1 Group plc, owners of the Corinthian Club and Ghillie Dhu and many other clubs and pubs, gave £10,000;

Training Initiatives Ltd, based funnily enough in the same building in which Douglas Alexander MP has his constituency office, donated £2,750;

Aldergate Realities, MGN Ltd, which appear to be based in Nottingham; Oakford Farms Ltd which are located in Essex and GVA Grimley Lt, a property consultancy with its head office in London – all donated £2,000 each.  What was that about folk donating to elections they don’t have a vote in again?

Digby Brown solicitors in Edinburgh gave £2,000;

And lookie here, what’s this?  a donation from a bus group!  The £,2000 from First Group plc is ridiculously small beer compared to Souter’s wads.  But his donations are from his personal wealth, which I do acknowledge was gained from the cut-throat and rather unpleasant world of the de-regulated bus market.  But here is a company which has also benefited from the privatisation of bus and train routes donating profit to Scottish Labour.  It isn’t the first donation either, and they have also received personal ones from its former Chief Executive, “Sir” Moir Lockhead.  Gosh, doesn’t this all sound very familiar?  What’s that you say about people in glass houses?  Quite.

You want another odd one?  Okay, how about £2,400 donated by Law Society of Scotland Services Ltd.  That’s right, the body which purports to “lead and support a successful and respected Scottish legal profession” wanted Labour to win the last election and was prepared to fund it to do so.  I wonder if it consulted all its members before deciding to donate?

ADDENDUM:  Ian Smart, former President of the Law Society points out that it sponsored events for each of the party conferences and as he rightly points out, that should show in their recorded donations – Labour did not get anything different from any of the others is his point.  Yet, the Electoral Commission entry does state that Labour’s was a cash donation, so I have encouraged him to check and follow up with the Commission.

The amounts are pretty trifling, particularly when weighed against the costs of an election campaign, but it is the principle and the actuality that counts.  And according to the donations declared to the Electoral Commission for the first six months of this year, Labour had considerably more financial backers from business than the SNP.

However, it remains the case, that at UK, Scottish and local level, trade unions are still Labour’s biggest financiers.  Indeed, should the unions ever shun, either voluntarily or by changes to the rules, its support for the supposed party of the “working man” (sic),  Labour would be stuffed.  Here’s what different trade unions donated to their comrades in Scottish constituency parties or to the Scottish party generally between January and June 2011:

ASLEF  (train drivers and engineering personnel)  £6,000

Communication Workers’ Union (the posties) £11,000 approx

UNISON (public sector mainly) £16,600

COMMUNITY (manufacturing sector mainly) £27,200 and an additional £4,000 approximately in sponsorship and auction prizes

GMB (mainly manual and lower skilled workers ie the ones who tend to be lowest paid) £114,000 and it also donated £4,348 in staff costs

RMT (rail workers and seamen) £2,000

UCATT (specialist construction workers) £6,000

USDAW (shop workers)  £42, 800

UNITE  (the biggest union in Britain)  £94,500

Transport Salaried Staff Association  £4,000

Ultimately, all of us – businesses, unions and individuals – are free to give our money to causes which we share and deem appropriate.  But it is the hypocrisy and lack of transparency that bothers me.  The audit trail shows quite clearly that Scottish Labour is more beholden to business than the SNP is, but it does not stop the puerile taunting and jeering.

As for the union money?  Well, it’s one reason I opt out, for I don’t believe any union money should go to fund any political party.  But aside from the likes of John Park MSP, who takes his union antecedents with him into the Parliament and focuses on issues that matter to union members like training, skills and the living wage, I think Scotland’s union members might be entitled to question what they get for their bankrolling.  What does Labour do for them that they cannot get from the SNP these days?