Salmond v Darling: who won?

So, I went to bed last night somewhat discomfited.

The stress engendered by trying to watch the bloody thing in Scotland’s far-flung southern most corner hadn’t helped.  It might have been on ITV Border but it would seem there are two versions of this channel on Freeview.  Sadly, the folks appear to have the Cumbrian version.

The STV player crashed, indicating the level of interest in watching this debate all over the UK and no doubt, the world.  I even tried the pub next door but alas, the woman behind the bar didn’t know how to change the channel.  Frustrated at every turn, relying on twitter to gauge how it was all going was probably not wise.  By the time I arrived, the No side was crowing, the Yes side strangely muted.

So with only little more than half the debate to go, I finally got to settle down with my beer and popcorn in time for the First Minister’s cross exam of Alistair Darling.

Did my toes curl at the opening exchanges?  Yep.  Gathering all the online snippets and insider jibes of *he says, she says* didn’t seem appropriate or relevant. This was focusing on flotsam and jetsam and point scoring, no doubt leaving much of the audience of non-aligned and non-partisans in the dark.  Eek.

The section on the EU was better but surely the point wasn’t to get Darling to agree to remove the misinformation from the website but to agree with what the European President said? On the successful, independent country issue, well that was better, but surely Darling landed a few blows by getting some substantive points into his attempts to avoid answering the question?

Then it was Bernard’s and the audience’s turn.  It seemed that the No camp had prepared its questioners better.  Short, sharp and digging not just at the currency issue, but also having a pop at Alex Salmond personally.  But generally, thoughtful and often, heartfelt questions.  And if anyone can claim to have had a good debate, it’s Bernard.  His exam of both men was incisive and this made for the best segment.

My conclusion by bedtime?  It hadn’t been a great day at the office, as they say.  Alex Salmond could do miles better than this, surely.  I know, I’ve seen and heard him do better.  Trying to put myself in the shoes of all those undecided voters I keep encountering on the doorsteps, would the First Minister’s performance have propelled them further towards a Yes? Especially women, who largely want to vote yes but just don’t like that there are so many uncertainties and unanswered questions, particularly on economic matters? Frankly, I didn’t dare answer that one.

But what a difference the cold light of day makes.  I watched the whole debate this morning from start to finish.

On opening statements, it was positive versus negative.  Salmond won, hands down, setting out three areas he wanted independence to change for Scotland.  Darling slung some soundbites together and focused on what we can’t do and wouldn’t be allowed to do. It was no, not and never for Darling from start to finish.

The currency cross-exam and sections on it afterwards were uncomfortable but Salmond stuck to his key message – it’s my job to argue for what is best for Scotland.  And Darling got tied in knots when Bernard took over: on scoring points, Salmond actually won, subtly undermining Darling’s supposedly rock-solid reputation on fiscal management.

And Darling was often flippant throughout, dismissive of the Yes woman’s question about who subsidises who – never a good move on live telly – while Salmond was earnestly serious, calm and measured at every stage. He got across all the key messages for a Yes, on democracy, social justice and the economy:  Darling had little to offer in terms of what voting no actually means.

Then there’s the body language.  Coming out from behind the lectern to engage with the audience in the room and beyond was a good move for Alex Salmond.  At one point, Alistair Darling had actually turned his back on them and preferred only to engage with Bernard. And all that finger pointing.  At Salmond, at Bernard, at the audience.  Not good. Worse, he actually lost it at some points, hectoring and floundering and throwing out scare stats in equal measure. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond calmly set out the arguments for and was actually majestic on social justice issues.  Visibly angry at how ordinary people are suffering under Westminster austerity: many out there will have identifed with that.

Did Alex Salmond win it then?  No.  But he did among some of the key voting groups in this race to the referendum finish.

The 512 hardy souls who were polled by ICM immediately after the debate decided that Alistair Darling *won* 47% to 37%.  He clearly found favour among men, the over 55s and those living in Central Scotland, the Lothians, the Highlands and North East of Scotland.  Perhaps worryingly for the First Minister, only about two-thirds of those who had been yes before the debate or who were SNP voters think he won.

But only 4% of women thought Darling won; more in the 35 to 54 age group thought Salmond won; in Glasgow, the voters were almost evenly split on it. And among the undecideds generally? Overwhelmingly, whether they had been undecided before or still were after the debate, they thought Alex Salmond won. In fact, post-debate, an astonishing 40% of undecideds reckoned Alex Salmond won, compared to only 14% who believed that Alistair Darling did.

Who had the more appealing personality?  Men plumped for Darling, women overwhelmingly plumped for Salmond, as did voters in most parts of Scotland.

Who had the better arguments? On this, Darling emerges as a clear winner.  But again, not among women or undecided voters.

And on voting intentions in the referendum?  It would appear that what many thought of the debate made no difference to voting intentions.  Young voters 16 to 34 might have thought Darling won but as many of them intend to vote yes as vote no, while the opposite is true of the 35 to 54 age group.

And it might be small numbers, but more of the undecideds before the debate had shifted to yes than to no afterwards.

But given that over half of those undecided voters are still undecided, it’s clear that this debate didn’t provide anything like a game-changer.  No is still ahead and according to this poll and the general consensus, won the debate.  Yet, look below the waterline and Darling might not have had quite such a good debate as the pundits have opined, nor Salmond taken the *pounding* favoured by the headline writers.

Alex Salmond actually managed to close the gap in voting intentions – down to 6% between No and Yes – and in particular, close the gap among women and young adult voters.  Yes would win in Glasgow, Mid Scotland and Fife, Highlands and the North East and over a quarter of Labour and Lib Dem voters would vote Yes.

The strategy then appeared to work, in parts.  It was never designed to appeal to partisans like me – after all, my vote was won a long time ago.  And occasionally, it pays to remind myself – and indeed, ourselves – of this.  These debates aren’t about us, for us nor aimed at those of us who are already voting Yes but at all the others who can still be persuaded to in the six weeks that remain.  I think I’ll sleep better tonight realising that.