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Opinion: It's crunch time... Salmond and Darling go head-to-head over Scotland's future

With so many undecided voters, campaigners are under massive pressure to influence the outcome of the upcoming referendum.

Natalie Tennyson

TONIGHT WILL SEE the BBC broadcast a 90 minute debate between Scotland’s First Minister and the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, Alex Salmond and leader of the ‘better together’ campaign, Alastair Darling. With postal ballots being sent out to voters tomorrow, how is the campaign shaping up ahead of the 18 September referendum day?

The Yes to independence side have more of the electorate to convince and thus have to penetrate into the heart of the electorate to gain support and secure votes. Why is this? Put simply, most Scots say they do not support independence – therefore, the Yes Scotland campaign doesn’t just have to just convince them to vote but also win them over.

Campaign tactics

At the beginning of their campaign, the Yes side was very closely aligned to the SNP – but over the course of the campaign has extended beyond party politics, especially compared to Better Together. Further to traditional canvassing, and more interestingly, the Yes side have become a movement and have adapted other methods of canvassing including street stalls, film screenings and the setting up of ‘independence cafes’ to gain support on the ground.

Other splinter groups have emerged under the Yes campaign; National Collective (a gathering of ‘creative types’) and common Weal and Radical Independence, a mix of idealists and radicals who connect the campaign to other leftist causes like nuclear disarmament.

This can be juxtaposed against a more conservative campaign from the pro-union Better Together campaign which has utilised the traditional methods of canvassing. The No campaign reflects the older demographic of their supporters who want to continue the relationship with the Union.

Despite the No side lacking the colour of the Yes campaign, they have proved to be disciplined, dutiful and experienced – all key factors in any successful political campaign. The Director of Better Together, Blair McDonnell says that his side is more focused and better at using its canvassing to direct the campaigns messaging effectively.

Television debates

With the first television debate still relatively fresh in everyone’s minds, tonight will see Salmond and Darling go head-to-head in a live debate at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove art gallery. This debate will have a far greater audience than the STV debate on 5 August. Even more significantly, the debate will likely be one of the last set-piece moments in the campaign.

These ‘presidential’ style TV debates have become central to electoral campaigns over this side of the water only within the last decade, despite the first presidential debate airing over five decades ago during the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race.

TV debates have the ability to define a campaign and, ultimately, the outcome of a vote. After Salmond’s underwhelming performance earlier this month, his supporters will take comfort with the fact that Obama was widely seen to have lost his first 2012 debate with rival Mitt Romney. Although, with so many undecided voters, Salmond is under massive pressure to ensure his performance is strong enough to influence voters who are yet to decide.

It will be interesting to see if Salmond intentionally changes his strategy; will he succumb to his own supporters demands by being more impassioned? There is no doubt that Salmond will be advised to change his tactics with his first performance being described as relatively ‘dry’ especially compared to Darling who was much more animated. Further, with polls suggesting that women are markedly more sceptical about independence than men, Salmond also needs to appeal to women.

Opinion polls

Judging by opinion polls which have consistently seen the No to independence side ahead, there is no doubt that the campaign would have to take a dramatic shift in order for the Yes side to gain momentum. However, many on the Yes side who are disillusioned with current poll results look at the 2011 general election where, right up to the election, the Labour party received 44% and SNP lagged behind with 29% of a committed vote. On Election Day, the SNP won 45% of the constituency vote and 44% for regional list seats which was more than enough to secure a majority in the Scottish parliament.

Despite this, one has to remember that because this is a referendum rather than a general election, it means changing the electorate’s opinion over such a short period will inevitably prove more difficult than it was for the SNP to win over Labour supporters in a general election. This is a very difficult task for Salmond and Co. Another factor that points out another major difference is that in 2011, there was a widely-perceived poor campaign by the incumbent Labour party.

Meanwhile, the No campaign has proved to be effective with Alistair Darling proving a formidable leader of the No campaign and Salmond lagging behind. Coupled with this there has been no ‘gaffe’ by the No side. Professor John Curtice, politics lecturer at University of Stratclyde said, “You can turn around opinion if your opponents foul up”.

If the Yes side does receive a boost in the opinion polls in the coming days and weeks, one would expect leaders on the Better Together side to resort to scaremongering. David Cameron and other unionist leaders have argued the result on 18 September will be ‘irreversible and binding.’ If, as expected, the No to independence role wins a majority, it would be a major blow to Salmond and the SNP – but the pro-independence movement will outlive next month’s referendum and will likely prove a thorn in the unionist’s side with another referendum being predicted with the next five years.

Natalie Tennyson is an Account Manager at Pembroke Communications. She is from Armagh and studied politics at the University of Manchester having specialised in British politics and analysing political campaigns. Natalie works with clients from the education, health, legal, agri and financial sectors in the Corporate team at Pembroke. Twitter: @n_tenn 

Stay or go? Tempers flare in heated TV debate about Scotland’s independence

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Natalie Tennyson

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