The past few weeks have seen a recurrence on social media of conspiracy theories suggesting the independence referendum was rigged. The fact that these continue to circulate four years after the event is worrying.
In my view some Yes supporters will risk undermining the next independence referendum if they keep spreading false stories about the unreliability of the electoral system. I will set out why in this article but first I want to restate that the indyref really wasn’t rigged.
There is no evidence the administration of the referendum was anything other than proper and it is unfair to the thousands of Yes campaigners who acted as polling and counting agents, as well as to the election officials who managed the process, to suggest otherwise.
Indyref conspiracy theories generally revolve around aspects of the voting and counting process which the conspiracy theorists and their advocates do not understand. What is most concerning, however, is the way some cling to the belief that the referendum process was manipulated even when specific allegations are debunked by those who were there.
Elections and referendums are co-produced by election officials and political volunteers, with the assistance of the police. The system is tested and scrutinised intensely from every angle by polling and counting agents – including agents appointed to scrutinise postal vote openings – to ensure it is a free and fair process. And it is a free and fair process. Of course issues arise and vigilance is required to prevent fraud. But those who administer the system do so fairly and it is wrong to suggest otherwise without a shred of proof.
Yet we still see demands for international monitors to oversee the next referendum. What could external monitors, watching a system that is unfamiliar to them, pick up that thousands of experienced and dedicated Yes activists would miss? There is no aspect of the process which could be scrutinised by external monitors that cannot already be scrutinised by agents appointed by registered campaign groups, many of whom have decades of experience as polling or counting agents under their belts.
Falsely claiming that our electoral system is corrupt is not just reprehensible, it is politically inept and self-defeating.
The 2014 campaign saw an unprecedented level of public engagement in the democratic process, reflected in the incredible turnout. The campaign was described as a festival of democracy and an exemplar of how a referendum should be run – and rightly so. No amount of disappointment in the result should tarnish the campaign or destroy trust in the robust democratic process which underpinned it. That can only benefit our opponents.
After all, why would voters who were crushed by the result in 2014 be motivated to invest their hopes again in a process which Yes supporters claim is secretly controlled by the British State and rigged to ensure that Yes can’t win? What’s the point in voting, when your own side tell you it’s all a fix?
This is the fundamental issue that people like me find so frustrating. These conspiracy theories – if they continue to be a feature of online campaigning – combined with the impact of individual voter registration, could create a recipe to suppress the Yes vote in the next referendum. This is a risk in some areas where Yes won the vote in 2014 and where we are going to have to work extremely hard to get the same level of voter registration and turnout.
Conspiracy theories around postal votes in particular are highly counter-productive. Postal voters are more likely to vote than those who vote in person. It makes no sense therefore to undermine trust in a system which has been strengthened specifically to combat fraud. Rather than dissuading independence supporters from applying for a postal vote we should be trying to get our supporters onto a postal vote to maximise our turnout.
The last Westminster election confirmed that SNP – and by extension Yes – voters are less “sticky” than we would like. This is not surprising given many of them were galvanised by the referendum and may have been fairly disinterested in politics before that. While we can plan to ensure that the next referendum will galvanise them in a similar way, we cannot assume that. This makes it imperative that we do all we can to make sure independence supporters actually vote.
But as well as securing and energising our base, the focus of the Yes campaign, if it is to be successful, has to be about building support. It has to be about reaching out to and persuading undecided and soft No voters to consider independence. And it has to look forwards, not backwards; outwards, not inwards. Sharing conspiracy theories will not help us to do that, it will have the opposite effect.
Having said all this, I do understand why Yes supporters fall into the conspiracy trap. As frustrating as their behaviour is, I share their disappointment and recognise the feeling that things are stacked against us, making winning all the harder. All long-standing members of the SNP will recognise that feeling. But it needs to be shaken off.
The experience of being in the SNP prior to 2007 was mainly about losing. Believing that we could win took a conscious effort of will and a complete reconsideration of how we campaigned. This was more difficult than people might imagine. There is such a thing as a loser’s mindset in politics and you develop it without even noticing. The best way to overcome it is to take a step back, look at where you are and what you need to do to win.
At this point in time we do not have a majority for Yes. In order to get one we need to persuade people who voted Yes in 2014 to commit to doing so again and persuade a significant number of people who voted No to change their minds. That’s our task. Whatever we do should be working towards that end – and that means ditching the comfort blanket of conspiracy theories and going forward with confidence that our case is strong and that we can win.