The release of the White Paper signals the real start of the referendum campaign. The aim of Project Fear has been to destroy the credibility of the Yes campaign before the White Paper was released, the White Paper could then be safely ignored.
But they’ve failed. They have not pushed polling intentions for No into the overwhelming figures which are required this far out from the vote to ensure a No result. Despite a full on barrage from the combined weight of the mainstream media, the Yes vote has not only held firm, it has increasingly reduced the gap. The latest poll puts Yes on 38% and No on 47%. A 9% swing would see a Yes.
A few weeks back, Johann Lamont compared support for independence to the outbreak of a virus. There was the usual denunciation from those in the Yes campaign with a contractual obligation to be po-faced, whereas other independentistas responded by declaring themselves Yes Positive adopting the tried and tested method of taking your opponents insults and throwing them back in their faces. I’m a big fan of this. It’s a tactic that has served the gay community very well.
This in turn prompted others to complain that adopting a Yes+ slogan was insensitive to gay people, what with certain more life threatening conditions being normally associated with +positive diagnosis, such as BetterTogether’s lamentable joke of a +case for the Union. It all quickly grew into one of those typically Scottish arguments about who was more upset on someone else’s behalf, before Reporting Scotland could find a story about a cute wee kitten that could play shinty. About 15 minutes, in other words.
But Johann had actually hit on something, in an entirely unintentional way. A virus spreads by contagion, and so does supporting independence. Once No voters or undecideds come into contact with the arguments for Yes, they tend to switch sides. The mere fact of engaging with the arguments produces Yes voters. Hope is contagious, it’s an attractant force.
So how attractive does hope have to be in order to be certain of a Yes vote in September next year? Not very attractive at all, is the surprising answer. Let’s suppose that for every 200 Yes voters, every week one of them succeeds in converting a don’t know or a No to a Yes vote. That’s really not very many at all, it means that neither you nor most of the Yes voters you know are likely to convert anyone to a Yes vote between now and September next year. What sort of outcome would that “contagion rate” produce?
Let’s do some fantasy statistics. As always in such thought experiments you need to follow the golden rule: where there is room for any uncertainty or doubt, you give the hypothesis you don’t favour the benefit. In this case that’s a No outcome. We don’t want that all all, oh no. So we deliberately weigh things in favour of a No outcome. It may seem counter-intuitive, but by doing this we ensure that if we get the result we want, a Yes outcome whoo-hoo!, then we can be more confident in the prediction. But this isn’t even a prediction, it’s more an attempt to guage the scale of the task ahead, and to gain an idea of whether it’s a real possibility.
The latest opinion poll is as good enough as any to use for some baseline figures, Yes is on 38%, No on 47%, with 15% undecideds. There approximately 4 million voters on the Scottish electoral register. Extrapolating from this poll (and ignoring things like likelihood to vote) there are currently 1,520,000 Yes voters, 1,880,000 No voters, and 600,000 undecideds. In order to keep things simple, we’ll assume that the 600,000 undecideds represent those who will not vote – in other words we’re assuming the turnout will be the very high figure of 85%. That in turn means that 3,400,000 people will vote, so 1,700,001 votes are required in order to produce victory.
It’s received wisdom that a high turnout favours the Yes vote. The reasoning is simple, if you cannae be airsed enough to vote in normal elections, you’re hardly likely to be airsed enough to vote to keep a system you cannae be airsed about. So let’s not assume that, instead we’ll ignore it and imagine that a high turnout is equally likely to benefit No as it is Yes, the Yes vote gains no advantage from it. This gives the No hypothesis the benefit of the doubt, and saves making the sums more complicated.
If each week the existing body of Yes voters is able to attract one new supporter for every existing 200 Yes voters, it’s equivalent to a weekly interest rate of 0.5% – considerably lower than a payday loan company at over 1% per day, and illustrating just how an independent Scotland will prove to be excellent value for money where less people need the likes of Wonga. But in this case, what we mean is the rate at which we get people interested in independence – it’s really a measure of the contagion rate of hope.
Using the figure of 0.5%, the first week sees an increase of 7600 in the total number of Yes supporters, the second an increase of 7638 because there are now slightly more Yes supporters able to spread the contagion of hope. And if we keep campaigning and keep changing minds at the same rate, shortly before the European elections in May next year the Yes vote overtakes the No vote, and continues growing to reach 1,874,329.
On our turnout of 85%, that gives a Yes vote of 55.13%. It’s the upper line on the annoyingly blurred graph.* The red line along the middle represents the threshold required to reach a Yes outcome.
However, and here’s where it gets really interesting. Let’s suppose that the contagion of hope isn’t even that attractive. Perhaps it’s half as attractive. Yes supporters are only able to rustle up one new supporter every week for every 400 existing Yes voters. That’s an interest rate of a mere 0.25% a week, which would scarcely keep Wonga in cute puppets to use as merchandising tools.
The Yes vote grows more slowly of course, but by the fateful day on 18 September 2014, it reaches 1,688,063, a Yes vote of a tantalising 49.65%, just 23,874 votes behind No on 50.15%. This is the lower line in the graph. It’s not a Yes, but it is an outcome that ensures that the issue of independence will not be put on the shelf for another generation.
Remember that we’ve already made a lot of assumptions that favour the No vote. It’s more than likely that these outweigh the narrow gap between Yes and No which an “interest rate” of 0.25% per week produces, and such a rate would in fact produce a Yes vote.
The No campaign has worked all this out too. They also know that while they dominate an increasingly discredited mainstream media, the Yes campaign has the campaigners on the ground and in the social media. Achieving these rather derisory interest rates is very much within the grasp of the Yes campaign. That’s why Project Fear is so fearful.
Today the Scottish Government releases its prospectus for hope. Better Together will of course launch into its usual saturation media bombing campaign of smear and fear, but it’s already too late.
*I’ll replace the graph with a larger and clearer one sometime later today.