Saturday, 27 September 2014

Lessons for Catalonia - Update

Catalonia plans an independence referendum on the 9th November 2014. What are the lessons from Scotland? (Thanks to my friend Ramon Colell for his comments for this update.)

Better together

The campaign for independence in Scotland, Yes Scotland, brought together disparate groups and then created yet more disparate groups to get the widest consensus possible for a Yes. They managed to glue together the Scottish National Party (SNP) with the Scottish Socialist Party (the former, accepting of the monarchy, the latter fully republican), and the Scottish Green Party in one alliance for Yes. They spawned a huge range of special interest groups ranging from the substantial and highly organised Radical Independence Campaign and Women for Independence, groups built around Scotland's many communities (Poles for Yes or Asians for Yes), professional groups (Academics for Yes) and including the funny fringe (Wheelie Bins for Yes, Dogs for Yes and Midges for Yes...)

This was not a single issue campaign, even if the voters' choice was a stark Yes or No. There were multiple issues - from the A-bomb to the monarchy - but there was enough common interest and trust to create a solid campaign together.

The Catalans have much of this already because the principal drivers (Assemblea Nacional Catalana ANC and Òmnium Cultural, with the Canditadura d'Unitat Popular CUP in parliament) are popular campaigns and include people from a wide range of political positions. In Catalonia it was the people who pushed the politicians. But the Catalan campaign too will face divisive issues. To maximise the vote it would have to allow special interest groups to grow and flower.


Following a long period of consultation and research the Scottish Government produced a 600 page document (Scotland's Future) which laid out a clear and positive vision of an independent Scotland. This document gave the big picture as well as the detail on a huge range of topics. As an example it covers in detail how the Scottish regiments of the current British army would retain their traditions.

We did not all agree with all of the vision. But having a clear vision gave people direction and simplified debate on the doorstep; canvassers could answer almost all the questions they were asked thanks to a single clear and detailed document.

The President of the Generalitat set up the Consell Assessor per a la Transició Nacional to provide detailed guidance on a future Catalonia. It has produced 18 reports detailing how the new country would function. It is time now to combine these to form one clear vision.

Positive message

The gap between the two campaigns in Scotland was dramatic. In the right corner 'Better Together' ran a campaign that insiders called Project Fear. Based on scaring voters into submission it resorted to final-week tactics such as persuading retailers to announce that prices would rise under independence (a situation that shopkeepers with even the most perfect crystal balls could not predict.) The campaign lost voters continuously as well as sparking an industry of satirists, many making spoof editions of the campaign's terrible #PatronisingBTLady video.

In the left corner was Yes Scotland, or rather Yes Scotland backed by the strategists at the SNP. The campaign was relentlessly positive (you will search in vain for words like 'change' or 'but' in the official campaign material.) The language was deliberately and always positive and this positive messaging gained voters throughout the campaign. SNP insiders were quoted in the press as saying that a positive campaign always wins votes.

The language of the Catalan campaign has, to date, been more negative that positive, claiming rights and protesting against Madrid rather than drawing a positive vision of how an independent Catalonia could be. These are subtle differences, and Catalonia is not Scotland, so it is conceivable that this might work with the Catalans. But I have my doubts.


The SNP was successful in attracting high value donors, with the Weir family giving upwards of £1m in a total fundraising of an estimated £4m (we have to await the report of the Electoral Commission to see the detailed figures). Better Together did similarly well with the Harry Potter author JK Rowling donating £1m.

They needed all of this cash. Both campaigns used newspaper, TV, poster and online advertising, as well as direct mail and telephone. Both produced promotional items from pens to stickers. And both ran expensive press conferences and photo-calls to reach the media. In total the SNP team was small - fewer than 30 people were working in their Edinburgh HQ in the week before the Referendum - but there would still have been a substantial salary bill to pay.

ANC and CUP will have to get a significant fundraising program going very fast if they are too have the resources they must need to mount an effective campaign.

Be afraid, very afraid

The No campaign was known to its staff as Project Fear. Pensioners were a key target, and the No campaign told them that they would lose their pension with independence. Immigrants were another, and a Polish family told me on the doorstep that they had been told by No campaigner that the SNP was like the BNP (an extreme right marginal group) and that Polish people would be forced out of the country on independence.

As became clear in the final week of the campaign, Better Together's objective was to frighten voters so that they chose the status quo. In that final week, 10 Downing Street encouraged the biggest employers in the financial sector to say that they would move their offices out of Scotland if there were a Yes vote, persuaded brand-name retailers to announce that there would be price rises with independence, and even got the mobile phone companies to talk about higher 'roaming' tariffs if there were a border. By the time the third of these stories emerged there was an industry in parodies from the Yes camp.

These stories were amplified by a complaisant press.

Catalonia must prepare itself for a similar deluge of fear. Prepare itself by winning over large employers who can talk about more jobs, more secure jobs, after independence, and be ready to answer a battery of other fear-filled stories.

Don't blame the media. Be the media.

The fear stories were amplified by the media. The role of the print and broadcast media has been much discussed. While the Yes campaign dominated the social media the No campaign was supported by every national newspaper bar one, and by the broadcasters.

Like in Scotland, Catalonia  has just two newspapers, El Punt Avui and Ara that clearly support independence. The most widely read paper, La Vanguardia, is still sitting on the fence. But newspapers readership is much lower in Catalonia than in Scotland so it is possible that this may have less impact on voters.

Demos are not enough

The Scots cheered the 11 September demo in Barcelona, when an estimated 1.8 million people made a vast red and yellow V in Barcelona. 

V for Votes and Victory...

The Catalan independence campaign had a similar success a year ago with the extraordinary linking of hands along 400km of coastline.

Catalans excel at demos.

But demos are not enough. The Yes campaign had an army of volunteers talking to people on the doorstep; it was they, not the demos, that persuaded people to come over to Yes. Because people are worried about change. They see something on the TV and that creates a worry - an objection - in their minds. Only a one-to-one, neighbour-to-neighbour talk can hear that objection, answer it and move that voter to Yes. The people that I walked with in Edinburgh had been chapping (knocking on) doors each week for three years.

The Catalan campaign has started down this road and are aiming to put 100,000 volunteers onto the streets to persuade voters door to door. The lesson from Scotland is that this is a strategy that works.

Chapping the right doors - data gets votes

By the final week, the campaigners were only knocking on the doors of people known to be undecided. They were able to do this because they had good data. In the months before the vote they had knocked on every door and asked every voter the same question: 'on a scale of 1-10 where 1 is a definite No and 10 is a definite Yes, where are you?' The data on each voter's answer was recorded centrally, and street campaigners were directed at people scoring in the middle of the scale (for example, between 4 and 7.) This focused the hard work onto the swing vote.

Yes had also gathered street by street information on voters' concerns so that it could target specific messages at communities.

I'm not aware of any similar data gathering in Catalonia and there is now precious little time to mount such a programme here before 9th November. But it points to the same strategic direction; the Catalan independence campaign needs to spend time talking and listening to people on their doorsteps.

Losing is winning

The extraordinary outcome of the Scottish Referendum was that the side that lost, won.

Project Fear became itself so fearful of a Yes vote that it bounced the leaders of the three main Westminster parties to sign a 'Vow' on the front page of the Daily Record two days before the vote, pledging substantial new powers to Scotland if we voted No.

...and V is for Vow

These powers were to include tax and spending as well as control over the National Health Service. It appeared that Scotland was to win substantially more devolution of powers ('Devo max') even if it voted No.

The Catalan Parliament already has significant powers, but it is at least possible that a fear of losing Catalonia may encourage Madrid to offer more. The Catalan ballot allows for this with a double question: 

Do you want Catalonia to be a State? 
And if yes, independent?

This implies that voters could chose by answering "Yes" then "No" to opt for a similar Devo Max formula here.

There is so little time

The lessons from the Yes campaign in Scotland are about preparation, listening to and talking to individual voters, messaging and the mechanics - data and money.

We do not have time to build all of this in the few short weeks before 9th November. For ANC and Òmnium Cultural the focus must be on the street-by-street, home-by-home campaign. 

It is people, one by one, who will vote. So it is to them that we must bring a positive message.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting Report.
    I would like to comment a few things.
    Drivers.- The two main drivers are ANC and Omnium Cultural. The CUP sustain the campaign only.
    People.- I think the stress should be put on the fact that is the ground people who pushes the political parties to take the roll.
    Media.- Not only “El punt avui” Is clearly for independence, also “ARA”

    .-I don’t quite understand your negative vision on the catalan process, maybe you should take that into account, to be more precise, during the talk.

    This week stars the volunteers movement to door to door. (100 000)

    Thank you Chris. Good job