Thursday, 6 February 2014

Yes we can

I've kind of always been in the Labour Party. In 1970, at the age of eleven, I can still remember attending a Party Rally at a "big theatre" in Glasgow (!) during the election of that year. And thinking it was brilliant. Only to be told by my dad on the way home that he didn't like the smell of the way things were going.

But long before that I remember being "sent" up closes in the old 8th Ward of Paisley Burgh, my dad's ward, to stuff Party leaflets through letterboxes in the belief that they would be read avidly and then inspire voters to flock to the polling stations.

And in February and October 1974, by which time I had developed a "political consciousness" of my own I remember being already wholly unimpressed by what passed for an election campaign jn Paisley.

Where were the local rallies? Why did we seem to spend a ludicrously disproportionate time, night after night, writing out (by hand) the envelopes for the freepost? What about getting out to the electorate? Local debates where our local champion (John Robertson MP) would surely put the forces of reaction to the sword, leaving all but the most committed of Tories or Nationalists in no doubt about how they should vote?

Well, even in 1974, the local Party agent, Tommy Wilkie, was in no doubt on this point. "Leave that to the generals on the telly, son" he observed "the role of the foot soldiers is just to get the vote out"

But nonetheless, in 1974, "Mr" Robertson still had to occasionally meet his voters. So a day would be scheduled for a factory gate meeting at Babcocks or Rolls Royce or Ciba-Geigy or (above all) "Rootes" at Linwood where the "stewards" would attempt to temporarily delay those at the end of their shift to hear a few words from their elected representative. And those of us already reading up on Gramsci's "The Soviets in Italy" would accompany him with enthusiasm.

Only to discover that the willing audience consisted of the stewards themselves, a few youths determined on personal abuse, and the very occasional eccentric determined to make a point about "Scotland's freedom".

And, possibly against that background, but possibly not, Mr Robertson somehow failed to live up to the rhetoric of Lenin at the Finland Station and thus lost as many votes as he might reasonably have hoped to gain

Now, with the benefit of nearly forty years, I realise the futility of all of this. That the long lost Tommy Wilkie had been right. That the job of us mere foot soldiers was to get the vote out. Any individual conversion we might achieve was but a drop in the ocean and a drop secured by a ludicrously inefficient use of time and effort.

I'm moved to these observations by two people who I will happily list by name. The first is Natalie McGarry of the SNP who has spent two days on twitter railing against my team for being unwilling to engage in a public referendum debate in Glasgow. Who would attend the audience of such a debate? People like me and Natalie. She'd go in voting Yes and I'd go in voting No. And if my team's representatives turned up drunk, abused the audience and then fell over, accidentally disgorging the English gold stuffed in their pockets? I'd still be voting No. While if her side collectively broke down in tears and confessed they'd just realised the numbers didn't add up as a result of being personally tapped up for a loan by John Swinney to help out paying the old age pension? She'd still be voting Yes.

And, at best, fifty (50) genuinely undecided people from the six hundred and fifty thousand (650,000) people living in Glasgow would be aware of these extraordinary events.

The second person is Alex Massie whose Spectator article appears here. He is, to say the least, critical of the (winning) Better Together campaign, Well, I mean no disrespect to Alex, but modern elections, even as far back as 1974, do not depend on drafty meetings in halls attended only by the faithful, the other side's faithful as spies, and the occasional eccentric. Even Obama for America, the last hurrah of that sort of campaign, wasn't decided by the woman who cries in the background. with a mixture of joy and disappointment, as he delivers the "Yes we can" speech in the aftermath of (let's not forget) defeat in the New Hampshire Primary. Everybody in that room was voting for him (or, if needs had been, Hillary) anyway.

The importance of that speech was in the millions who then saw it on the internet. It most certainly wasn't in the awkward questions then allowed from the audience, And the further importance of the speech wasn't even then in those who also cried watching it but rather in those who they then persuaded to watch it as well. And, more importantly still, it lay not with these millions but with the mere thousands who were then motivated to go to a campaign office and pick up the phone. Not even then to convert, or even argue with, dyed in the wool Republicans but rather simply to convince half hearted Democrats that here was a candidate truly worth going out to vote for.

The figures on the referendum are stark. The more who vote, the greater the margin of our victory. So getting that vote out is surely a more important task than engaging with "public" meetings, preaching only to the already converted, in drafty halls. No matter how much it might have annoyed my sixteen year old self, on that point Tommy Wilkie was right in 1974.  And so is Blair McDougall in 2014.