Robin McAlpine: What you 'know' may not be 'true' - especially on indy

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says the indy movement must prioritise evidence over assumptions

YOU know how everyone is regretting the Brexit vote, how public opinion across Britain is creeping to the realisation that 'we shouldn't have done this, it's all a mistake'? Well, it isn't.

In fact, the evidence contained within that work suggests that most Leave voters are very happy with their vote and, in fact, it's Remain voters who are softening their position (one in five Remain voters say they've come to terms with the result, the same proportion as the one in five who say they are still depressed).

I'm not awfully surprised about this. There were predictions of immediate economic collapse made by the Remain side which were, pound for pound, much more wrong than the claims about the NHS made by the Leavers. The immediate crisis didn't happen.

One in five Remain voters say they've come to terms with the result, the same proportion as the one in five who say they are still depressed.

Add to that the fact that generally people tend to normalise any change in their circumstances pretty quickly (the 'fait acomplis' effect) and it isn't hard to see why a lot of assumptions about public attitudes to Brexit may be wrong.

Our generations seem to make more and more assumptions about what is 'true', or perhaps it's just that social media means we are better able to hear people's assumptions about what is 'true'. It is something of a companion to 'fake news' – many of us make statements on complex issues in short phrases which strip out the complexity.

And these are then taken to be much more solid than they really are. I see an awful lot of partial restatement of polling data which to me looks like little more than confirmation bias. And for the independence movement I fear it is leading to some faulty thinking and analysis.

Which is why Common Weal's paper on the polling trends on independence since 2014 are so interesting and important. Compiled by our head of research Craig Dalzell they raise some questions about what people have assumed.

The one I think stands out most for me is the check on the regularly-stated assumption than in some way it is the higher income categories which are now crucial to whether we win Scottish independence or not.

I'm not awfully surprised about this. There were predictions of immediate economic collapse made by the Remain side which were, pound for pound, much more wrong than the claims about the NHS made by the Leavers.

I've written about this before but having much more comprehensive data is enlightening. And I hope people will begin to absorb the primary lessons here.

For example, if we managed to increase the pro-independence voting rate among those who earn over £45,000 by about 11 percentage points (bringing them up to the average), it would only deliver an extra 120,000 Yes votes. And that is less than a third of the extra votes we need to find to win a referendum.

By contrast, if we increased the Yes vote among those earn under £25,000 a year by a much more manageable five points, we'd gain over 400,000 extra votes and would win a referendum.

And yet still an awful lot of people in the independence movement say that the more leftwing-minded among us need to 'abandon our ideological purity' and accept that we need to skew our message to the 'centre ground' where we can better win over the 'affluent middle classes'.

Now many people who say that say it with unease or see it as a temporary measure, that we need to win people over with a more conservative case and then afterwards we can start to argue for the more radical Scotland they want.

Add to that the fact that generally people tend to normalise any change in their circumstances pretty quickly (the 'fait acomplis' effect) and it isn't hard to see why a lot of assumptions about public attitudes to Brexit may be wrong.

But in fact this is a line that has been pushed energetically by the right wing of the independence movement. It has been used to justify a pro-corporation, pro-banking model of a case for Scottish independence.

I hope that now we can have a better debate about strategy. Because the only verifiable evidence I can find anywhere (Craig looked at every available piece of polling data for his study) suggests that in fact it is the ideological purity of the right wing of the movement which presents the bigger risk.

Gender and age are much bigger factors for us than social class (though encouragingly we're seeing a slight upwards trend in voting intentions among women). And while some of that vote (and in particular the older vote) may be a bit more small-c conservative, it's most certainly not corporations-and-bankers conservative.

So if we are really going to explore the proposal that we need a more conservative pitch this time round to attract key wavering groups, I'm afraid that we should be thinking a bit more 'Daily Mail' and a bit less 'Telegraph'.

Because it may be time to accept that there are not enough pro-independence, pro-EU voters in Scotland to win an independence referendum – not by a long way.

Our generations seem to make more and more assumptions about what is 'true', or perhaps it's just that social media means we are better able to hear people's assumptions about what is 'true'.

That does not mean that the majority of pro-indy Brexiters won't vote for independence given a binary choice. But in combination with the drop in C2DE support for independence (very roughly, the working classes), particularly after Brexit, and the fact that the biggest drop in support for independence is actually among SNP voters, there appears to be a clear downwards pressure on support from independence coming from the emphasis on the EU over the last six months.

What this implies is that if we want to change our strategic tack then in fact we should be easing off on the pro-immigration rhetoric, being a bit more populist in bashing bankers etc. and probably being a bit more conservative in our narrative on 'identity politics'.

But here's the thing – I don't think that's what we should do at all, because the other thing that this polling analysis says to me is that of all the possible core pitches we could make for independence, the one we've been making about a better, fairer, kinder nation is probably the most coherent we have given the demographics we face and is most likely to appeal to the most people.

We can't win this from the neoliberal right – every time we say 'Edinburgh financial sector' we lose trust among the core target audience. Nor can we win this through pro-EU evangelism – we seem to have lost every bit as many people as we've gained through this tactic and it is likely to deliver less and less as we go forward.

(And for those who are predicating their whole strategy on a Brexit-related collapse of the UK economy some time in 2018, I'd urge you to learn the lessons of Project Fear confirmation bias and start to ask yourself how confident you really are of that collapse – and whether the ripples of that collapse will really wash up gently on the shores of Scottish independence.)

Which is why Common Weal's paper on the polling trends on independence since 2014 are so interesting and important. Compiled by our head of research Craig Dalzell they raise some questions about what people have assumed.

So there is no doubt that a bit of a narrative refresh will help; I think we can build a strong case around presenting a redesigned modern Scotland as a safe haven in a turbulent world. But the assumption that 'the last narrative got us to here, now we need a new one to take us the rest of the way' is exactly the kind of 'wisdom in 140 characters' which might look wise but isn't 'true'.

So what do I mean by 'true'? I've used it a few times now and always between quote marks. What I specifically mean is not 'right' – as in 'that definitely turned out to be correct'. What I mean is 'verifiable' – true in the sense that from where we are there is data that implies there is truth in the statement.

I'm urging the independence movement to go and read this report with an open mind. Have a look at what amounts to close to all the data available, look at some of the trends and follow the evidence where it appears to take you. I suspect that you'll hit 'we need to find a way to reassure over-65s on pensions, housing and social services' a long, long time before you reach any conclusion on cutting corporation tax.

And if your automatic response to that is 'yes, but cutting corporation tax will bring an economic boom that will fund pensions and social services', it may be time to ask yourself whether that is ideological confirmation bias or a real analysis.

For example, if we managed to increase the pro-independence voting rate among those who earn over £45,000 by about 11 percentage points (bringing them up to the average), it would only deliver an extra 120,000 Yes votes.

Because I think I can say with some certainty that few of the over-65s I know will make a link anything like 'cutting Amazon's tax rate – that'll be brilliant for my pension'.

We lack an enormous amount of information. In my career in political strategy I haven't specialised in polling, but I've done a bit. When the movement hears there's an opportunity to get another poll, it wants to add more and more questions about independence. This is not the way to do it.

Actually, you're much better off asking fewer questions about independence and many more questions about the respondent. It's being able to get into the detail of different demographics and how they are reacting that helps you to build a strategy.

For example, how did women earning public sector salaries of between £25,000 and £45,000 vote? Or low income men over 50 in rural areas? This is the kind of information we just don't have, and its the kind of information a professional strategist would want most.

By contrast, if we increased the Yes vote among those earn under £25,000 a year by a much more manageable five points, we'd gain over 400,000 extra votes and would win a referendum.

The Scottish Independence Convention Build conference at the weekend I think proved that as a movement we are serious and seriously interested in developing our case properly. People are keen to engage on policy and strategy.

It was a real step forward. But we've got many more forward steps to take, and setting aside what you think or even what you know could be very helpful. Because what you think or what you know may not be 'true'.

Let's test our assumptions against evidence and remake our assumptions as the evidence suggests. It will reap enormous rewards.

Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine

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