Ian Swanson: Negativity is destroying No campaign

Alistair Darling has been accused of lacking charisma. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Alistair Darling has been accused of lacking charisma. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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YES campaigners were given a huge boost at the weekend when a new opinion poll showed they could be on the brink of victory in the independence referendum.

Excluding the “don’t knows”, the split was No 52 per cent, Yes 48 per cent – meaning the pro-independence campaign needs a swing of just two per cent to win.

The survey – carried out by ICM, seen as one of the most reliable pollsters – came after a series of other polls showed the gap narrowing. And with just under five months now to go, there is still plenty scope for further movement.

As well as boosting the Yes side, the poll prompted fresh criticism of the anti-independence campaign, which has been widely seen as too negative.

And there was a new round of briefing against former chancellor Alistair Darling, suggesting he should be replaced as leader of the cross-party Better Together campaign.

Senior Tories were quoted saying the Edinburgh South West MP had “zero charisma” and was a “middlingly competent accountant”. Mr Darling is well used to being branded boring – indeed it was seen as an asset when Labour was in power and he could be moved from one Cabinet position to another to quell controversies and take troubled departments out of the headlines.

But he is not an accountant of any sort. Rather, he is a lawyer able to argue tricky cases. And as chancellor he was one of the few people who emerged from the banking crisis with their reputation enhanced.

No senior Tory politician could credibly take over from Mr Darling because of the party’s still-toxic image in Scotland.

The intervention of Labour big gun George Robertson – warning Scottish independence would be “cataclysmic” for the West – backfired badly. And Labour’s John Reid, who has been suggested, could prove a divisive figure because of his past role as Celtic chairman.

If there is a problem with the Better Together campaign – and it does look as if there is – it is not because of who leads it. In fact there are several problems – and they are more fundamental.

There is a problem in getting parties which are normally arch enemies to work together and trust each other. Many Labour activists feel deeply uncomfortable about being associated with Tories, but there are also Lib Dems who don’t want to campaign with Labour and no doubt Tories who would rather keep their distance too.

And there is also a problem in trying to make campaigning for a No vote sound positive. When Gordon Brown made his first speech under the Better Together banner this week, he went to great lengths to talk positively about why he believes pensioners will be better off if Scotland remains part of the UK – but the whole point of his message was still that things would be worse under independence.

But sometimes it feels as if the No campaigners don’t even try to sound positive – which is why Alex Salmond was able to describe Better Together in his SNP conference speech as “the most miserable, negative, depressing and thoroughly boring campaign in modern political history”.

A new poster campaign launched this week by Better Together could be a step in the right direction for their campaign. Its claim – that a Scottish Parliament combined with remaining part of the UK means Scotland has “the best of both worlds” – is a genuinely positive message. But if the polls are right, it may have come too late.