September 18th 2014 | Scotland

How the campaigns went in search of the missing million

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 9 September 2014
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In years to come, when people are dissecting the referendum result, one of the biggest questions will no doubt revolve around how it hinged on a term that sounded so much like the title of a crap game show.

Like pirates on a treasure hunt both campaigns have spent the last few months delving into Scotland’s poorest areas in search of the Missing Millions.

It is not clear exactly what the term means. How do you lose a million people?

Broadly, it means unregistered voters (there are around a million) though it is sometimes used to cover those who are registered but just don’t vote.

Basically it means the people who, to borrow the terrible phrase used by an anonymous Better Together campaigner, have mattresses in their gardens and do not (normally) decide elections.

In short it is the disenfranchised – typically those living in Scotland’s most deprived areas. The societal equivalent of people lost down the back of the sofa.

Obama’s election – which has come to set a standard for effective campaigning across the western world – was based in reaching out beyond the standard pool of voters, and Yes in particular has set out to mimic this.

The reasoning of many in the Yes camp is simple – as well as offering a vast, untapped electoral resource, the missing million should have the least to lose from a Yes and will be most susceptible to the various and at time competing promises about what an independent Scotland would be like.

And Yes support does seem to be higher in Scotland’s poorest places.

There is also a feeling from within Yes that polls – even those now showing the race as neck and neck – are not reaching the whole electorate.

Actually polling companies do ask respondents if they have voted before, so they should have a rough idea of how much of their sample includes the so-called missing million.

And contrary to Yes claims, John Curtice carried out analysis on a selection of polls and found that in four of the five cases the level of support for Yes was actually lower among people who had previously not voted.

Curtice writes: “Only in one case, that is YouGov’s most recent poll, is there any indication that those who did not vote in 2011 might be a little more inclined to vote Yes. In short, in so far as some polls at least may have too few of the ‘missing million’ in their sample, the effect may be to lead them to over- rather than under-estimate Yes support.”

Either way, the most exciting aspect of the referendum is that it has engaged large sections of the population in politics. And with turn out predicted to be 80 per cent plus, it is obvious why both sides have taken aim at winning this lost group.

So the hunt for the missing millions continues, with both Yes and Better Together out to make sure that its X marks the ballot.

This may yet prove to be the biggest success of the whole debate. Whatever way this lost group votes – at least politicians are finally wanting to speak to it. Arguably the biggest disaster that could come would be a low turnout.  

It may not matter which way the missing million votes – just that it stops being missing.

Liam Kirkaldy