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An enduring legacy? The independence referendum may not herald the beginning of a new era of political engagement

The independence referendum fundamentally changed Scottish politics, with an extraordinarily high turnout of 84.6% leading some to speculate that a new era of political engagement had begun. But as Heinz Brandenburg, Zac Greene, Neil McGarvey and Stephen Campbell show, that may not be the case – with those who were brought to the polls for the first time likely to find the idea of voting for an idea more appealing than that of voting for a politician. 

The reawakening of Scottish politics engendered by the referendum campaign was heralded as a triumph of democracy. Since 1979, Scotland’s turnout had lagged behind the rest of the UK – at the previous 2010 General Election it had only been 63.8%. The 2014 Referendum campaign, on the surface, appeared to have had a profound effect increasing participation to 84.6%.

Could this new democratic engagement last? The instant upsurge in SNP membership suggested an answer in the affirmative – at the last count SNP membership was 114,121 – up from 25,000 members pre-referendum. The General Election in May 2014 offered the next ‘test’ in democratic engagement. Scotland’s turnout in the 2015 General Election was the highest amongst the nations of the UK at 71.1% – an increase of 7.3% on 2010. In the rest of the UK the recorded increase did not even amount to 1%. A very clear ‘referendum effect’ was apparent.

We look beneath these impressive headline figures to question the factors influencing the rise in turnout and the supposed legacy of the 2014 Referendum campaign. Has it re-engaged the previously dis-engaged, the deprived and poorly educated segments of the Scottish electorate? Declining turnout has become increasingly differential between young and old, more and less educated, affluent and deprived. Examining just who has been re-engaged was an area ripe for analysis. Through extensive mobilization efforts, the 2014 referendum campaign’s lasting contribution might have been to reduce the barriers to participation for Scotland’s least well off.

To pursue this goal, we eschew traditional approaches to understanding electoral participation – the utilisation of constituency level or survey data. The former aggregates at too high a level – we seek answers at a much lower localised neighbourhood level. Although survey data would allow us to understand the behaviour of individual voters, surveys are problematic for seeking to understand turnout in the case of the Scottish referendum. Most notably, those who do not vote tend to also not complete surveys, resulting in severe non-response bias. This trend is particularly troubling for online surveys such as  the internet panel carried out by Yougov for the British Election Study  following the referendum where 97% (sic!) of respondents claimed to have voted.

Instead, we directly engaged with Scotland’s 32 local authority chief executives to get hold of turnout verification counts for polling districts at the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary Election, the 2014 Referendum and the 2015 General Election. Some of this data proved rather elusive. However, we successfully collected data from a broad sample of local councils in Scotland (10 out of 32 are included in the current analysis) with representation from all types of council – highland, lowland; urban, rural; suburban, island. In total, the data come from over 800 polling districts.

For the primary analysis, we combine turnout data with the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). As a measure regularly used by the Scottish government to determine funding and support for deprived areas, the SIMD brings together indicators of employment, income, health, education (including skills and training), geographic access to services, crime and housing. The SIMD is created by dividing Scotland into 6,505 data-zones each containing 350 households and in its most recent instalment (2012) ranges from 0.94 (least deprived) to 89.89 (most deprived).

Like past socio-economic explanations for political engagement, levels of deprivation provide an important lens to understand the dynamics of this new wave of democratic participation. Scotland’s deprivation is not equally spread – Glasgow takes the lion share of Scotland’s 20% most deprived neighbourhoods (the most deprived quintile). The city is home to 11.4% of the Scottish population, but over 28% of its most deprived neighbourhoods. Our past work focusing on Glasgow demonstrated interesting dynamics, (see here) but our expanded data set allows us extend our analysis across much of Scotland. Has democracy reached the parts of Scotland that it has previously failed to i.e. the areas with historically low turnout, those polling districts with records of low education attainment, multiple deprivation, poor health and low life expectancy?

Combining SIMD, 2011 and 2013 Census and detailed post-code information, we estimate average levels of deprivation for each polling district. Our dependent variable is the proportion of the electorate that voted in 2011, 2014 and 2015 for each district; our independent variable is the average multiple deprivation from the SIMD data. The results of our analysis hold when we include demographic controls for age and gender.

Figure 1, below, shows the simple relationship between deprivation and turnout before, during and after the Referendum. While turnout rises in general during the Referendum, the relationship between deprivation and participation weakens considerably. Although still large, the bivariate correlation between turnout and SIMD decreases from .76 to .71 from 2011 to 2014. Even the most deprived neighbourhoods, with turnout rates regularly below 30% in the 2011 Scottish Parliament Election, catch up. However, in the General Election in 2015, the impact gains again in strength, although not quite returning to pre-Referendum levels. In Figure 1, we separate out Glasgow from the rest, illustrating the much wider range of deprivation found in the major city, compared to some of the rural or suburban council areas.

Figure 1: Deprivation and turnout, before, during and after the Independence Referendum

Heinz1

While the results evidence a difference in the relationship between deprivation and turnout across the years, the index masks the way in which deprivation matters. Are socio-economic, education or other dimensions of deprivation driving turnout? To clarify the relationship we then deconstructed the deprivation index and predicted turnout using ordinary least squares regression including each of the individual dimensions of deprivation.  This analysis reveals that educational deprivation drives much of the decreased impact on turnout. The effect of other dimensions of deprivation remains stable and small across the elections. Figure 2 plots predicted polling district turnout based on educational deprivation in each election. Following a strong negative effect in 2011 (an increase of one standard deviation in Educational deprivation decreases turnout by 4.41%), the education effect largely dissipates in the 2014 election (an increase of one standard deviation in Educational deprivation decreases turnout by 1.91%). Engagement reduced the costs and barriers constraining the groups that are least politically attentive. But the education effect reappears strongly, if not quite back to its pre-Referendum level (approximately half the 2011 magnitude), in the 2015 General Election.

Figure 2. Predicted Effect of Educational Deprivation on Turnout.

Heinz2

Our data suggests that whilst the Referendum engaged the previously ‘lost’, disengaged and politically excluded, its legacy was not particularly enduring. This suggests that there may be groups of voters that were more willing to vote for or against a political idea but are unwilling to vote for politicians. The referendum campaign reached parts of the population that normal elections cannot, and our data show that while there still is increased turnout in the 2015 General Election, the impact of deprivation on turnout is nearly back to where it was before the referendum.

Note: this post represents the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit – Scotland, or any organisation associated with it. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Heinz Brandenburg is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Strathclyde

Zac Greene is Chancellor’s Fellow at Strathclyde University. His research explores the causes and consequences of intra-party politics for elections, government behaviour and public policy.

Neil McGarvey is Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Strathclyde

Stephen Campbell is a student at the University of Strathclyde

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