By Peter Geoghegan
"Anyone here who has never been canvassing?" Jonathan Shafi, co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign, projected his voice to be heard by the 50 or so hardy souls huddled together in a half-empty car park in Easterhouse on a dreich midweek evening. A couple of novices, hands gingerly raised, were quickly paired up with more experienced stagers. "Once you've got a partner go over and get a sheet from Tony."
The canvassers, ranging from hirsute 20-somethings in tight jeans to hardened socialists with weather-beaten faces, were handed tally sheets with detailed breakdowns of the local electoral roll and leaflets bearing RIC’s new slogan: 'Britain is for the Rich, Scotland Can Be Ours'. As they filtered out onto the streets, past the golden arches of McDonald’s, a giant 'Yes' was projected onto the wall of the Shandwick Shopping Centre.
Easterhouse was an apt first stop on the Radical Independence Campaign's drive to reach out to – and register – what has been called Scotland's 'missing million': the vast swathes of the electorate that have, for a variety of reasons, quit the voting habit. Gerry Hassan called Easterhouse "a political apathy hotspot". At the 2011 Holyrood elections, turnout here was just 34.5 per cent – the lowest in the country. And of course there are those photographs of an almost lachrymose Iain Duncan Smith shuffling around the estates of Easterhouse in his post-millennial 'compassionate Conservative' guise.
People in Easterhouse "have been left behind by the Westminster parties, and the economic crisis is only worsening conditions", Jonathan Shafi told me. Only a "yes" vote in September can save ordinary people from the "radical right agenda" of the coalition government in Westminster, he said just before I sloped off to follow a group of canvassers as they trudged, clipboard in hands, beneath the harsh sodium yellow lights ribbonned along the streets of Easterhouse.
"If someone slams the door in your face you're safe to assume that's a 'no'. But hopefully that won't happen," our leader said before the group splintered into half a dozen pairs. "I'm being very managerial this evening," she laughed. "I do this a minimum of three nights a week". Experienced campaigners are exactly what the Yes cause needs – and especially in areas like Easterhouse. Polling consistently suggests that support for independence is highest among the most disadvantaged. The problem, however, is that this same cohort are least likely to vote in the first place.
I fell into canvassing with Malcolm, an art school student and RIC member who moved to Scotland from Sweden five years ago, and Rosie, a teacher who grew up in Easterhouse ("This used to be all tenements," she said as walked down a street of squat, semi-detached houses.) At one door we met a woman on her way out to work. Just inside her porch, a metal plaque hung on the wall: "Home Sweet Home". She said she hadn't got enough information to decide which way to vote. Rosie gave her a leaflet, and she was marked down on the sheet as one to return to. Nearby a middle-aged man with cropped hair and an earring said, "My mind's made up already. I'll definitely be voting yes".
There is an art to canvassing that reminded me of an ill-fated job as a door-to-door salesman on Dublin’s less than salubrious north side a decade and a half ago. Stand. Knock. Step back. If the door opens engage your sales pitch – in this case, "I'm Malcolm and this is Rosie. We are from the Yes campaign. Do you plan to vote yes?". If no one answers, shuffle nervously on the porch for 60 seconds and move on to the next house.
More often than not we got no response – even when the lights were on and dogs were yapping inside. When the door did creak open, the message was tailored for the audience – there was talk about the bedroom tax and fuel poverty, not pension funds and currency unions. At one house a young lad in climate-defying Bermuda shorts and a t-shirt laughed when asked if he'd be voting. "I can't vote, I'm not 18." When told about the change in voting age, he looked almost disappointed. "Would you like Scotland to be independent?" "I don't care". I was ready to walk away but Malcolm was made of sterner stuff: "what are you into?" "Motorbikes". We left him a leaflet.
There were enough 'yeses' on the doorsteps to suggest that RIC's strategy could bear fruit. It helps, too, that the canvassers are not all that different from the people they attempting to connect with. OK, there were more hipster beards and black-rimmed glasses in the Shandwick shopping centre car park than you would find on an average Glasgow scheme, but Malcolm (an erstwhile member of a Swedish syndicalist union) and Rosie, who left the Labour party in the early 90s after their failure to "take a hard line" on the poll tax, typify the frustration with mainstream politics that Yes will need to tap into to win in September.
This was not slick SNP machine politics. There were people from a range of groups under the "Yes"umbrella – Women for Independence, Labour for Independence, RIC. But neither was this an amateurish affair. Everyone returned from their rounds with valuable detail – and, some, with bragging rights. "We got 7 yeses". "We got 22". "We got a Labour councilor's house."
The Radical Independence Campaign is bucking a global trend: convincing young people to get involved in constitutional politics. They are part of the referendum ground war that is, so far, going largely under the radar. Better Together will struggle to generate such enthusiasm in its grassroots.
But the challenge for Yes canvassers is to pass their energy onto the electorate as their ground war intensifies in the coming months. At one door we called to in Easterhouse, a middle-aged man was less than a foot away in his curtain-less living room watching Champion's League football. As we stood on the porch he took a swig from a small plastic bottle of Irn Bru and lit a cigarette. He didn't look up.