Robin McAlpine: It's not like catching Pokémon – some thoughts on indy strategy

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says it's essential to focus on the possible flaws of a campaign to ensure it doesn't fail

THERE are two post-Brexit themes which are, for me, quite closely linked. One is how we win the next independence referendum, the other is what meaning and value there is in 'hierarchies of knowledge' these days.

All I really want to argue here is that there are very good reasons to celebrate the 'democratisation of thinking and believing' which has seen the closed views of professional elites questioned and challenged like never before – but that dumping everything that has been learned and discovered over the years is not necessarily the best bet either.

It is great that the political path forward is being debated by a wider range of people than ever before and that social media means it is a dialogue. It is healthy because when you close thinking down and leave it in the control of small groups of people with very similar initial perspectives, they can end up all seeing the same thing – even if it isn't there.

I'm a political strategist by trade and have worked in this field professionally for over 20 years. During that time many other professional strategists seemed to absorb (in large part) the post-Blair consensus about what is achievable and what is not.

So when the editor of the Guardian bemoans the era when 'fact was fact', I wonder if doing it the week after Chilcot is her best bet. Or in the decade after the financial crisis for that matter. Our masters do not always know best.

It's just that this does not automatically make the corollary true. That fact that expert opinion has often become a bit too cosy, a bit too lazy, does not mean that there is no expertise involved at all. 'Common sense' is very often wrong and there are consistent reasons why it is wrong (until you understand cognitive biases, you probably don't understand just how flawed human thinking is, for example).

I'm a political strategist by trade and have worked in this field professionally for over 20 years. During that time many other professional strategists seemed to absorb (in large part) the post-Blair consensus about what is achievable and what is not.

I was never comfortable with this. I never believed it. For over two decades now, political strategy has assumed that its purpose is to follow 'ordinary people' round and work out what it is they want to hear so you can be the one that says it. 

It was called triangulation and it shaped everything. It left no space for the idea that you might change people's views, change the future rather than guess what it'll be.

So even as a professional political strategist, I have substantial doubts about the dominant theories of political strategy in Britain. Nevertheless, there are some observations and comments which are coming out of the indy movement just now which, in my professional judgement, are pretty well as close to 'wrong' as it can get. 

So before I take two weeks off, I thought I might try and share a few perspectives on political strategy which may or may not help you in developing your own thinking.

So let me begin with a dogmatic statement, but one which I am absolutely confident in – you can't appeal to everyone. In response to my column last week some people have responded that all I was doing was expressing my own political preference and that what I was saying wasn't valid because securing a Yes vote from people who are not like me is the goal.

I was never comfortable with this. I never believed it. For over two decades now, political strategy has assumed that its purpose is to follow 'ordinary people' round and work out what it is they want to hear so you can be the one that says it. 

But before you reach that conclusion it really is helpful to assume that some people are going to vote against you. It will not be a 100 per cent Yes vote. It probably won't be an 80 per cent Yes vote.

And let me follow up with another dogmatic statement – carving up the population into a small number of political-demographic groups, each containing a very large number of people, is a mistake. 

Not all 'Tories' think the same. Not all 'rural Tories' think the same. Not all 'older rural Tories' think the same. Not all 'lower income older rural Tories' think the same. So saying that 'X' will appeal to 'Tories' is very often too broad a concept to be of any use.

If you put these two ideas together, it poses a much more challenging question – which specific kind of people can we appeal to and which specific kind of people do we think we can't appeal to? You can, for instance, conclude that what will make a Edinburgh New Town Financial Services Tory be more sympathetic to a Yes vote would be a promise to create a post-indy deregulated banking industry in Scotland.

But then to conclude that a traditionally Tory-voting grandmother from rural Scotland will be swayed by the same argument may very possibly not be correct. Just as there is no such thing as the single magic answer to being a 'Tory Whisperer', there is no single answer for persuading any very broad grouping of people just because they have one thing in common. I know Tories who are furious at the banking sector.

It's a much better idea to write down as many kinds of Scottish people as you can and tentatively put them in piles – 'no chance', 'mibby' and 'definitely'. You can then look at what demographics are in each pile and start to draw a slightly more nuanced conclusion about the kinds of groups you think you should be appealing to.

As you do, it will be very difficult not to start asking yourself 'OK, but I wonder how many of each of these categories of people there actually are?'. For example, to be on the 80th percentile of income for an employed adult (such that four out of five people earn less than you) you only need to be earning not much more than about £35,000.

Not all 'Tories' think the same. Not all 'rural Tories' think the same. Not all 'older rural Tories' think the same. Not all 'lower income older rural Tories' think the same. So saying that 'X' will appeal to 'Tories' is very often too broad a concept to be of any use.

Which is to say that if you include pensioners and others not in work, you're probably getting reasonably close to 90 per cent of the population living on an income of less than something like £35,000.

If you could create policies that would appeal to that top 10 per cent, how many of them do you think you could convert? What other No voters might you more effectively target from the '90 per cent of the population' category? Might you find them easier to persuade? Might they exist in larger numbers? Why is winning small numbers of Tories seen as easier than turning out larger numbers of sympathetic non-voters?

The reason I pose this question is that there is another dogmatic point that I want to make – there is absolutely no such thing as action without consequence. We may not know what the consequences will be, but they will happen whether we know it in advance or not.

So as you stretch your strategy to try and encompass a different social or demographic group, that stretching will have consequences for other social demographic groups. Brexit is a case study in this – Peter Mandleson concluded that there was nowhere for the dispossessed poor to go, electorally speaking, so they could easily be ignored. And here we are; there are always consequences.

If you fail to factor in some of the potential consequences for one group from what you do as you go after another group, you make a grave mistake. Again, this isn't Pokémon – you can't catch them all.

Which takes me back round towards the beginning – we're not getting a 100 per cent Yes vote. There are some people who just won't vote Yes, no matter what (just like I wouldn't vote No, no matter what). There is no magic.

This is exacerbated further by another unfortunate problem – contrary to the post-Brexit narrative, the people aren't idiots. You cannot go and offer one additional promise to each group and think that's the job done. Promising the Orange Order to keep the Queen and make Scotland constitutionally Protestant may well not overcome the strong identity link with 'Great Britain'.

There is another dogmatic point that I want to make – there is absolutely no such thing as action without consequence. We may not know what the consequences will be, but they will happen whether we know it in advance or not.

Offering pensions promises may not do anything to change the view of a child of the Second World War who still thinks the UK is an enduring force for good in the world. It is wrong to believe that if you just keep gluing on extra bits of offer eventually you'll have 'bought off' enough people.

In the end, people usually vote for what what they see as the 'core proposition' which comes closest to their own values and personal self interest. If the core proposition is 'greater economic equality and strong public services', you can't just add 'plus deregulated banking' and imagine that you've done the job.

I've tried to go through this process myself. In fact, I wrote a book on the subject. My conclusions are that the additional people who will deliver a substantial Yes vote look demographically and politically very much like the existing Yes voting base. 

They don't want a totally different case from last time, they just want a fairly similar case but without some of the more obvious flaws.

Now you could very possibly go through the process above (or something like it) and end up with a totally different conclusion. You may believe there are enough pro-EU, soft-anti-indy votes out there to win on a purely EU case. I don't – but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm right.

But a sweeping assumption that it was 'Tories' who didn't vote Yes and so it is 'Tories' we need to win by saying more 'Toryish' things is not strategy.

If you fail to factor in some of the potential consequences for one group from what you do as you go after another group, you make a grave mistake. Again, this isn't Pokémon – you can't catch them all.

You may not like my process above. You may have your own. But there is one final piece of advice I cannot stress enough – try and beat yourself and try and imagine failure. One of the biggest errors in strategic thinking is confirmation bias, the tendency to see only that which reinforces what you already think, to believe that success is inevitable.

I have never been involved in developing a political campaign without spending a substantial amount of time 'role playing' being my opponent. If I was them, how would I try to beat me? Which of my weaknesses would I try and exploit – and how?

And then I spend a fair bit of time imagining not what success would look like, but the shape that failure would take. I always try to imagine any campaign I'm working on going really, really badly – what are the many awful versions of catastrophe? 
Personally, only once I've at least tried to stare humiliating defeat in the eyes do I ever feel I've got myself into anything like a position of having a chance of avoiding it.

I hope some of this might have been useful.  

Picture courtesy of Maria Navarro Sorolla

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.

Comments

DougDaniel

Thu, 07/14/2016 - 13:49

I agree it's ridiculous to expect a 100% Yes vote. But it's equally ridiculous to expect a 100% turnout, which is effectively what the "concentrate on non-voters" strategy is based on. I realise Robin is not saying to do that alone, but there does seem to be a bit of a "one more push" feel to a lot of the analysis from The Left.

But anyway, I'm not sure where this idea comes from that the case for indy is being turned into "yay, banking deregulation FTW!" What I do see is a recognition that what a lot of people did a cost/benefit risk analysis last time, and ended up coming to the conclusion that independence was too risky compared to remaining in the UK. They've been proven wrong, of course (although some will still cling to the oil price as proof that they were right, despite all the other shit), but what people are saying is that if we can go into the next referendum presenting independence as the less risky option, then those waverers in the middle will be easier to win over. After all, that's precisely what the post-Brexit surge is about. So if we can convince people that the proposition of indy Scotland in the EU is less risky than post-Brexit UK, those people with no strong feelings either way are more likely to back independence.

What part of that equates to "banking deregulation"?

Incidentally, the 90% of people earning under £35,000 includes a vast number of the folk who Robin correctly identifies as being unconvertable, ie post-War pensioners and Orange Order types, as well as folk who would only vote if you physically dragged them to the polling station (and even then, they might just spoil it in protest). On the other hand, the 10% of folk earning over £35,000 already contains Yes voters, and a lot of those people who vote based on cost/benefit analysis rather than gut feeling. So why is it any more relevant to discount that particular 10% of the population?

robin

Thu, 07/14/2016 - 15:15

I won’t have time to reply to everything here but since this comment from Doug is here, this is precisely what I mean about there being real benefit in looking at some of the theory. Almost every theory of marketing and influence agrees that if you take a ‘risk avoidance’ strategy then you have to make the risk of inaction at leasat twice as ‘risky’ as the risk of action. Risk aversion is one of the most significant of the cognitive biases that I mentioned in the article. If you want to get someone to take action you have to persuade them that the risk in that action is only about half as big as the risk in inaction. Which mean that if someone thinks taking a particular choice might risk them £10, you have to persuade them that inaction will risk them £20. That is difficult. And it involves the ‘confirmation bias’ of really believing that the status quo is more of a risk than what can very easily be seen as ‘the status quo plus a £9m deficit’. If there is one lesson from the last referendum is that ‘risk removal’ or ‘risk mitigation’ didn’t work very well. That was the strategy for the first year. Only when an alternative strategy of ‘future projection’ (not ‘the future isn’t a risk’ but ‘the future can be better’) was taken did we start to see serious shifts in the polls. This is what I mean by testing your assumption by role-playing the opponent. With the support of all the media (assuming it is still there), could you make Scottish independence in the next two years sound risky? In the middle of a potential financial crisis across Britain, could you make Scotland going it alone sound dangerous, potentially without the deficit issue resolved and potentially without any guarantee of EU membership? Are you really confident that you could make not being independent sound twice as risky as that? And people become more risk averse in periods that feel risky – they generally don’t get more gung-ho. This is why I wrote the article – headline arguments are fine, but they need strongly tested. I’ve seen not a jot of evidence that the next group most likely to vote Yes are conservative or right-wing or wealthy. In the book I’ve explained at some length my thinking.

And if you’ve not seen explicit calls for Scottish independence to be a neoliberal project, look at https://next.ft.com/content/1219f41c-4456-11e6-9b66-0712b3873ae1 or https://medium.com/@AndrewWilsonAJW/substance-not-symbols-a982a5af61dc. I absolutely promise you that there is serious talk about this model, though I have no idea if this is being taken seriously by the SNP leadership.

florian albert

Fri, 07/15/2016 - 19:19

Robin McAlpine proposes that a second referendum could be won via a 'fairly similar case but without some of the more obvious faults.'

At the heart of the failure of the 2014 vote was the currency issue.
Two years on, the SNP shows little sign of being willing to tackle it.

The alternatives remain; the euro or a Scottish currency. The first looks even less attractive. Even Joseph Stiglitz has accepted that it should be written off as a mistake.
The problem with a Scottish currency is that it - at least initially - would probably fail to keep parity with sterling. For a huge percentage of Scots, this would mean a financial hit.

Nicola Sturgeon shows every sign of being content to avoid this problem by doing nothing. By avoiding choosing she is using up her political capital. As both the Tories and Labour have found out recently, this can easily run out.

Matt Seattle

Fri, 07/15/2016 - 19:27

As ever, some good provocative thinking from Robin,
BUT -
why are Common Space articles interspersed with random extracts in larger type, many of which appear in the text after the point where they will already have been read?
A short heading highlighting something which is to follow would make for a less confusing read.
Thank you.

Bob 1848

Sun, 07/17/2016 - 22:59

At this stage, we need to know what the alternative to independence is. Brexit means the rewriting not only of our constitution but also of policy and law on immigration, competition, state aid, state procurement, trade, agricultural subsidy, regional development, environment (including environmental protection, waste, and climate change), employment, energy, services, consumer protection and fundamental rights and no doubt other topics I've not thought of. As things stand, it is the present UK government that is likely to determine our future in these matters - it will negotiate the exit treaty with the EU, which will fix many of these matters in law and therefore set the direction of the U.K. for many years to come. The new UK government has not stood at election on a manifesto involving changes in any of these policies. We do not even know at this stage what the UK government's approach will be. We do not know what involvement Scotland will have in negotiations, or whether any of these areas of policy might be devolved to Scotland. The first step in considering independence therefore should be a close interrogation of the U.K. Government on its proposals for what the new UK might look like. Then there may be a rational basis upon which to change minds on independence.

CommonSpace journalism is completely free from the influence of advertisers and is only possible with your continued support. Please contribute a monthly amount towards our costs. Build the Scotland you want to live in - support our new media.