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

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