Robin McAlpine: Please SNP, get a good strategist

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says the independence movement needs to start finding consistency in its messaging

STANDING in the rain on Glasgow Green on Sunday was, as always when the indy movement gets together, a joy. But I'd be lying if I don't also admit to feeling a little nervousness. That nervousness stems from what I think is an insufficiently firm grasp of message control. And that matters.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the term, its a basic concept of political strategy (and also marketing and the advertising industry). At its most fundamental the concept is simply that if people hear too many conflicting or shifting messages coming from one side they get confused and disorientated.

And in political campaigning, few things are worse than if your target audience is disorientated and doesn't understand what you're saying or no longer believes you because you keep saying different things. Basically, humans like a substantial degree of predictability and consistency and rebel against being confused (think of the episode of the Young Ones where they write a letter to their bank manager in two contrasting tones and begin it 'Darling Fascist Pig').

Few things are worse than if your target audience is disorientated and doesn't understand what you're saying or no longer believes you because you keep saying different things.

And every bit as problematically, if there are multiple conflicting ideas floating around coming from one side, people have a habit of hearing the one that worries them most. Diversity of voice is good – but only if they're pushing in the same broad direction. That's what happened in the last referendum.

It's not what's happening just now. Since Brexit we've had Vote Yes for the EU, Vote Yes if Five Red Lines aren't met, Forget the Five Red Lines, Vote Yes for Free Markets, Vote Yes for Many Voices, Vote Yes for Monaco of the North, Vote Yes for No Change, Vote for Transcendental Independence, Vote Yes or its Tories Forever, Vote Yes for the Scottish Establishment, Vote Yes for the Masochistic Truth,and more.

But these things all have different meanings, different tones, different philosophies. Some of them flat-out contradict each other (you can't sell an independent Scotland on a deregulated neoliberal banking system and as an antidote to Tory politics at the same time). And even the most loyal party member must be struggling to remember what the line is at any given moment.

This has been worrying me for quite a while now, because it reflects the failures of the beginning of the last independence referendum. That started out with what you could call a 'little Britain' pitch. For the first year or so of the long campaign, by far the dominant argument was that you'd barely notice independence had happened.

And every bit as problematically, if there are multiple conflicting ideas floating around coming from one side, people have a habit of hearing the one that worries them most.

So we got spreadsheets and reports and the early commitments to keeping the UK's regulatory framework, currency, monarch, pensions, tax system and so on. This was a deeply flawed approach which seemed to assume that you can persuade people to take a leap into the dark by persuading them it isn't a leap and it isn't dark. 

(We should always accept that independence is a leap because people see any version of the future that is substantially different from the present in that way and pretending otherwise is unhelpful.)

This approach didn't work. I'd argue that it didn't even nearly work. It was only when the narrative shifted to what could be better rather than what would be the same that things turned. And whether the right wing of the SNP likes it or not, it was variations of a Nordic model (or something quite similar to it) that did the job.

So where the SNP started out talking about the Queen and Nato (to pretty well zero effect), it ended up talking about childcare, renewable energy and the NHS. For some reason we're supposed to forget that lesson and start again.

Apart from the fact that this is bad, bad strategy (don't stop doing the thing that worked in favour of repeating the thing that didn't...), it is based on worrying assumptions. People keep assuming that somehow we can just 'bank' the 45 per cent that voted Yes – by abandoning the case that persuaded them and doing something approaching the opposite.

People keep assuming that somehow we can just 'bank' the 45 per cent that voted Yes – by abandoning the case that persuaded them and doing something approaching the opposite.

That isn't borne out by the evidence. There are clear indications that people are moving both away from and to independence. 

Yes, voting recall is notoriously inaccurate – but about 15 per cent of people are saying they changed their vote since the last referendum but pro-indy support only rose by three per cent.

While people moving in and out of 'don't know' confuses the picture, it looks like we may have lost five or six per cent of those who voted Yes last time. Why? I don't know. I suspect that the unnecessarily gung-ho and uncritical prioritising of all things EU lost some people. I suspect others may have been hit by jitters over oil prices and deficits.

But this is basically my point – it's complex, but it's being treated as if its simple. Decisions appear to be made based on guesses of what people think before there is evidence, or then to 'correct' or 'redirect' the narrative when guesses turn out not to be accurate. 

And there are things other than a desire to win which are getting in the way – too many people hovering around the SNP leadership seem to see the wider movement as a threat rather than an absolutely essential component of victory.

That isn't borne out by the evidence. There are clear indications that people are moving both away from and to independence. 

I'm worried about the outcomes of this. No-one should be comfortable with Nicola Sturgeon shedding 22 points in satisfaction ratings in a matter of a few months. It's hard not to note that a number of people of senior rank in the SNP now seems to be briefing against the leadership position, calling for more restraint and more reflection on the timing of a referendum. 

While this is all still gentle stuff in comparison to Tory and Labour blood-letting, it is still unprecedented.

In my opinion there have certainly been misjudgements. I write that not as an activist or a leftie but as a professional political strategist. I am 100 per cent confident that any political strategist from anywhere around the world would share many of my concerns.

For example, Andrew Wilson's Growth Commission was set up at breakneck pace and without consultation or (in my view) proper consideration. It is supposed to supply 'substance' to the debate, according to Mr Wilson. But he has appointed a team which seems to lack sufficient constitutional or macroeconomic expertise and plans to report within three months. What's the rush?

While people moving in and out of 'don't know' confuses the picture, it looks like we may have lost five or six per cent of those who voted Yes last time.

The questions this commission should be considering are enormous in scope and the idea that they can be 'knocked off' in three months is for the birds. Common Weal took weeks and weeks researching international precedent to get in a position to say something substantial about the allocation of debts and assets and spent even more time on currency. That's only a fraction of the overall job.

If this comes out looking like another PR wheeze being hashed together by another PR man for the purpose of getting out of a corner, it does harm. Three months to design the fundamentals of a new country? And that's meant to reassure the public things are being taken seriously? Does that feel respectful of the public to you? Sufficient to be serious?

Many people assume that good politicians are good strategists. Actually, that's seldom true (and few strategists make good politicians). One is about the heat of battle, the other standing back and taking a longer view. It's like the difference between tennis and chess.

This seems to be at the heart of the problem. From what I've gathered through conversation, much if not all of the senior team which was in place when Salmond was leader has gone – but they've not been replaced with people of similar experience.

I'm worried about the outcomes of this. No-one should be comfortable with Nicola Sturgeon shedding 22 points in satisfaction ratings in a matter of a few months.

I feel that the SNP not only needs a better and clearer strategy but that it must achieve much better control over its own messaging. Right now the line between purposeful march and sequence of knee-jerks is too fine.

So put simply, I'd urge the SNP (the party, not the Scottish Government) to recruit a senior strategist as quickly as it can. And I mean a professional with real experience of political campaigning and preferably a fresh perspective. 

Not another 'reward for loyalty' or 'posts for pals' recycling job and not another tame youngster bluffing it. I certainly don't fetishise strategists and they, too, make mistakes – but not some of the worryingly obvious ones that have been made of late.

I know some of you wish I'd just shut up and go away. But you're going to like it a lot less if I'm right, if internal SNP divisions grow, if the Growth Commission is an ill-received rush-job, if Sturgeon's popularity continues to fall and if the polls don't move.

This is all entirely avoidable. So please SNP, we need you at the top of your game. And right now you're not.

Picture: CommonSpace

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