There is a trick used by staff in restaurants, essentially a well-intentioned manipulation of a customers’ expectations. It involves telling someone their food will take 45mins when in fact you know it will only take 25, so when it arrives in 30 the service looks amazing when in fact it was quite poor. It is a remarkably effective technique. If done correctly.
In politics, “playing the expectations game” is something of a cliché. If you are on the up, you downplay expectations lest your supporters assume victory is in the bag and ease off, allowing a surprise victory by your opponent. If you are on the slide, you must ensure you over-emphasise the impending disaster so you can salvage some kind of embers from the ashes and present it as victory.
Over recent years, Scottish Labour has been forced into the latter position on an almost constant basis with talk of “difficult events”, “tough conditions” and “unique circumstances”. However, such excuses have been vented on election night TV shows whilst, during the campaign, victory has been presented as inevitable despite extensive polling and canvassing evidence to the contrary. This not only undermines the point of the expectations game in the first place but also points to a total lack of strategy and understanding of the realities of the situations the party has been facing.
As Leader, Kezia Dugdale has achieved two things which lay the foundation for a possible long term recovery for Scottish Labour, both of which seek to recalibrate and manage the longer-term expectations of voters whilst demonstrating there may be an actual strategy in place. The first has been to pick a small number of target policy areas where there could be potential flaws in the SNP armour after 2016, notably in housing and education, and attempting to feed these into a broader narrative of tackling poverty through aspiration and ambition. These are areas where Kezia has the knowledge and experience to be credible and genuine, qualities lacking from recent Scottish Labour leaders but which are of the highest importance to voters.
At the same time, she has opted to try and draw a line under the constitutional debate, making it clear there is room for “Yes” in Scottish Labour, calculating that the party cannot hope to defeat the SNP on the issue in any case. This has started to put in place the pillars of expectations in voters’ minds about what Scottish Labour will be talking about, as well as the tone and style they might anticipate from the party in the coming years.
However, I assume the Scottish Labour Leader is aware that even the most radical policy and rhetoric now is unlikely to prevent an SNP victory in May. This is the second achievement and sign that a strategy is being put in place. Rather than simply politicking and making claims around impending successes, Scottish Labour seems to have decided to manage the expectations of voters by highlighting the areas where they will be challenging the SNP in the future and what alternatives policies there might be instead of grasping at headlines trying to win an election whilst ignoring the electoral realities.
By at least playing the expectations game well, and early, should the SNP not address, or be seen to address, these policy areas after the election then Scottish Labour has at least a small chance of being worthy of a second glance from the electorate.
All of this may only be the very beginnings of an attempt to turn the Scottish Labour ship away from the rocks but it is at least the first credible effort and certainly the only that appears to have a longer-term strategy as part of the package.