Fighting the last (political) war

There is an old cliché about Generals, they always tend to fight the last war, not the current one. As we are now officially at the start of yet another political campaign, it seems the Labour Party might be making the same mistake.

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In 2017, the Conservatives re-fought the 2015 campaign.  “Chaos with….” and attention on who the friends of the Labour Leader were and what that said about them.  Although I would argue that the alleged friends that had Ed Miliband in their pocket weren’t as bad as the friends Jeremy Corbyn had actually memorialised but the point stands.  What worked in 2015, most definitely did not in 2017 as, frankly, voters decided not to care whom Jeremy Corbyn might or might not have been friends with.

In 2017, Labour most definitely did not re-fight the 2015 election, more like one from the 1970s.  Gone was the slick stage-managed events replaced by old-style rallies and enthusiasm.  People like me sighed or laughed, “this will never work.”  And, to an extent, it didn’t.  Labour didn’t win the election but they did win the campaign, albeit a pyrrhic victory.  And they did it by fighting their own war and not the last.  This might have been partly due to the players in the party being almost entirely new after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader – they didn’t come with scars or a point to prove that they had been right all along.

This time, however, initial signs are that the tables have turned.  Labour are going in to this election with almost glee at being between 9 to 15 points down because “remember what happened last time.”  This time, just one more push is required and we will be in Berlin (or Downing Street).  They are assuming that the 2019 election will be just like 2017, as voters flock to the Red Flag and the Glorious Future promised.

This time the difference is that Labour does have people who led the 2017 campaign and want to show they were right all along and their plan is the one true masterplan.

What the Labour Party must be weary of is that the battleground, as well as the political and actual weather over it, will be very different this time.  The question is on which side the debris from apparent voter anger falls and how radioactive it is.  Get it wrong and Nuclear Winter beckons.

The climate of your audience

In watching some of the videos from the last few climate change protests in Edinburgh, London and elsewhere, it was easy to see some examples of good campaigning and effective stunts for media attention. A large Octopus is never not going to get you coverage and neither is a fire engine spraying an old building red. Even protests at London City Airport can get you the kind of attention you want.Graeme Downie, Orbit Director

With that kind of stunt, you are going to be asked for your more substantial views and reasoning, to showcase your knowledge, agenda and programme to make real change and grow an actual movement. In short, it creates the opportunity but the stunt should not be the end in itself.

But, as with many campaigns, the stunt becomes the objective and you feel you have to “do something new” and “go further” rather than looking at why the first thing worked and what it enabled you to do.

The footage this morning of commuters in London dragging XR protestors off a tube, following the blocking of train stations and bus stations are where protestors have lost sight of their audience and purpose. The people being inconvenienced are, afterall, doing what XR wants to see more of – using public transport. Because of public transport conditions, they are also likely to support more money being spent on it to improve the service.

I would be willing to bet that if you polled these commuters they would also support more effective action to tackle climate change. These are the people who agree with you and you want to bring to your campaign. They are your audience, why are you abusing them and treating them as the enemy? Sure, you will get coverage and attention but it will not grow your support nor will it advance your objectives, quite the opposite.

This is common in PR and political campaigns, the base or client demands more but forgets the long-term objective and who the audience is. At Orbit, this is something we combat by asking clients to focus on three simple questions at all times during campaigns and if a particular activity is going to help our longer-term objective. Who is our audience? How do we reach them? What do we want them to do?

Activity for the sake of activity may look appealing but forget your audience at your peril if you want to achieve anything.

Crisis? What Crisis?

Thatcher in 1990, Callaghan in 1979.  Two British Prime Ministers who thought that being seen to ‘get on with the job’ was the best way to handle political difficulties at home.  Perhaps it is fitting therefore that Boris Johnson is also out of the country, presumably in part for the same reason.

When the unanimous judgement of the UK Supreme Court was handed down this morning.  The court’s ruling, that there was no reason, let alone a justifiable one, to prorogue Parliament and that the UK Government acted illegally, was as damning in its judgement as it was surprising in its clarity.

As with much of what has happened with Brexit, it is impossible to guess what might happen next.  Immediate calls for his resignation from all sides are predictable, but it is likely that whilst in the New York, the Prime Minister might follow the advice of “America’s Boris” and stick it out, at least in the short term.

What the Opposition chooses to do next will be critical in that determination.  With the media narrative clearly building up to the decision today though it was with a chronic lack of perspective, but entirely unsurprising, that Labour Conference chose to continue petty squabbles and fudge positions.  A clear clarion call this morning of its position would have further increased the pressure but has not yet materialised.   Strong, visual action today could still salvage the situation, but whether the party is capable of that or cedes that group to the SNP, Lib Dems and others remains to be seen.

The guesswork will continue over the coming hours, days and weeks but I suspect the news from the Big Apple will echo both Callaghan and Thatcher, “Crisis? What Crisis?” and “No, No, No.”

Lies, damn lies and political predictions

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Graeme Downie, Director. @graemedownie

Like most pollsters, pundits and political types that have been talking on TV all night and into the early hours I should start this piece by admitting it is entirely likely that what I am about to say is entirely wrong!  I certainly was with my predictions about this election.

I will leave others to talk about the implications of the UK-wide results beyond saying Theresa May will surely go down in history as having committed the biggest act of political suicide in history – or at least since the one her predecessor made a little over a year ago!

For those of us working in public affairs in Scotland who were looking forward to a period without elections after a total of 6 votes in 3 years, with more opportunity to focus on policy issues which matter most to our clients, this seems a forlorn hope.  it is almost impossible to imagine any party governing for anything close to the full 5 years of a Parliament so a further General Election is surely on the cards – the only question is when!

In Scotland, the story of the night will clearly be the fall of the SNP vote and their loss of seats, in particular the loss of high profile figures from their traditional base in rural areas of Scotland such as Angus Robertson, their former leader at Westminster and Alex Salmond, former First Minister.  Those wins for the Conservatives, along with wins in areas such as Stirling and Aberdeenshire signal a clear return for the party to areas of Scotland which were former strongholds in the 1990s and before.  The role of the Scottish MPs could in fact be critical in a UK context and it would be a supreme irony if those MPs make the difference which keep the party in control of Downing Street.  Either way, the result for the party is certainly not something that anyone would have predicted a few years ago and will put an end to the jokes about numbers of Tory MPs and Pandas.

The other story of the night is the extent to which Labour has also drastically over-performed expectations.  Whilst the party was expecting to hold Ian Murray’s seat in Edinburgh South, as well as perhaps winning in East Lothian, they achieved that and a lot more besides, returning MPs from their own traditional heartlands, including winning seats back in Glasgow.  This certainly gives the party a platform and credibility to continue to rebuild.  The difficulty for the Scottish party now will be the extent to which their success may or may not have been down to Jeremy Corbyn, who was opposed by Kezia Dugdale.  It is likely that hatchets will be buried in that regard in the short term at least but it does present a future problem for the party.

For the SNP, it must feel like a disappointing and frustrating night full of contradictions.  They have achieved their second best ever result in a Westminster election and have some right to claim they have “won” the General Election in Scotland.  They also could not ever have been expected to repeat their exceptional result from 2 years ago when they won 56 out of the 59 seats but the scale of their losses will surely have surprised most in the party.

Although Nicola Sturgeon’s position is under no immediate threat, with so many experienced defeated former MPs, particularly from rural areas, able to snipe from the sidelines should they choose, the First Minister could face a rocky period.  Alex Salmond indicated in his concession speech that he isn’t planning on staying quiet in the future.  The First Minister will need to consider a rethink to her long-term strategy to balance the desire of many in her base support for a quick second independence referendum, whilst trying to win back SNP voters which have been lost in this election precisely because they do not want such a vote anytime soon.

It appears that any thoughts of such a referendum will be off the table at least in the short to medium term but the First Minister will face a struggle to hold together the very broad SNP coalition – will she be forced to decide if the party is an urban one or a rural one?

The other question for the SNP is what role they will now try to carve out for themselves at Westminster?  They have offered to support a Labour Government but surely the price you would expect them to demand, a second independence referendum, is perhaps a gift they don’t actually want at the moment as if this election result has taught us anything it is that voters take a dim view of unnecessary elections and tend to react accordingly, as one Mrs T. May seems to have discovered!

So, there will certainly be plenty to talk about at the next PubAffairs event next week which Orbit are delighted to sponsor.  It will take place from 6pm on Wednesday 14 June at Hemma in Holyrood Road so I hope you will come along.  Between us we might even be able to make some sense of what has happened and have a guess at what might happen next!

If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table

Like most people who work in politics, I have spent the last few days, weeks and months trying to figure out if Theresa May has any kind of long-term strategy for how to handle Brexit and, if she does, what that might be.

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Graeme Downie, Director. @graemedownie

Also like a lot of people who work in politics, I tend to find myself reaching for some kind of comparison for political drama or documentary to explain what I think.  That is often West Wing or Yes Minister.

In this case, however, it is the new version of House of Cards with Kevin Spacey.  In that show there is a recurring line which Frank Underwood uses to explain why he takes what at first glance seems like illogical or risky actions – “If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.”

That is the closest I have come so far to trying to explain what Theresa May might be up to.  Here is Prime Minister, previously regarded by many as a steady, safe pair of hands – winning the Conservative Party leadership by virtue of being the only candidate not to make a stupid mistake.

And yet, her approach to the upcoming Brexit negotiations and her dealings over a possible second Scottish independence referendum have seemed more the actions of a spoilt teenager, taking intractable black or white positions.  This has often seemed unreasonable and surely doomed to fail, afterall where is the famous British strength of negotiation and compromise, something Brussels diplomats will genuinely miss when the country exits the EU?

On Brexit, the Prime Minister is smart enough to know that in a traditional negotiation she has a very weak hand indeed.  One country versus 27 who are angry, have self-preservation at the core and, crucially, control many of the timescales.  No one would realistically expect to walk in to that kind of fight and not come out more bloodied that the opponents.  However, her actions, right from her decision to delay the triggering of Article 50, despite initial howls from the EU top brass, through to the way she has managed the furore about EU nationals is not what might be thought of as the traditional “British” way of handling diplomacy.

In her dealings with Nicola Sturgeon as well, the Mrs. May has been extreme – starting off with a “No” when questioned about whether Brexit was a sufficient material change to justify a second independence referendum and sticking to that hard line this week with a brisk “now is not the time” response to the First Minister’s demands for new constitutional vote.  This didn’t seem like simply a negotiating position, this was seemed pretty definitive and with a hint of dismissiveness.

Hardly the Marquess of Queensberry rules here from the PM either then– no negotiation, no discussion, no pleasantries.  Just no, in fact.

The response of many in Scotland this week has been to dismiss this approach as a Prime Minister who doesn’t understand Scotland or just flat out doesn’t care as she is beholden to the right wing of her own party.

This may well be the case but perhaps Theresa May just doesn’t like the way the traditional table of British negotiation is set and knows the meal will end badly unless she upends the table and at least tries to improve the setting from disasterous to at least just bad.

Choose (political) life….

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It was hard to know where to start writing about politics in Scotland this week.  All sorts of “creative” ideas came to mind – for example I was going to try and write it like the famous “Choose Life” Trainspotting monologue to mark the premier this week of the sequel, T2: Trainspotting.  I even started a version to the tune of REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” which seemed appropriate but my poetry and writing skills just aren’t up to it, although you read my terrible effort here anyway.

It is impossible to talk about the week in politics anywhere without at least mentioning the first week of Donald Trump’s Presidency.  Afterall, “The Donald” is well known to the Scottish body politic – as well as his mother originally being from Scotland (sorry about that), the billionaire courted controversy when he built a new golf resort on the Menie estate in Aberdeenshire.  After that, he conducted a high profile campaign to block an offshore wind farm he complained would put off visitors to the course.  The whole episode gives some in Scotland a small head start on our knowledge of the bullying, hyperbole and downright aggressive manner in which the most powerful politician in the world operates.

In most normal weeks, the tied vote in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday a Labour motion condemning the Scottish Government’s Budget plans would have led the headlines, particularly as it introduces the slim possibility of an early Scottish election..  Although the Presiding Officer, following convention, gave her casting vote to the government, there is clearly and genuine disquiet at Holyrood over the SNP’s spending plans the opposition claim will lead to drastic cuts to local services.  The Scottish Government, for their part, point to increased spending on health and education, before moving to one of their favourite tactics – if in doubt, just say “Wastemonster”, “Right Wing UK Government” and “Tories” over and over again, if possible in the same sentence.

However, that more humdrum drama was overshadowed by the decisions of the UK Supreme Court on what consultation is required to invoke the spectre that is Article 50 of The Lisbon Treaty.  In Scotland, however, it was not the requirement for the UK Government to consult Westminster before triggering the Article which caused the biggest reaction.  Instead, it was the unanimous decision by the court that the UK Government was not required to formally consult the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, removing a potentially massive roadblock to the Prime Minister’s plans.

Although the hysterics and invective from the SNP, with shouts of “Traitor”, “Imperial Power” and “Control” ringing around both TV studios and social media platforms alike, were predictable, the decision could have serious implications for the seemingly never-ending debate over Scottish independence.

We have not seen the rise in support for Scottish independence since the Brexit vote that some expected but the issue remains very much the main dividing line in Scottish politics, with the SNP seeking to keep “all options open” for the future.  Nonetheless, it has been noticeable in recent months that Nicola Sturgeon’s rhetoric around #IndyRef2 (the hashtag is mandatory) has softened.  Although this week she reiterated that it was “all but inevitable”, the First Minister has repeatedly backed away from calls for a vote in the near future, even ruling it out during 2017.

Unlike her bombastic predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon is a more cautious political animal, knowing that a second independence defeat so soon after the one in 2014, would surely take the idea off the table for a real “generation” rather than just a few years.  But she faces the very difficult task of balancing that harsh reality with the fervent enthusiasm of her supporters who want more decisive action with a certain Mr. A Salmond appearing to be amongst those pushing for an earlier vote, no doubt causing an additional headache for the First Minister.

Whilst the political world remains unstable and uncertain, normal politics and activity continues and this week we were fortunate enough to arrange a visit for an MSP to visit one of our clients trout farms’ near Brechin and help celebrate a group of Primary School pupils winning an online maths competition.

So not creative but at least I avoided any Burns puns!

This post first appear at PubAffairs.

 

Holyrood back at school

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Director, Graeme Downie @GraemeDownie

As a youngster I would get very frustrated every summer when around this time we would have “Back to School” adverts in newspapers and on TV, all of them blissfully unaware that us Scottish kids had already been back for about three weeks.  I like to believe that this generational frustration is why Holyrood has come back from its summer-break at the same time as Westminster this year. And much like the first day back at school, the party leaders have been telling everyone what they did for their holidays.

Head Girl, Nicola, went on an exciting InterRail holiday around Europe and met all sorts of interesting people.  She was doing her best to make sure she could easily come back every year and telling them all that Scotland was the bestest country in the world and they should all be nice to her.  She certainly had a very good time speaking to all these people but then she came home and a lot of people told her that maybe a staycation would have been better.  After all, a lot of people in the village are waiting a long time to see a doctor and seem to be blaming Nicola!  But Nicola is going to have a conversation to the whole village about trying to move them further away from that village next door and closer to her new European chums.

The new “IT” girl, Ruth is becoming more and more popular although not nearly enough to worry the Head Girl. However, Ruth and her friends have been nominated for a lot of prizes this year at the school awards ceremony.  Her summer holiday was perhaps a little quieter than others but she did finally get her wish and was finally allowed to get a puppy.  On a more serious note, Ruth has very much decided that seeing family in Scotland was more important than trips abroad.  She still had her big sister, Theresa, in London to disagree with about Europe though so couldn’t get away from the place entirely.  In fact, Ruth decided to agree with Nicola about making it cheaper for people to fly away to other places on holiday so maybe they agree on some things after all.

Then there was Kezia, who did not have a nice time over the summer at all.  It all started so well, she went on a busman’s holiday to America with some friends and go to see some very famous bands.  One of them has been around a long time but now finally might make it to the very top of the charts as long as no-one decides to “Send in the Clown”.  Whilst she was away though, her family was having the most terrible falling out.  Kezia has decided that her uncle, Owen, should be leading the family but a lot of others in the wider family, including those who only recently realised they were related at all, think Uncle Jeremy should stay at the head of the table even though not many people outside of the village like him.  This is all expected to be sorted quite soon but Kezia might face some problems from her own part of the family tree in the future.  She has got herself some new friends though who will improve how the rest of the village think about her.

Another old boy who is doing a lot better now is Patrick.  After being in the school for quite a long time, he suddenly finds himself not only with a lot of new friends of his own friends but knows that the Head Girl might need his help soon as well for this big project she is working on.  He and his friends are very concerned with how the land around the village is used and thinks he can get a lot of help from everyone else in the school to improve a lot of these things.

Perhaps the quietest summer was had by little Willie.  No-one in the school or village dislike Willie at all.  They all agree he is such a friendly boy as well as being very good at talking about the most important things.  The problem is that no matter how well he does, he can’t seem to be as popular as the three big girls.  Like Kezia, he has some problems with his family in London.  He might have thought that with Kezia’s family being so unpopular, he might have got some more support but that doesn’t seem to have happened.  Not yet anyway.

There is a lot of work for everyone at school to do in the next few months.  They  have more exams to prepare for in May as well….