Muted manifestos

Orbit Communications - Graeme Downie 03
By Graeme Downie @GraemeDownie

Orbit Communications Director, Graeme Downie, harkens back to the halcyon days of manifestos and when campaigns used to be about trying to win.

 In previous parliamentary elections, the launch of the manifestos usually took place quickly after the beginning of the short campaign, contained numerous policies with nice bullet points and were, you know, the documents that parties campaigned on for the next six weeks.  Ah, those quaint, care-free days!

Since the campaign began some three weeks ago, so far only the Greens and Conservatives have bothered publishing a manifesto at all, the SNP have scheduled a launch for just two weeks before polling day and it seems as though Labour and the Lib Dems are deciding whether they are as well holding a quick photo-opp and clicking send on a PDF document rather than organise a launch!  So, why are manifestos so pointless in this election?

Well, first let’s acknowledge a bit of reality.  How many voters ever actually waited for all the manifestos to be published, read the policy commitments cover-to-cover and then made a rational decision on how to vote?  Very few I suspect so perhaps parties are just catching up with reality.

Afterall, the first two TV debates and surrounding announcements have done more to inform the public about policy and positioning than a manifesto launch event usually would and generated the same or greater media coverage.

But one of the main reasons for the lack of lustre for the old ways in this election is more straight-forward.  In previous Scottish Parliament elections, manifestos were essentially the beginning of the horse-trading for expected coalition negotiations of some kind.  Even in 2011, with the SNP ahead in the polls, there was still an expectation that a deal of some kind of deal might be needed.

This year, that is not the case.  The Scottish Conservatives acknowledged as much in their own manifesto this week, saying “It is clear that the SNP are on course to win the Scottish election.”  Instead the Tories and Labour are campaigning to come in second, the Greens are looking to increase seats within the single digits and the Lib Dems are battling against annihilation.  The feeling amongst the parties seems to be that you don’t need detailed policies to achieve any of that so why lay out radical ideas that might be stolen by the presumed winners.  But do voters in a democracy not deserve to see more fight and belief from these politicians rather than seeing them meekly accepting second place?

Which brings us to the SNP.  They will be the government come the morning of 5 May, almost certainly with a second, supposedly impossible, majority.  So surely their manifesto can be radical given they are going to win regardless?  Well, it might be but I would expect them to stick to their pragmatic approach, building on the perception of the electorate that they are a competent government standing up for Scotland.  And who can blame them, it’s a strategy that has worked since 2007 and surely it is incumbent upon the challengers to make up ground rather than the leader to abandon a winning strategy and risk falling back to the pack.

So, the muted manifestos this year are perhaps in keeping with the overall mood of the campaign itself.  A result already confirmed and no parties really trying to win anything other than a battle with their own expectations.

This post originally appeared on PubAffairs: http://www.publicaffairsnetworking.com/public-affairs-news.php

Is Scotland at risk of losing more than popular idols in 2016?

Orbit Communications - Jordan Ferguson
Jordan Ferguson @jordanwferguson

2016 looks set to be remembered as the year we said goodbye to the Thin White Duke, the iron livered Lemmy and arguably the best bad guy Bruce Willis ever battered.  But this week has made me question if Scotland risks losing a lot more than popular idols in 2016?

Maybe less well known is that this week is the anniversary of Jim Sillars, John Robertson and Alex Neil forming the short-lived Scottish Labour Party (SLP).  Frustrated at the UK Governments inability to secure a devolved Scottish Assembly, on January 18th 1976 Sillars and Co. broke from the UK Labour Party but by 1979 had lost their seats in the House of Commons and, in 1981, fraught with infighting, the party was disbanded.

40 years later, the Labour Party in Scotland has rebranded as “Scottish Labour” seeking to avoid a similar annihilation but this time in the devolved Parliament to which the previous rebels were so committed. Polls this week predicted the SNP could repeat its General Election success swooping almost all of the 72 constituency seats and leaving Labour rushing around relying on the regional list system and trying to stay ahead of Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives.

Could this lead to Scotland losing an effective opposition?  

It would seem Nicola Sturgeon is the only one not taking an SNP win for granted.  In FMQ’s this week the First Minister thanked Kezia Dugdale for her assumption she would remain in office post-election.

Understandable as even the most optimistic of Labour voting optimists can’t deny a crippling General Election and a devastation series of polls.  The SNP Government look set to hold another five years in powered, and as leader the opposition the only hope Kezia has is to put together the best Shadow Cabinet she can and chip away at the crack in SNP policy.

Last year the Scottish people undeniably turned away from Labour leaving Ian Murray in a lonely positon. Flooding the party with new blood may rejuvenate the party and get some new policies but will this actually happen?  The regional list relies on the party membership deciding the order and likelihood of election but will those selected tend to be old faces?

Labours candidate list looks like a who’s who of failed politician, a mix of return candidates from the 2011 Holyrood elections and MPs who lost their seats in the 2015 General Election.  Can Anas Sarwar and Thomas Docherty, MPs voted out less than 12 months ago, really be the salvation Scottish Labour needs? Are they both hoping last year was merely ‘SNP mania’ and their experience can help lead the fightback?

It appears as though some existing Labour MSPs doubt this, with the politically experienced but still young Richard Baker retiring 10 weeks before the election for a job in the charitable sector.  Does Richard know something the others don’t?  However, others like Jackie Baillie, who was first elected in the maiden Scottish Parliament in 1999 remain.  Maybe she is right and all is not lost, maybe there is a long term strategy at play here or it could be it is too late and there are simply some in party not willing to accept defeat and force through the radical change in personality and policies needed to start a turnaround in the party’s fortunes.

This blog first appeared on PubAffairs

Scottish Labour playing the expectations game well for once?

Orbit Communications - Graeme Downie 03
By Graeme Downie  @graemedownie

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.