This week, and the furore in Holyrood over Murdoch, has provided some interesting insights into the way the public engages with the political debate. I should emphasise at the start that this blog is not meant to be a judgment on the various arguments presented, as I think you all can guess which side I would be on.
In the SNP, we have a programme of ongoing engagement with voters through a variety of research techniques, from the old-favourite focus groups to more direct one-to-one conversations, where we test the political pulse of the nation. In recent days, as the debate in Holyrood has reached fever-pitch, we’ve been out and about, as usual, and the results have thrown up two fascinating points, which are of general interest to those of us with an interest in politics.
The first is where voters get their information. In the past the SNP has been frustrated by our lack of coverage on the network, i.e. UK wide news. We have argued (and indeed bemoaned the fact) that many, indeed most, Scots look to UK outlets as the primary source of news. That focus on UK programmes (and therefore a UK agenda) has been confirmed this week. The fact that the Scottish aspects of the Murdoch story have hardly featured on the ‘main’ news means that awareness levels are lower than might be expected by those who live and breathe the Holyrood bubble. The Scottish angle is therefore seen as second order, and not the real story. When probing people’s attitudes to this week’s stories, their responses have been more focused on Mr Hunt than on Mr Salmond.
The second is how voters process the information they do receive. I remember being told that about 10% of communication is about what you say, 40% on how you say it and 50% on how you look (as much about your demeanour as anything else). The insight from our research in recent days is that the lines that have gone down so well in the eyes of the opposition and with many of the Holyrood journalists, are also the ones that have gone down least well with the public. The point when Johann Lamont lost it, it appears, was with her description of the First Minister as ‘wee Eck’. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when we think about it, because for real people the point when they think someone is losing an argument is when they get personal and start to throw insults. In the real world that is a sign of weakness in an argument, not, as it appears to be in the eyes of Holyrood, a strength. And in terms of tone, the opposition have, in the main, come across as shouty and angry. That may have fired up the troops on the backbenches but if anything it has resonated poorly with voters.
Along side the ‘science’ there are also the anecdotal points. One of my colleagues put up a Facebook status reporting the comments of a constituent who had been in their office when FMQs was on. The woman’s comment on the exchanges was ‘who is that rude and angry woman’. An hour or so later, a day-tripper to Edinburgh who had popped in to Parliament to see FMQs – not an SNP member – was so outraged by the tone and nature of Johann Lamont’s questioning that he came in to party HQ saying he wanted to donate £50. The donation was gratefully received.
The point here is that what works in Holyrood doesn’t always work in Scotland. People look to their politicians for solutions to the problems they face in life (especially at this time of economic uncertainty) and they are turned off by the endless, it seems, politicking. Angry attacks in the chamber may cheer the backbenches and the researchers in the parliamentary offices – and, indeed, they reflect the attitude of these backbenchers and researchers to the SNP. But, the people of Scotland, as a whole, don’t hate the SNP and by allowing their own hatred to colour their attacks, Labour are effectively shooting political blanks. The more visceral and over the top they become, the less they resonate with the mainstream of public opinion.
I remember back to the days when the SNP lost election after election, and one of the reasons was we spoke to ourselves and we spent too much time looking inwards to the parliamentary debates. WInning a debating point in parliament seemed like a success. But a key lesson we learnt is that in politics you have to speak to the people, and in a way people can engage with. Think about the people you have as friends – they probably aren’t Mr or Mrs Angry, or people who just moan and complain all the time. You spend time with people who are on the same wavelength and engage with you in a decent way. And those friends who you have grown to like can make mistakes without it threatening the relationship. That is what adult relationships are about and it is this sort of relationship with voters that politicians should aspire to. As adults we no longer seek the same sort of friendships we had in the playground and so politicians who behave as though they are in the political playground are on a hiding to nothing, in my view.
At this point in the local elections, thousands of door step contacts are pouring in to SNP HQ each day and the sophisticated voter analysis tools we have built up over the years give us a very clear understanding of the level of SNP support in the country. The numbers we had last year told us way before the polls that we were in the lead and the final figure in our own numbers was very close to our final vote. And this week, we have, of course been paying close attention to the numbers. The good news for the SNP is that our vote share is steadily increasing and has done so each and every day this week. In part that is because we have worked hard to build the sort of adult relationship with voters that is bigger than the flurries of opposition name-calling – after all voters are interested in substance, in what a politician will do for them: not who they had breakfast with 5 years ago.