In terms of the theory, winning elections is a simple process. In my time in Scottish politics, and from my side of the business, I’ve come to understand three simple rules, which if followed increase the chances of success exponentially.
The first is one I have written about a great deal, the idea that a positive (or more accurately, as I’ve pointed out before, an optimistic) campaign will always beat a negative campaign. If the battle is between two negatives, then the most negative will win. If it is between a negative and a mixed (part positive, part negative), the negative will win. But if a wholly positive faces a negative or mixed, then the positive will come out victorious. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about what a positive campaign can or cannot do. It doesn’t mean you can’t highlight a problem or a concern, but rather, the problem has to be balanced with offering a solution. That part of the equation – the solution – is why I am very confident the No campaign will never be able to construct a positive campaign. And, in terms of balance, my rule of thumb is to spend 3 times as long talking about the solution, the way forward, than talking about what is going wrong.
It is also very important that there is authenticity in the claimed problem. I used to always find it amusing that during the 2007 and 2011 election campaigns the SNP’s opponents were trying to characterise the party in certain ways, as extremists, out of touch, obsessed with one thing, when the research told us that voters regarded the SNP people they met as being the most human, ordinary and connected: that is why the ‘team’ element of the SNP’s 2011 election campaign was so powerful. People were able to judge the SNP not on what others said, but on what the SNP did. The false characterisations rebounded for many voters, because they didn’t ring true. That is a very important lesson for all of us in the Yes campaign, faced as we are with an almost daily barrage of negative assaults, many of them personalised and outlandish. By our own words and actions we will be known.
The second is another oft repeated truism about election campaigns. If the election is fought on your ground, you are likely to win. If it is fought on your opponents ground, they are likely to win. And the ground you define is one that should enable you to build the largest coalition of support. For the No campaign, their ground is clear: uncertainty and “it’s all about Salmond”. They want people to vote in 2014 on the detail of independence (essentially on a record that doesn’t exist, just as they tried with the SNP in 2007) and for it to be a judgement on the First Minister and Scottish Government. This, of course, makes sense given that even in 2011 the SNP fell short of 50% of the vote: an anti-SNP coalition gives the No parties the majority they seek. For Yes, we are determined that people make their decision based on an assessment of what both a Yes and a No will mean – it is a choice of two futures.
If people believe Scotland will be fairer and more prosperous after a Yes rather than after a No then they will vote yes, and that is why our efforts must be focused as close to 100% as possible on making this case. We must also be really aware of how and when people tune in to the debate. For many of us who are active in the campaigns, we have an unhealthy level of engagement with the minutiae and so feel the ebb and flow more than everyone else. In this atmosphere people often miss the underlying movements, concentrating as they are on the next day’s headlines. For the SNP in the past, and for Yes now, the most powerful engagements are not through newspaper headlines or in parliamentary exchanges, they are in the personal contacts and through social media – our own channels of communication. That is where victory will be secured. How do I know it? From the ‘science’ and from experience. People trust their friends and family more than any paper or politician and as we saw in 2007 the SNP faced a major onslaught in the media, including, if you remember, the polling day noose: but the SNP won.
What is most important is how things look in the real world rather than how they feel to us. In this respect there has to be congruence and consistency. To take an example, No undermine their key ‘it’s all about Salmond’ line by highlighting differences of view and alternative opinions about what should happen, policy wise, in an independent Scotland. Because, ultimately, you will only get non-SNP policy choices if you elect a non-SNP government.
The third rule is one I have not written about explicitly before but which, in the context of this particular campaign, is perhaps the most important. It is about the mood we create as much as the detail of any campaign messages. Scotland will not vote Yes in a mood of acrimony or in an atmosphere dominated by anxiety. Anger, rancour, point scoring, pettiness – they put us in the fast lane to a No vote. The psychology of this is unchallengeable – for the majority, anxiety will predispose them to the supposed safety of the status quo. Whereas a case that is presented calmly and with confidence, makes it far, far easier for people to choose Yes.
Above all, we must be respectful of the views expressed by others. You don’t convert someone to your cause by telling them they are wrong. You don’t bring them on to your side by trashing their roots or their political background. For those of us with an SNP background it may be difficult to admit, but we wouldn’t be here today without the efforts of those in the Labour Party who took forward devolution. They didn’t do it on their own, and they sometimes leave out the SNP contribution, but without co-operation across the parties the Scottish Parliament (that has, to give just one example, protected our NHS from Tory privatisation) would not be in place. I look forward to building a parliament together that can also protect our welfare state.
The journey to a Yes for a Labour member or supporter will not be an easy one, and the gulf they have to cross will grow larger if the Yes side does not show understanding and respect for the values that motivate them. A Labour Yes comes from a different place than an SNP Yes, just as a Green Yes is based upon different priorities too. And, just as for Labour members and supporters, so too the general public – they want to understand the purpose of more powers, or indeed all powers, as Yes argues.
This is not an ordinary election where, after the votes are counted, the opposing camps can sit on opposite benches in the parliamentary bubble and throw politics at each other. This is about deciding whether or not we build a new independent country. That creates a different sort of responsibility for all of us. And for those, supposedly, on the Yes side, who sit and let poison drip through their key boards, my message is very clear – you are one of the biggest barriers to a Yes success.
But poison can drip just as corrosively from politicians and commentators, and while some of the political sophisticates in the Labour Party may think it is fair play to demonise Alex Salmond, because he is a politician, others without their supposed mastery of political strategy may try to follow their lead. If it is ok to describe Alex Salmond’s democratically elected government as a dictatorship or the man himself as the Scottish equivalent of a Mugabe, Mussolini or Milosevic or as akin to North Korea’s Dear Leader, are we surprised that others – bloggers, journalists, comedians – are also seen as fair game?
We are extremely fortunate in Scotland to have a truly sophisticated electorate, one that, when it tunes in, sees the bigger picture in a way many of us caught up in the fog of war don’t always appreciate. What sways them is very different from what sways a newspaper headline writer. That is why those of us on the Yes side must always take a step back. We must ask, what is it that is really important to the person or people we are engaging with? What is it the people of Scotland want to see and hear over these next 16 months? And that must be our single-minded focus.
Have no doubt they will be turned off by the slightest whiff of the sort of poisonous anger that can drip out in Parliament or from a computer key board. They can smell anger rooted in animosity, hatred and fear a mile away. It will turn them off, just as night follows day. And that goes for both sides. If there is to be anger in this debate don’t make it personal, let it be an indignation, an outrage based on the belief that there is a better way.
I should add that these rules or lessons have been learnt by me in their breaking as well as in their keeping. But, as we look forward to the crucial next 500 days, I know that success depends on all of us getting it right.