Graeme Downie says the SQA exam debacle this year was entirely predictable, and asks why Scottish Labour was not prepared and featured as part of the story.

There was criticism levelled at broadcasters yesterday that in the wake of the SQA exam debacle opposition parties were not featured. Although some of this criticism might be justified, if you want to be a part of a major story you have to prepare months, not hours, in advance.

In any political time there are certain days when you know there is going to be political news and journalists looking for relevant responses. Often outlets will decide in advance who they will be going to for comment, what they are going to say and how it will add to the story. It is this last bit that presents the problem for opposition parties, because any response they come up with quickly is likely to just sound like “they screwed up” rather than adding any new dimension, alternative or solution. For opposition politicians looking to respond there is another problem – people don’t want to just hear from one politician after another.

The way around this for Labour is to make sure they are not caught trying to come with a quick response to a story at all, but have made themselves relevant in advance with a clear and proactive message of their own. For that you need a long-term, coordinated policy and communications plan so you know what hot spots you are going to pick during the year and you have time to develop a positive solution or alternative and become identified with it. You have to earn your right to be part of a story, it is not granted just because you are a politician or political party.

Yes, the Covid pandemic has been all-consuming, but it was entirely predictable that exam results day was going to be critical and unlikely to go well for the Scottish Government, creating a huge opportunity for Labour. First, exams results are always controversial. Second, the SNP has made closing the attainment gap a priority but made little progress. Third, as well as statistics to create infographics there will be a multitude of case studies available to highlight your messages through video and image content. Finally, the circumstances ensured it would have political cut-through for a broad demographic.

The minute the Scottish Government announced the cancellation of exams, results day should have had a huge red circle around it in every Scottish Labour communications and policy planning grid. It was at that moment that Labour should have made school reform a priority, and particularly assessment reform. They should have begun talking about it then and not stopped. At a local, regional and national level, the party had to create a sense of anticipating a problem and preparing a solution. It is not like the internet wasn’t awash with clever people highlighting problems and possible solutions. Were the party talking to these people and bringing in these new voices?

If Labour had begun to take these steps and made sure journalists knew this was a party priority and that activity was taking place then they could have begun to play a part in the story in the days and weeks leading up to it, taking control of an agenda so often dictated by the governing party. Only then would they have earned the right to help shape the narrative on the day.

It is not enough in opposition to wait for governments to fail. You have to be seen as a credible alternative and on people’s side. There will have been a lot of frustrated and angry people yesterday, a lot of them younger people about to be able to vote for the first time in 2021 and who as a demographic are more likely to vote for the SNP. That’s not to mention their parents. Labour need to provide those people, wronged by the Scottish Government, with somewhere to take their anger. We need to be on their side and be seen to be on their side.

I do not pretend any of this is easy. It requires leadership, long-term commitment, prioritising maybe three or four issues or days a year and working towards them in the background. It’s a thankless task with little praise or glory. You will also often be wrong and your approach won’t work or the government won’t screw up, but that is the nature of opposition the world over. The alternative is to do none of those things and let the agenda continue to move on from government failure to government failure, simply asking “Why won’t the people vote for us?”.