Was Alex Salmond inspired by Tony Blair’s winning 1997 campaign? NOEL FOY thinks so


The recent SNP election campaign was ruthless and utterly unscrupulous. It was also clever, competent, professional and extremely well resourced and managed. How did they do it and why did we not see it coming?

Could it be that the Salmond election team studied and used Labour’s 1997 General Election Campaign as a model? I strongly suspect so and I wonder why we did not?  That campaign, after all, raised the bar in the campaign business and if anyone wanted to know technically how to put a winning strategy together then that was it.

Take the 1997 Scottish Party manifesto. It was most notable for the copper-bottomed commitment to legislate for a Scottish parliament in our first year. And that we did deliver! But the rest of it is also pretty damn good. In some 40 pages and lots of top-notch photographs we set out a vision for Scotland that was robust, readable, concise, persuasive and above all fundamentally optimistic. Our 2011 manifesto suffers badly in comparison.

The 1997 cover alone sells the whole package. It tells you all you need to know. Remember it? A young Tony Blair is photographed in the half shadow, coming into the light with the bold headline ‘because Scotland deserves better’. It has winner written all over it and it immediately engages, involves and inspires. It set a new standard for the craft, and shows how it can and should be done.

Cut across to the 2011 SNP manifesto. The front cover shows a photograph of Alex Salmond, also in half shadow coming into the light with the text “Scotland is on a journey and the path ahead is a bright one. Now is the time for Scotland to keep moving forward”. If imitation is the highest form of flattery then this is it. That said it is not without it faults. It is wordy, overlong, overblown and full of pompous self-regard (wonder where that comes from?). But it does have a narrative flow, a story to tell and sense of inviting you to participate in something historic and important. The underlying politics are disagreeable and regressive but it does sell the SNP as a movement with a history and an ideal driving the whole thing forward. Sound familiar?

It might be argued that none of this matters. Who reads manifestos anyway apart from journalists, academics, commentators and political ephemera collectors? This is a profound misunderstanding of the nature of fighting and winning election campaigns.  A good manifesto can make all the difference. Get it wrong and you are off to a shaky start and it is always, but always, difficult to get over it and back in the game. Given our substantial lead in the polls in the weeks running up to May 5 it does pose the question – did we get this key part of our pitch badly wrong?

It is a dog-eared old cliché that ‘you campaign in poetry but govern in prose’. It looks as if our muse went walkabout in 2011. But not for long – provided we learn the lesson.

No-one knows how long Noel Foy worked as an organiser for the Scottish Labour Party, but rumours abound that his relationship with Keir Hardie was not good. He’s now retired, lives in Haddington and is still fighting the good fight.