Our last chance to get it right
Ben Procter and Tom Jennings say Scottish Labour needs to adapt to the new normal in digital communications and adopt agile, data-driven campaigning in preparation for the next Holyrood election.
There is no denying the scale of the challenge that faces the Labour Party and its new leadership team. For us to achieve a majority of one in the next UK general election there would need to be a national swing in the range of 14 to 16 per cent. A swing of that magnitude would be larger than the swings to Labour in 1987, 1992 and 1997 combined. To call it a Herculean effort would be an understatement.
In Scotland, as many have already pointed out, 2019’s results paint an even worse image. There were a number of reasons why voters felt they couldn’t trust us with their vote in December, and after losses in every election in Scotland since 2007 we do need to identify the root causes.
This may be our last chance to get it right. We are fighting for our survival.
If we don’t change, we won’t have a future. With potentially less than 12 months to go until the next Scottish Parliament elections it would be foolish to think we can leapfrog back to being the largest party in Scotland — but if Scottish Labour is to survive we must use this time wisely and as a springboard for the years to come. We must find new ways to make use of modern technology to engage, not just with the electorate but with each other.
Current polling suggests that if Scottish Labour MSPs are to be elected in the next parliament they will likely be on the regional lists. With over twenty thousand members across eight regions being responsible for appointing the illustrious top slots, everything is to play for. But as we are switching off from emails, and direct mail through the letterbox is out of reach for all those but the wealthiest, how do we maximise our use of digital to ensure that a new, bold and driven generation of candidates emerge victorious in regions as diverse as the Lothians, West Scotland and the Highlands and Islands?
Digital has created constituencies far more connected than ever before. Neighbours now talk on social media rather than over the garden fence; communities gather in Facebook groups as opposed to the community hall; the trusted gatekeepers now include not just religious leaders and the local press but owners of well-followed blogs and social media accounts. COVID-19 has intensified digital living, and as we adjust for the difficult months ahead our campaigns must adapt to the new norms in preparation for 2021.
Digital-savvy candidates have great potential to use data — freely shared by voters — to reach out and build the broad coalitions required to win. A digital-focused approach allows candidates to better inform their campaign, ensure vital resources are not needlessly exhausted (especially on costly analogue communications), and recruit new volunteers through aspirational storytelling and emotive calls to action.
Intelligent and agile campaigns based on voter data, supporter activation and emotive calls to action are more likely to encourage engagement, activism and donations. In short, understanding where target voters are (and crucially what they think), as well as how supporters prefer to engage in activism, is not only possible through digital but preferable to its costlier analogue counterparts.
Underpinning all this must be a strategy that harnesses the power of digital: trusting the data, creating compelling content, and giving digital parity with leaflets, if not a greater priority when it comes to tight campaign budgets.
In Coventry North West, digital marketing agency We are Civitas produced an empathy ad and ran Facebook ads throughout the last 48 hours of the 2019 general election campaign. By reaching thousands of targeted voters, Taiwo Owatemi was elected (contrary to exit poll predictions) by just 208 votes (0.4%). There were similar stories in Warrington North where newly selected candidate Charlotte Nichols got over the line with a majority of 3.3%, and in Bristol North West, where Darren Jones MP embraced digital campaigning and was elected with an increased majority, bucking the national trend.
Digital does not win elections outright of course, but it can make the difference. We’ve seen the difference that a Labour government makes, and we know how much better, brighter and more prosperous Scotland can be with a Labour-led government in Holyrood.
And it is not impossible to defy the odds and create opportunities for Labour to gain in constituencies across Scotland. We saw this in 2016 when Edinburgh Southern became the first gain from the SNP at a Scottish Parliamentary General Election with Daniel Johnson becoming our newest constituency MSP. How? By working to build a new coalition of voters and build a common consensus, Daniel and his team were able to achieve a swing of 8.2% to Labour against the national backdrop of a 9% swing in the opposite direction.
In the next Holyrood elections we have an even greater challenge to do the same in constituencies such as Linlithgow, Renfrewshire South & Coatbridge and Chryston. These constituencies and others represent a number of towns, villages and communities, each with their own aspirations for the future. It is our job to effectively communicate our vision, with a narrative that speaks truth to power and delivers progressive and lasting change for the nation.
As Jackie Baillie MSP, Scottish Labour’s new Deputy Leader, recently said “We need to open our doors, rebuild and unite our party, look outwards not inwards and be ruthless in our intention to win.”
We are all on Team Labour. We all joined to make a difference and deliver a fairer Scotland and build a better Britain. It’s time. Let’s do this.
Tom Jennings is Borough Councillor and founder of We are Civitas, a digital marketing agency that transforms how campaigns, candidates and incumbents engage their most important people.
Ben Procter is the former Campaigns Officer for the Scottish Co-operative Party and current member of the Scottish Labour Policy Forum representing Eastwood and Glasgow Cathcart.