What I learned from the referendum
Daniel Johnson, Scottish Labour candidate for 2016 in Edinburgh Southern and an active No campaigner during the referendum, distils a few simple, practical lessons for us to learn and act on right now.
I’m sick of talking about the referendum. I’m tired of analysing who voted what way and why. I’m over contemplating whether we have lost connection with the national mood or local communities. Its all pundit talk and its not real.
It’s not that I don’t care about those things. I do. Passionately. It’s just that I don’t think that using time, effort and emotional energy beating ourselves up and fretting about our political difficulties helps one bit.
The reason we won, but also the reason we are finding that victory uncomfortable, is not about who we are or what we want to do. It’s about the way we campaigned. To fix it we need to learn the lessons and do things differently. And we must do them differently not next time, but right now.
So here is my list of things we need to do in terms of constructing and executing our campaigns. I’m all for contemplating our historic mission and relationship with working people and communities – but that’s not why we are where we are, or how we get ourselves to a better place. In my view we need to learn the following lessons and act on them immediately:
1) Consistency and clarity matters.
Campaigns are conducted in slogans and the SNP are excellent at it. I think we can all trot off their key soundbites from the campaign: “get the government we vote for”, “independent, wealthy nation”, “positive vision for Scotland”. At times during the campaign I wondered why they bothered turning up to interviews at all. They could have just provided a cardboard cut-out of Nicola Sturgeon and Dictaphone on a never-ending loop.
But I struggle to recite our slogans, despite the dozens of interviews I gave. We came closest with “strength and stability of the United Kingdom” and the late comer of “pooling and sharing resources”. It’s perhaps clearest when you look at campaign branding. “Yes” was ubiquitous from the get-go. We started with “Better Together”, flirted with “UK OK”, also had “United with Labour” knocking around but eventually settled on “No Thanks” in the closing months of the campaign.
Our politics are conducted in the headlines of Six O’Clock Reporting Scotland. This is depressing but true. One of the reasons I have always (foolishly) under-rated the SNP is that I find them boring and repetitive. They use the same slogans again and again and again. Think “Free in ’93”, “London Labour”, “Independent in Europe”. I wont go on. The SNP repeat themselves unendingly because they know they have the narrow window of Jackie Bird’s 30 second summary of the day’s news to get their message across.
We can have the best policies in the world, but unless we understand the importance of reducing them to simple slogans and use them with unrelenting consistency, we will continue to struggle to get our message through. Consistency and clarity matters, and we are still far too technical in our language, too nuanced in our message and too changeable in our phrasing.
2) Know what you’re for first, and against second.
They said we had no positive vision. That’s rubbish. We believe in common endeavour, sharing wealth and a politics where all people matter regardless of identity, wealth, class and not least nationality. We believe in governance at its most effective level, sharing resources not letting historic boundaries limit our political possibilities. I think that’s pretty positive. But we didn’t get to talk about it much because we led on arguments that focused on the risks and flaws in theirs.
It wasn’t wrong to do that, but we simply failed to promote our positive vision. In part this was due to my point above about consistency and clarity. We did have things to say, but they were complicated and nuanced, not simple slogans. But we also were too often responding to their propositions rather than promoting our own.
To win in 2015 and 2016, Scottish Labour must be crystal clear about what we are for, not just what we are against. It is not enough to be against the Tories’ bedroom tax and the SNP’s college cuts. We must be championing change. We have made a great start with our childcare pledge. But we must go further: we must have clear positive vision not just individual pledges.
3) Visibility matters.
It was those blue button badges that came first. Then it was window posters. It culminated with shops on every high street. It felt like ‘Yes’ was everywhere. Some put the change in the opinion polls down to the debate performance. I don’t. I think it was the crescendo of street level visibility.
As a student politician, I used to obsess about getting posters up in flat windows around campus. Posters in windows made people think lots of other people were voting for my candidate. The reality was you didn’t need very many student flats to have posters up for people to think everyone was voting for one candidate.
Window posters, street stalls, shops all made people think there was momentum. It turns politics from being abstract to being visible. It reassures people that other people think like they do. We need to find our ways of being visible, getting posters on windows, stickers in cars, badges on people and tattoos on babies. (Only joking on that last one. Or am I?)
Visibility persuades people of which side is winning whether they are or not. And we prefer to vote for the winning side.
4) Don’t talk to yourselves.
Both sides’ weakness was that, at different times, they were talking to themselves. We failed to reach out in the long campaign. While they were holding townhall meetings for “undecided voters”, we were wringing our hands about whether to campaign as Labour or Better Together and scoffing at their sham meetings.
We shouldn’t have. Those meeting allowed them to extend their support base and persuade more people. But it wasn’t enough for the. While they turned supporters into converts, they failed to reach actual undecideds. At some point in the summer they didn’t spot that they weren’t talking to new people any more, just the same group of new found true believers.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t worry about their expanded ranks. Far from it. It potentially gives them capacity that is a real threat. The point is that they weren’t really talking to voters at the point we were, having switched ourselves to intensive voter ID. We must be reaching out as much as possible, right now and consistently up to and beyond the next round of elections. Street stalls, community meetings, offers to talk to community groups are as vital as voter ID in the long campaign.
So here’s the bit we got right. We have a rock solid voter mobilisation machine. We know how to run polling day and we do it very well. That’s what won us Glasgow and Edinburgh at the last local elections, its why the European elections disappointed the SNP and its why we won by a 10% margin not the 5% some of the final polls were predicting.
While we were sending out team after team to knock up “No” voters, they were starting street parties on George Square and the Royal Mile. They had created converts but not campaigners.
We must not underestimate our organising ability- it is awesome. But we must not rely on it either. It only turns out the voters you already have. It can’t win over new ones. It’s a one way ratchet, that will only ever deliver diminishing margins for us. To capitalise on it we must learn the previous lessons first.
So that’s what I learned from the referendum. I’m not going to talk about it ever again.*
*I know this isn’t true. I just wish it was!