The Better Together Campaign Crisis
Ever helpful, Bella has enlisted Robin McAlpine to create some guidance notes for the beleaguered No campaign team.
Since today is national ‘explain what’s wrong with Better Together’ day I’ve already had a read at a broad range of explanations for why the No campaign is in trouble. These range from the carefully thought-through explanation of why a top-down campaign is no longer enough (Lesley Riddoch in the Scotsman) to the ‘he may well write entertainingly about parliamentary politics but he is embarrassingly miles outside his area of expertise when he tries to comment on political campaigning‘ nonsense from Alan Cochrane in the Telegraph.
My professional background in political strategy draws me to campaigns of all sorts to see why they are or aren’t working and to wonder what I’d have done if it was me. The car crash which has been Better Together has transfixed me for quite a while now. There are a load of smaller and individual reasons why BT is misfiring badly but there are two main tactical mistakes which have been fundamental and two major areas where they lack the necessary capacity to run the campaign they need to run. But first some of the smaller bits and pieces.
From very early on it was obvious to me that BT had ‘amateur boxer syndrome’, the belief that if only you can throw enough punches fast enough you’ll get a knockout in the first round. The prime example was early on when BT made a relentless case about Scotland losing triple-A credit rating despite the fact that most informed people knew that the UK was at serious risk of losing its own. I told a journalist at the time that I’d hold that punch back just in case it left exposure. Not BT. It just swung away – and got a clock on the jaw for its trouble when the predictable happened. You never get a knock-out in the first round. You need to be more prudent in your offence.
BT was from early on convinced (to a degree I didn’t understand) of the strength of its top team. It not only seemed to think that its team was A-list, it repeatedly said it. Carmichael, Moore, Curran, Lamont, even Mundell; there was a real confidence that head-to-head this overwhelming quality would carry opinion. It wasn’t obvious where this confidence came from. The same is true in bucketloads with Alastair Darling. There is a class of Westminster political correspondent who thinks Darling is a real performer; this is predicated on an assumption that the wider public still fall for an authority figure. This latter point is known not to be true in any straightforward way (see Riddoch again) and even worse, it assumes that authority trumps empathy. Darling demonstrates no empathy. You can get away with that if you’re a technocratic Chancellor, not if you’re leading a campaign. The charisma is available (Kennedy, Galloway, Forsyth) but all far too dangerous to use. Leadership was always a problem.
This was overlooked because of an obsession with ‘reality creation’. This is the process beloved in the US of relentlessly telling people What Just Happened (or What’s About to Happen). With the benefit of the Scottish media echo-chamber we’ve had a year of Better Together explaining how and why certain things were happening and why even more of them were going to happen. The media uncritically printed ‘we’re going to set up lively and active groups of artists/young people/businesses/social campaigners who will give a positive case for the union and destroy the Yes campaign’.
Great. Where are they?
Where are all the love-bombs, a barrage which up until now has been ten parts talk to one part action?
Where is that extensive ground campaign they announce every week? The nadir (and from my political strategy point of view one of the most damaging things BT has done to itself) is to refer to a ‘Dam Busters strategy’ around its pound/EU campaign. Credibility is essential to any campaign; if you say you’re going to ‘burst a dam’, you need to do it. Ain’t no damns burst anywhere I can see.
This isn’t a name for a strategy, it’s a name without a strategy. If you have a pliant media (which doesn’t know what’s happening on the ground anyway), for quite a while you can get away with describing the world as you wish it was and not as it is. The problem is that eventually reality catches up.
Which is another big problem; BT has been in crisis for months. It’s only survived this long because the media has thrown a ring of steel round the campaign, protecting it from normal political gravity. The best example of this is the Johann Lamont “the Scots aren’t genetically programmed to make political decisions” comment on the STV debate. I can’t think of many contexts in the democratic world where a politician could survive this comment, slip of the tongue or not. In the US a politician who said that about her electorate would be finished. Likewise, if the media hadn’t been so willing to promote the ‘cybernats are evil’ campaign and actually reported where the bile was coming from BT would have problems. In fact, so strong is this ring of steel that some journalists seem to have started their own campaign with Alan Cochrane in the Telegraph recently compiling his own personal list of who had expressed concerns over independence and published it in his paper as if he could somehow leaflet Scotland all by himself. But it never helps when no-one will tell you you’re losing because you fail to come properly to believe it. Hence BT just keeps putting out statements about polls not narrowing which aren’t true.
All of this (and much more) explains a large part of why BT is in crisis. But not the main, fundamental reasons. You can get away with all of the above if your fundamental strategy is right. The anti-AV campaign won comfortably with a top-down only campaign, UKIP exists purely because of their (and their media partners’) willingness to distort reality at will. The Yes campaign is winning this debate in large part without high-profile leaders (I go to town hall meetings where me and three other ‘no names’ are talking to 300 people in a small town).
So what is the fundamental problem?
It’s fairly simple; BT pursued a polarisation strategy while the Yes campaigns (they really should be pluralised) pursued a building strategy. BT assumed from the outset that, fundamentally, it had the numbers. It seems to have taken as an act of faith that No meant No and Undecided meant No. All they had to do was split Scotland down the middle, force all the Nos and Undecided-but-really-Nos to jump and the game was won. The possibility that large proportions of the early No vote was soft seems not to have been considered properly. The possibility that undecideds may be tending to Yes does not seem properly to have been considered. It is essential that you consider these things very carefully before you embark on a polarisation strategy because if you force people to jump (particularly if you do it and leave them 18 months to think about it) you have to be absolutely sure which way they’re going to jump.
And it’s not like the No campaign hasn’t had the opportunity to think this through. One of the most significant (and therefore most overlooked by the media) aspects of the campaign was the census outcome that showed two out of three Scots now describe themselves as ‘Scottish-only’. This is the most incredible ‘resource’ for the Yes campaign – if it can tap into that Scottish-only sentiment it is well positioned. Adding the hokey words ‘I’m a Scottish patriot but…’ before ‘JUMP NOW!’ is no substitute for knowing what you’re doing in the first place. The devo-max data also offered bountiful warning to the No campaign. They read lots of support for devo-max as indicating faith in the UK. I always read devo-max support (as opposed to ‘a wee bit more’) as an indicator of lack of faith in Westminster.
Indeed, in private papers I wrote early on I argued that I thought about that two-thirds of Scots wanted (possibly somewhere deep down) to believe that Scotland could be independent. I argued this had to be drawn out. Carefully. Shooting a gun and shouting ‘pick a side’ was a crazy way to go about things. The Yes campaign began with an inferiority complex and so wasn’t as confident to assume support. This helped a lot; Yes expected to have to argue and win people gradually where the No campaign thought there was a short-cut to victory. What I believe has happened is that the No campaign is working exactly as Better Together thought it would – people who deep down want to believe in No are pushed towards No and those who deep down want to believe in Yes are being pushed towards Yes.
It’s just that BT completely misjudged the numbers on either side.
Which leads to the second big strategic mistake; BT didn’t think it needed a plan for the post-scorched earth stage of the campaign. It believed so completely in the polarisation strategy that it exclusively adopted ‘villain mode’. It thought that, Thatcher-like, it could just march on through the wasteland it had created (where those on the wrong side of their polarisation might hate them but would be impotent anyway). So Thatcher was content to be hated in Scotland, Wales and the North of England because she had the numbers. When BT discovered that the wasteland they created for themselves was losing territory to the other side they and that they didn’t have the numbers, they suddenly had to ‘de-villainise’ themselves. This is very, very difficult. Think about an imaginary uncle who beats you soundly if you do certain things and is loving and affectionate if you do certain other things – but you don’t know which thing is which. It is disorientating and frankly petrifying. This is why almost all campaign theory tends to emphasise consistency of tone. If you’ve decided you’re going to be the Good Guy you need to find a way to do your dirty work without anyone noticing and if you’re going to be the Bad Guy you have to get over wanting to be loved. Love-you-hate-you-love-you-hate-you is disorientating – you don’t know whether you’re going to get a smack or a Werther’s Original. It becomes difficult to work out what you’re meant to take away. (Whatever you can say about the Yes campaign, you can’t fault it for consistency of tone, even if it’s been a wee bit ‘Christian Fellowship’ for my liking…)
BT has started swerving wildly between doom and love and most people perceive (correctly) that this is a sign that:
(a) the campaign doesn’t really know what it’s doing and
(b) it is willing to say today the opposite of what it will say tomorrow according to what it wants you to believe.
All campaigning is a confidence trick (you have to feel confident in the entity that is steering you towards a decision) and things that swerve wildly don’t engender confidence. And by far the biggest problem is that there is very little you can do about it – if you adopt one tone and later abandon it for another tone then that’s a U-turn but you can survive it if handled well. If you’ve been swinging between two opposing tones and then set of in any other direction at all that just becomes chaos.
Chaotic campaigns never win.
This might also be survivable if it wasn’t for the first of the lack of capacity problems. One of the obvious things BT could try would be to get off-air for a while. If they could ‘go dark’ for a little while and recalibrate their wild swerves in private they might conceivably be able to cobble together a plan. But that would require both of (a) a really serious ground campaign to keep things moving while off-air and (b) a lively support base doing serious work for them on social media and so on. Neither exist. BT can’t go ‘off air’ because as soon as they do they don’t exist. There is no-one writing, drawing, signing or talking about Britain with passion and joy, there just aren’t people turning up at pro-UK public meetings and not only because they barely exist. Despite all their instance to the contrary there is no grass-roots No campaign. Well, you don’t need one for a polarisation campaign.
But its the second of the capacity-failures that is the final nail in the BT coffin and the source of all their above problems; they don’t have a strong understanding of Scotland and the Scots. This is an elite campaign. Wealthy Tory journalist Alan Cochrane thinks privately-educated millionaire banker-buddy Alastair Darling should be put in sole control of the campaign to let him work his magic.
The possibility that neither of them have much feel for day-to-day life in normal Scotland hasn’t occurred to them. There is no balance in their campaign; it’s all being run by Westminster politicians and establishment types. There is very little local campaign capable of feeding back information such as ‘this isn’t going down well’ or ‘they might not all like Salmond but hatred of Osborne unites the nation’ and such like. In fact, their failure to understand the Scots is best seen in their real, genuine inability to understand why ‘Dam busters’ didn’t work. In a Westminster-shaped universe the campaign would be over by now; in Westminsterville big businesses warning that a given action is not to its pleasing is taken to be the end of the matter. Not in Scotland. This is also fundamentally why Labour is in electoral decline and the Tories languish in their marginal position – they’ve lost touch with Scottish feeling because much more Scottish feeling has a nationalist element than they are willing to accept. They just don’t believe that ‘two thirds are Scottish-only’ data and mistake liking Doctor Who for consent for Westminster. To demonstrate just how out of touch the campaign is, they seem to think that Gordon Brown is the authentic voice of Scotland and that he has his finger on the pulse in working-class communities.
A polarisation strategy that misunderstood public opinion, a manic and disjointed response when the polarisation didn’t work, a total lack of ground-level infrastructure to balance this and a host of other smaller problems have all come together. Actually, this all happened in January; it’s just taken the media two months to catch up.
What would I do if I was them? I genuinely don’t know. They need ground-level intelligence and I can’t see where they can develop it. They need empathy and I can’t see a source of it. They need to undo the polarisation strategy and that’s nearly impossible. They need to go back and undo some of the wolf-crying – or actually deliver all the plethora of stunts and support they said they were going to deliver. And they could probably do with coming up with a positive case for the union that isn’t an insult to the intelligence (‘a Britain which is stretching every fibre of it’s body to end poverty…’ – seriously?) There are some real problems here.
So much schadenfreude of course. Just one note of caution; this does not mean the Yes strategy is setting the heather on fire either. Frankly, while the SNP leadership has been competent in recent months it is hard to be much more generous than that. And it really is the local campaigns and groups like National Collective, Wings, Bella, Business for Scotland, Women for Indy, RIC and so on which are doing all the heavy lifting. Centrally the Yes campaign still seems to be going through the motions, claiming that each misstep from the other side retrospectively justifies a strategy of not doing anything much. Continually rewriting recent history to make it look like you’re good is no substitute for having a plan for the future. A campaign that is reliant on the other side making mistakes or rests on external variables (such as UKIP getting a good showing at the Euro elections) isn’t really a campaign at all.
If the Yes campaign starts to believe that what it has been doing is sufficient to win because the No campaign is weak, we’re all in trouble.
I can therefore only finish by offering one very strong warning to all in Yes circles:
Nobody ever wins by default. Nobody.