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New polls suggest the is SNP losing hundreds of thousands of voters to Labour. How can they harness what feels like a moment of change?
Momentum is like Candyman: it can appear behind you if you repeat it enough.
For months now Labour have been claiming momentum, hoping that saying it would manifest it. Now it appears to be very real. Two new polls confirm the shift taking place in Scottish politics. Last night’s Survation poll and today’s Redfield and Winton poll both show the SNP’s historic lead vanishing.
As is often the case, the most interesting findings are within the vote transfer numbers.
If you do a quick bit of maths with the Survation poll and try to relate the percentages below to the real votes previously cast it suggests that the SNP have lost just shy of 300,000 voters since the last General election with 200,000 of them going to Labour. Labour has the highest retention of support but is also gaining hundreds of thousands of voters from the other pro-Union parties (around 65,000 Lib Dems and 139,000 Conservatives from 2019).
Labour appears to be building a new alliance of voters drawn from across past voting intentions. In a week with fresh discussion of tactical voting alliances, this is a reminder that voters are making their own judgements without self-interested appeals from parties.
Heading for the Exits
One SNP seat under threat in these numbers is that of Paisley South where Mhairi Black who is the latest SNP MP to walk away from politics. Currently, a higher proportion of SNP parliamentarians are stepping down than Conservatives. The list of Mhairi Black, Iain Blackford, Douglas Chapman, Angela Crawley and Peter Grant is reportedly about to be added to by Philippa Whitford and John McNally.
Maybe the excitement of their imminent historic victory is too much for them, or perhaps they have come to the conclusion that that the populist trend in global politics is waning. Their time is passing.
It is near impossible to maintain party discipline when MPs see doom approaching. The latest example is the expulsion of Angus MacNeill from the SNP group. MacNeill has the excellent Torcuil Crichton breathing down his neck for Labour. He is also facing what must be, in terms of the proportion of a community taking part, the largest protests in Scottish history against the SNP’s ferry crisis. He clearly feels he has nothing left to lose as he shouts “you’re a small wee man!” at the SNP’s chief whip and writes twitter tirades about standing up to cowards and bullies in his party.
But before starting a sarcastic chorus of “we can see you sneaking out” in the direction of the SNP benches, though, there’s a lot of hard work to do. Now that the momentum is real the Labour needs to consolidate converts and invite others to join. How?
Sealing the Deal
Forgive me for writing with Labour activists in mind for a moment.
So far the simple message that it is time for change appears to be enough to appeal to the disparate coalition Labour needs to build in Scotland. The SNP and Conservative’s attempts to resurrect the constitutional fight that served their purposes in the past haven’t been enough to prevent further movement. The field is open for Labour to control the story of this election.
One of the features of an effective campaign is that it has a message about its message. Before 1997 Labour had an easily repeatable spiel structured around three Rs. These were Reassure, Reward and Remind. It summarised the strategy, describing the journey that voters had to be taken on in order to vote for the party.
It started with reassure. Telling voters that the party had changed, that the things that they used to think of as risks were gone, and that there was a new generation in charge. Having dealt with our negatives, you could then talk about the positive reasons for voting Labour: the reward. These were simple, easily remembered policy positions. Finally, only having dealt with our negatives and offered our positives could we move onto remind. This final part was saying that, as Labour had changed and because we have common sense policies, the real risk was the Conservatives winning again.
The beauty of this simple set of directions was that anyone could follow them. And activists weren’t just being told what to say, they were being given the respect of being told why they should say it. A generation on, political communication is far more distributed with the decline of linear TV news and growth of social media.
So, what might such a strategic summary look like at this moment of potential realignment? I think this time it’s the Cs: Crisis, Choice, and Credible Change.
Characterise as a Crisis Election
The soaring cost of living, the mortgage rises and the crisis in the NHS has left people desperate. Before anything else, they want political leaders to show they understand how bad things are for them right now. Every conversation should start with showing we get it.
Listening and then reflecting back voters’ own experiences of struggling financially or waiting for treatment is essential. This is about more than empathy, it is about communicating the idea that this election is different, more important because of the scale of the crises people are dealing with.
Invitation to Choose
In that context, we need to invite people to be part of change. We must resist the invitation by opponents to fight another pointless election on the constitution that delivers nothing. Again: this election is different. A weakened SNP makes it harder to credibly claim this is a constitutional election. No argument we make against leaving the UK is going to be more persuasive than their collapse.
Unlike in other elections where a message of ‘it is us or the Tories’ from Labour felt cajoling to voters, this time we can offer evidence that more and more voters are making a choice to change their vote. We need to offer an invitation to be part of that rather than a forced fait accompli. Even if just at this election, we ask you to vote for change.
Offer Credible Change
People have come out of a decade of populist governments who talk big but deliver small. People are tired of grand political projects that fail in their promise and simply want governments who are connected to the realities of their life, competent and concentrated on making things easier for their families.
For example, Labour’s plan to remake the UK economy around more productive, more secure, and more environmentally sustainable work is the high-level vision - but the bigger the claim the more difficult it is for voters to imagine the change. We are more credible when we talk about change people can imagine. So instead, for example, talk about ensuring workers have rising wages, regular hours and rights to decent terms and conditions.
Smarter people than me will be thinking about this but that’s my starter-for-ten. I’d be interested in hearing what other activists think.
Culture Corner: The Real Work
I’m writing this in an airport burger place on the way back from a trip working with democrats who risk decades of imprisonment for any of the things we take for granted in our system: arguing against people in power, calling for change, gathering together like-minded people. Yet they are still hopeful.
Their determination reminded me again of this short verse by Wendell Berry:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
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