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Holyrood 2021: Debate Analysis
Sturgeon finally become the incumbent, Sarwar shows his skill and Ross slips near the finish line.
The debate tonight wasn’t a barn-burner – there were too many questions and too many politicians for a proper debate - but it did contain enough moments that are worth a closer look.
I’ve prepared candidates for a fair few political debates, both in Scotland and across the UK. Ahead of those, I’ve spoken to other strategists, from all over the world, about how they prepare candidates and I found there are common tricks of the trade that everyone employs. This analysis is written from that perspective.
Moments of Drama
One of the things you aim for in a debate is a moment of conflict. You know that more people will watch the coverage of the debate than they will the debate itself. Journalists have to write a story about the debate, literally a story, and that needs drama. So creating a moment of conflict that prosecutes your case is the priority for debaters. More importantly, creating the first moment of conflict is especially important as viewer numbers will tail off with few voters watching all the way through.
Given the SNP strategy has been to try to fight the Tories and overshadow the Labour party, the FM made a mistake by name-checking Anas Sarwar first, thus giving him the right to respond and get the first interaction of the debate, which he landed well. Not only that, in doing so he delivered his core message: focus on recovery, not the old arguments.
In this sense Anas was fortunate: the FM gave him that opportunity. But debates, like golf, are a game of luck: the more you practice the luckier you get.
As a debate rolls on a candidate has a loud ticking noise in their head. Did they manage to get the messages out that they had intended before time runs out? Douglas Ross clearly had two jobs in mind that he had to complete before the credits rolled: first attack Nicola Surgeon on the timing of her proposed re-run of the 2014 referendum, which he did well, teed up by members of the audience who already had the frame in their mind that the issue of another referendum is as much about the process as the policy (as I’ve written). Ross did his first job well, especially as he chooses to deliver to the camera rather than to the FM:
The problem for Douglas Ross was that then he got greedy and tried to complete his second task too. He decided to try to shoe-horn in his planned attack on Labour into an answer framed by Sarah Smith as being about how nasty politics has become, and that was then defined by Anas and Willie Rennie as being about racism. Ross will take some comfort in the fact that most will have switched off before the end of the debate because Anas seized on it to paint himself as ‘the adult in the room’ and to tell the Conservative leader to grow up.
As a football man, Ross will understand that this is a six-pointer. When you fail to land a line like this you not only appear clumsy, you allow your opponent to look assured. Don’t be surprised if the Conservative line towards Labour now becomes more nuanced as a result of this.
I should say I also thought Sturgeon also failed in this section. Not in her answer, which promised action against abuse on her side, but because that commitment was shown to be pretty hollow when she failed to challenge the abusive nationalist zooming from his attic who labelled the pro-Union party leaders “colonialists”, including one of Pakistani heritage!
If you are the incumbent you face a particular challenge in debates. You have to defend your record without sounding defensive or complacent about the issues your opponents raise and, above all, the issues the audience raises.
The teachable example of this was George Bush senior versus Bill Clinton when Bush disastrously failed to empathise with a woman who asked the killer question: how has the recession personally affected you? Checking his watch as if he was counting down the moments until he could get away from the voters didn’t help, but he went on about how difficult it was to run a government, rather than sharing the pain of the questioner as Clinton went on to do.
Sturgeon didn’t quite have one of those moments, she is too good a politician for that (and I mean that pejoratively) but when Anas Sarwar raised the case of a woman with advanced cancer who had been told that, because of the NHS backlog, she wouldn’t get the treatment she needed, the First Minister sounded like someone who spends time more time with NHS managers than she does with patients. Telling cancer patients ‘it takes time’ to deliver was uncharacteristically tone-deaf from the FM.
I was struck how for so much of the debate Nicola Sturgeon really did feel like an incumbent politician. That may sound odd given the SNP have been in power for 14 years, but so far they have been adept at managing to sound like they are in opposition while they are in power. Sturgeon normally dominates debates, but this debate was dominated by her record.
Finally the SNP look like they are in power. And not just in power, but in possession of more powers and fewer excuses. I thought Willie Rennie’s best moment was interrupting Nicola Sturgeon’s argument that we should leave the UK to get more welfare powers. He pointed out that the First Minister has delayed the devolution of the very powers she now complains she doesn’t have. I’ve written a few times about how the increased powers of the Scottish Parliament rob the nationalists of so many of the grievances they used to rest their case on. This was a clear example of a 2014 political argument colliding with a 2021 policy reality.
Politicians are taught a technique for debates known as ABC. It is a skill that allows them to turn a question on an issue they don’t want to talk about into an answer about an issue you are more comfortable talking about. A means Acknowledge: you have to make some attempt to answer the question. B is Bridge: you use a short phrase to move onto the issue you want to talk about. C is Control: having moved on, now you answer the question you wanted to answer. Now you know this trick you’ll spot it over and over again while watching Question Time on a Thursday night.
Every politician on the panel employed this but what was interesting for me what watching Nicola Sturgeon trying to bridge out of her own record so she could talk about her future plans. She knows hers is a weak record so she doesn’t relish talking about it.
Political gravity might not have arrived soon enough to cause serious problems for the SNP at this election, but you could see it tugging at the First Minister tonight.
Caught Between Party and the People
The most significant moment for me was an unforced error from the First Minister. At least it was not forced by any of her opponents. In answer to a question from an audience member on why another referendum should be a priority in the middle of a pandemic, the First Minister gave the response below.
This question should have been predicted and the answer practised over and over again, but it was a mess.
Sturgeon’s response in turn negates and then affirms the premise of the question. She does this over and over in the space of two minutes. The First Minister here is caught between country and party. The party wants a referendum in the next two years, and the FM has had to commit to that, but we know the voters really don’t want that. The SNP’s language on leaving the UK is usually very polished and market-tested to perfection. This though was a Frankenstein answer that tries to appeal to two opposed sets of interests.
It won’t be the moment on the news tomorrow, but it’s the most revealing about the future of Scottish politics because being trapped between what’s popular in your party and what’s unpopular in the country is a bad place for any politician to be.