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The first TV debate of the SNP leadership saw Kate Forbes trash her party as effectively as any opposition politician. Within what she said is an even more painful attack line.
One of the weird things about being a politico is that you have to be able to empathise with your opponents in order to beat them. When you hear an especially good attack line on your opponents, one that really skewers them on a personal weakness that they can’t escape, you find yourself wincing for them.
Watching last night’s TV debate, I felt Humza Yousaf’s pain.
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Yousaf’s Been Framed
TV debates are decided by moments of drama. In the TV age, strategists knew that far more people watched the sixty-second clip of a moment of conflict on the nightly news coverage than ever watched the whole debate programme itself. Knowing this, candidates rehearse a moment of conflict they can be in control of. This idea is even more important in a social media age, where you are relying not on the judgement of the editor but on the decisions of hundreds of thousands of people on whether to share, like or comment on the video of that dramatic moment.
I’ve written before about the importance of framing in politics. Framing is about influencing the way voters digest information. Done well, it controls not just how voters process your message, it impacts how they process information offered by your opponents about the political choice they face.
Humza Yousaf has sought to use the support he enjoys from the SNP establishment, and his experience in Sturgeon’s governments, to argue that he is best placed to continue the electoral success of that period. He wants voters to judge the contest on the basis of who was trusted by Nicola Sturgeon to hold the most ministerial positions, over the longest period of time. If that is the question, he is the answer.
However, throughout last night’s STV debate, Kate Forbes made clear she was going to take Humza Yousaf’s CV, roll it up, and beat him over the head with it. This was her moment of drama and it was about creating a frame for her opponent:
“Well Humza, you’ve had a number of jobs in government. When you were transport minister, the trains were never on time. When you were justice minister, the police were strained to breaking point. And now as health minister, we have record-high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as First Minister?”
Watching this, suddenly I was ET and Yousaf was Elliot. “Ouch!”
The reaction by many on nationalist social media to Forbes trashing not just her opponent but her own government was furious. It’s hardly surprising that the SNP members who accuse other parties of hating their country, when they hear us speaking out about failures by the SNP, like hearing it even less from their own side. This clip will be played again and again by the SNP’s opponents as they attempt to make Yousaf’s incompetence the dominant frame in people’s minds when they make judgements about whether to support his party. Every new promise he makes of change in the future should be devalued by his failure to keep old pledges.
As Yousaf attempted to use Nicola Sturgeon’s old lines to defend his record running the NHS (it could be worse, we could be England!) Forbes turned that complacency on its head:
“Shouldn’t a First Minister have higher ambitions than being slightly better than the rest of the UK?”
If she doesn’t get the job she wants, maybe Forbes can work in the press office of an opposition party because she has a flair for writing crushing anti-SNP rhetoric:
"more of the same is not a manifesto. It is an acceptance of mediocrity".
As Labour seeks to oust SNP parliamentarians across Scotland they will be tempted to use the Finance Secretary’s framing of Yousaf as incompetent and more of the same. Certainly, that will do some damage. The really damaging framing of Yousaf though combines these two ideas.
It is not just that he is incompetent.
It is not just that he is more of the same.
He is an incompetent version of what went before.
Nicola Sturgeon is Now On Our Side
Nicola Sturgeon’s opponents were always infuriated that a First Minister with such a poor record had such high personal ratings for so long. The careful management of her own image and dominance of the political stage was in sharp contrast to the mismanagement of services and disinterest in good government.
Today Sturgeon’s political dominance works for her opponents. The most powerful framing of Yousaf is in contrast to what went before. As Humza portrays himself as the continuity candidate he invites this comparison to the outgoing First Minister and, Mr Yousaf, you’re no Nicola Sturgeon.
The challenge for the SNP’s opponents is to use that inescapable comparison and invite voters to ask questions like:
If Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t fix Scottish public services, can Humza Yousaf?
If Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t win support for leaving the UK, can Humza Yousaf?
If Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t do these things, how can a less competent version of her do them?
If Nicola Sturgeon decided it is time for a change, why shouldn’t I come to the same conclusion?
It’s not only in Scottish politics where framing battles are being played out. The Conseravtives are desperately trying ot reframe politics away from the economy and towards issues they feel are stronger for them: principally the small boats crossing the channel. Yvette Cooper has highlighted how populism is a poor substitue for policy. I can’t help feeling that this kind of ugly populism is against the best traditions of our liberal, multinational, multicultural country.
These lines from the Elizabethan play Sir Thomas More (attributed to a Tarantino-style rewrite by William Shakespeare) are often in my mind when politicians try to exploit these issues:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another