Refounding Scottish Labour: What our media campaign can tell us

An election campaign is made up of many parts: the candidates who represent us in the election itself, the central campaign machine that directs them and the strategy through which it does so, the thousands of volunteers who push leaflets through doors and talk to voters on the doorstep and in the street, the leader and his shadow cabinet who are the public face of the party, and the media campaign in the newspapers, on the radio, television and, increasingly, the internet. When a party is defeated as comprehensively as Labour was last month, it is usually safe to suggest that there is something wrong with all aspects of a campaign.  Our media message, though, is one of the most fruitful places to start looking for an answer to the question of why we lost, and so badly:  it is very much the end product that every voter will be presented with (the majority of voters will not be doorstepped by a candidate or activist but they will hard pressed to avoid the election in the mass media) and the place where a party’s essence becomes crystallised and its true nature reflected.

The first, and perhaps most avoidable, mistake was the vagueness of much of our message. Watch our election broadcast Focusing on what really matters.  Gray spends much of the time talking (with, to his credit, obvious sincerity) about his family and how he wants them to grow up in a safer, happier, healthier Scotland, but offers almost no suggestion about what Labour would do to create such a society.  The second broadcast, Fighting for what really matters, is an improvement in this regard: Gray argues that creating more jobs is the key to a better Scotland, but even here doesn’t go into the specific pledges that ultimately catch voters’ attention.  Gray’s aim is clear, but the viewer is still left wondering how he intends to achieve it: this can’t have been comforting for an electorate already highly suspicious of politicians’ promises and their ability to deliver on them, especially in the current climate.
The frustrating thing here is that some of this detail had been worked out and we did have some attractive policies but instead we chose to run on less fundamental but more tabloid headline-friendly proposals like mandatory prison sentences for those caught carrying knives.  I was delighted to find that we were planning to promise a living wage of £7.15 an hour for all workers in the public sector and everyone in the private and third sector contracting with it – not only our most Labour policy and a policy which would have helped a very large number of people – but during the campaign was baffled as to why it was not mentioned in the election broadcasts nor included in the list of five core promises on our pledge card.

Our unwillingness to put positive policies like the living wage front and centre is perhaps part of the reason why our campaign was mostly a negative one. We spent too much of the election pouring scorn on the SNP’s claim to have followed through on 84 of 94 promises from the last election rather than focusing on our own promises for this one.  Both of the broadcasts – and much of the broader campaign – spent time conjuring the ghosts of Scotland under the last Tory government (Gray talking about a ‘lost generation’ over the top of shots of dreary 1980s Job Centres) and promising to ‘fight against the Tories now they are back’ instead of telling us clearly what a Labour-ruled Scotland would look like compared to a Tory-Lib Dem England.  Gray appears at times in those broadcasts to almost threaten us – talking forebodingly of what might happen if Labour doesn’t win, rather than inspire us with a brighter vision. The third broadcast, The Squeeze, is by far the worst: aside from being amateurishly produced and rather patronising, it is again focused more on what the Coalition had done (and crucially, what a Scottish government cannot undo) on tax and benefits. What Labour promises to do it is tagged onto the end in the last twenty seconds, almost as an afterthought.  After realising that attacking the Coalition in a country where the Tories are an irrelevance and the Lib Dems were fast becoming one, we rightly switched our focus to the SNP, but on the non-issue of independence and again, in a negative fashion. We could have chosen to rival the SNP with a vision of Scotland as a dynamic, confident country within the Union – drawing strength from its position within the UK while still being a distinct part of it– but instead simply dismissed the independence debate as a ‘distraction’.

The result of the vagueness and negativity of our approach was that we had no clear vision, no sense of who we were and what the values and principles were that would drive us as a government.  We spent far too much time saying what we were not, rather than what we were; what we were fighting against, rather than what we were fighting for. Labour is rightly proud of its long record of struggling for social justice and for the opportunities enjoyed by the few to be shared with the many, but these overarching, fundamental big ideas that give us a sense of purpose and the electorate an idea of what we wanted to do didn’t seem to come into our strategy this time around.

Who, then, was to blame? A party’s media campaign is both an independent entity but also, as I said before, a reflection of the party’s wider approach. Some of the errors were relatively technical – poor quality election broadcasts, bad message management and inept man-management of Gray by some of our press folk – the Subway and Asda incidents most notably – but the problems are deeper than these cosmetic and relatively easily resolved problems. We focused too much on headline-grabbing policies than on values and on attacking the SNP than outlining our ambitions and thus ended up not having a clear enough vision of why we deserved to govern Scotland and why Scotland would have been better under a Scottish Labour government. If we want to win again, it is vital we use the next five years to ask ourselves these questions and come up with the answers.


 

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