Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Unpicking the lock: the anatomy of an election triumph

If I knew that a system had been deliberately designed to confine me in some way, I seriously would not be able to stop myself. I'd be trying to confound the designers, prove them wrong.

I wonder if that's how it was for the SNP's campaigns department. It was openly acknowledged that the Holyrood voting system was specifically designed so that nobody (and, given that it was drawn up by Labour architects, by nobody, they meant the SNP) would be able to get an overall majority.

The Scottish Parliament is made up of 129 seats, 73 first past the post constituency seats and 56 using the AMS system in 8 regions. The idea is that if you win a whole load of constituency seats in a region, you won't get any on the list. So dominant were the SNP last week, that they were picking up on lists where they shouldn't have, simply because they were able to persuade people to use both their constituency and list votes for the party.

Liberal Democrats have traditionally not been great at persuading people to vote for them on the list - we can lose around half our constituency vote to other parties on the list. We have, I think, focussed too much on the constituencies and not enough on the list.

The SNP have been very clever. Because they were initially not great at picking up constituencies, they had to find a way to get people to vote for them on the list. In 2007, they thought they'd found the answer. They made the regional list vote about who was going to be First Minister. Rather than languish at the bottom of the ballot paper as Scottish National Party, they decided to call themselves Alex Salmond for First Minister. That helped them in 2007 where they picked up an extra 20 MSPs. In terms of numbers, though, they picked up an extra 12 constituency seats and 8 list seats.  So, a strategy that seemed designed to ramp up their regional vote also gave them a better constituency vote. Four years on, thanks to the Gould Report into the counting fiasco of 2007, the SNP had to go back to their usual place on the ballot paper - but they added in "Alex Salmond for First Minister" and put on their literature that the regional vote was to elect him as FM.

By the time we got to the final weekend of the campaign, Alex Salmond, and the SNP were miles ahead in the polls. For the first time, polls, were potentially giving them 60 seats, plus. Labour at the height of its domination had only managed 56. As those polls came out, so the SNP launched their final blitz- "Both Votes SNP" screamed the placards everywhere you cared to look.   During the campaign they had ramped themselves up a massive list vote by making the regional vote into a presidential election in which there could only be one winner. Then with a flourish at the end, they unleashed this masive vote on the constituencies by telling it to use both their votes for the SNP. That explains why they won places like Edinburgh South from fourth by hardly doing any work.

Conventional campaigning wisdom says you win first past the post seats by inching yourself forward election after election with relentless on the ground campaigning. That's how we've won most of our seats. This time, the SNP tore up that rule book and stamped all over it. They won first past the post constituencies from nowhere and by doing not a lot during the campaign on the ground. The SNP victor in North East Fife, Roderick Campbell, was not known for his active on the ground campaigning between elections.

Of course, a clever list strategy is only part of the story. You have to remember that the SNP started out a long way behind, 10 points, at the beginning of the year. They finished up 14 points ahead in the constituency vote and 18 points ahead in the list vote. That's one hell of a turnaround.  They were helped by a shambolic, chaotic Labour campaign. Labour adopted many of the SNP's key policies. I'm sure if the campaign had gone on another week they'd have said they wanted independence. Liberal Democrats did the same on the Council Tax Freeze and free prescriptions, a move which gave so much common ground between the parties that it ended up as a bit of a beauty contest between first ministerial candidates. That played right into the SNP's hands, because although Salmond defies any conventional definition of beauty, he's clearly the best political performer of his generation - and I don't mean just in Scotland either.

When Salmond appeared on Question Time from Liverpool in mid April,  my Twitter feed was full of SNP people saying that he was doing fantastically and full of Liberal Democrats from south of the border practically drooling over the man. I think even I remember wanting the ground to swallow me up when I preferred his answer to one of Chris Huhne's.

In the Leaders' Debates, he was miles ahead of all the others in terms of performance. The thing is, neither on Question Time nor in the debates, nor elsewhere in the campaign were he or his party tested to much of an extent.  It was very clear during the leaders' debates that he really didn't have a clue how he was going to pay for his Council Tax freeze for 5 years, or what would happen after the initial 2 year public sector pay freeze, but he wasn't sufficiently challenged. Nor were the SNP challenged on their extraordinary claim to have saved £250 million on a bridge which hasn't even been built yet. These claims were ridiculous, but they got away with them.

Their term of minority government had not produced anything that had particularly angered the public. Their release of Lockerbie Bomber Megrahi in August 2009 wasn't popular, but by the time the election came along, even though Labour and Tories cast it up occasionally, it wasn't an issue. They'd broken some election pledges for sure, but those were easily blamed on being in minority Government and the other nasty parties in the Parliament not helping them out. Their ministers were on the whole reasonably competent and generally likeable and, crucially, I think, they presented themselves as a close knit team. Certainly there has been no briefing against each other and no public spats. They are a bit like the Brady Bunch in office. One stroke of genius was Alex Salmond, who probably has more than his fair share of self esteem, constantly talking about his team. In comparison, Labour seemed out of touch, arrogant and without any sort of cohesive identity.

While Labour fell apart, from the farcical tour of sandwich bars in Glasgow Central Station to the total muck ups on policy, the SNP barely put a foot wrong.  It's easy to see why the people who wanted to punish us for the coalition, even if they understood why we went into it,  were enticed to them almost en masse. They literally had no place else to go.

The SNP were streets ahead in terms of harnessing technology, too. They had Obama style iPhone apps so supporters could canvass people whenever they felt like it, they had Cabinet ministers on Twitter, they had co-ordinated You Tube, Facebook, and Twitter things going on.

While Labour were saying sniffily that the campaign that mattered was on the doorstep, and we were doing the best we could with extremely limited resources, the SNP's online presence enhanced the mood music they'd created with their slick campaign and ubiquitous billboards. You can imagine how delighted I was to see Alex Salmond's face on a massive billboard the minute I stepped out of Queen Street station on Friday afternoon.,

The SNP also had shed loads of money, with half a million from Stagecoach's Brian Souter alone. That enabled them to out-campaign the relatively affluent Labour. What chance did the Liberal Democrats, with thruppence ha'penny and a couple of polo mints in the bottom of our purse (and that's less of a joke than you think) have?

Personally I find the SNP's use of the Regional Ballot, telling people clearly on their election literature, that it was to choose the First Minister, disrespectful. The Regional list is there to ensure balance in the Parliament, but the SNP have turned it into a narrow Presidential system that favours the larger parties. They certainly killed the Greens, who only stand on the list by doing that - and then killed everyone else in the constituencies by harnessing that list vote and unleashing it on unsuspecting MSPs.including half of Labour's front bench.

The sort of shift we saw last week is surely a once in a generation shift.Who knows what's going to happen in the next few years? If Scotland votes for independence, there will be no need for the SNP and the liberals, socialists, environmentalists and conservatives within it will re-align themselves and we'll have a new party. If Scotland votes against independence, how will that affect the political dynamics in Scotland?

And have the SNP been more successful than they wanted to be? "It wisnae me" and its variants are part of their essential ministerial lexicon and now they can't do that any more. They have nowhere to hide if they don't deliver. Of course, they will always try to make the Westminster Government the bad guy, and Michael Moore the Cruella De Vil of the piece. They knew, though, exactly how much money they were going to have for the next three years from the Spending Review. If they got the calculations wrong in their manifesto, that's their fault. Alex Salmond talked about minority government as his preferred option and I think it actually was because it gave him cover.

Last Thursday's political earthquake was caused by depending on how you look at it, a calamitous or a fortuitous collection of circumstances: a useless major opposition campaign; anger at the Liberal Democrats for the Coalition; a slick and professional campaign which rarely encountered dangerous ground by the SNP. All of these things accentuated the way the SNP had got the system to work for them. I have an awful feeling we should have seen this coming, but then hindsight is a fabulous thing.

I want to look in more detail at Labour's the Greens' and our campaign in the days to come.


Dubbieside said...

Oh Bo ho.

You came fourth, and lucky not to be fifth.

Your campaign was non existent, your atavists were invisible, your leader was pathetic, but apart from that you did well. You got five seats when you deserved two.

You treated the electorate like mugs and you got what you deserved. If you make a big thing about signing pledges it might be a good idea to honour those pledges.

How long will it take Lib Dems to get back to double figures of MSPs? 20 years or 30 years?

Dan said...

Oh dear Dubbieside gives a whole new meaning to bad winner. I'm sure he isn't representative of the new Nat activists and supporters, but it's always fun (in a grim, knuckledragging, sub-BNP kind of way) the old arrogant voice of semi literate certainty that used to infest the Nationalist ranks.

I suspect Dubbieside has had his card marked by the Net Nationalists bosses and probably won't be asked to contribute again.

And for that we will be able to thank Mr Salmond's slick online operation.

Dubbieside said...


Rubbish, but keep on kidding yourself you ran a good campaign.

You really are, just like your party, quite pathetic.

Dan Falchikov said...

I'll leave Caron's esteemed readers to make up their minds about who your last point might be best directed at.

But given Caron's posting is rational, reasoned and respectful - it's the least you could do to respond in kind.

cynicalHighlander said...

Sorry Caron but you are sounding like a sore loser as you seem to resent people who are appearing cleverer than unionists by a mile.

I spent 3 days when the Rubik's cube came out to eventually solve it just by dogged determination to solve a problem on my own. Even though I could never do it in under 5 mins it was task as is self determination for my country which is a goal I have been voting over 4 decades for future generations.

Unionists are going to have to try and find some substantial reasons to stick with a bankrupt failing state if they wish to hang on to us.

Jock said...

The SNP weren't at the top of the list on the list voting system form . Not sure why you say they were Caron. I had to read through the list of parties to find them.
To criticise the SNP for running an excellent campaign is a bit strange.
Is that a new Lib Dem tactic ? Run a terrible campaign and then stand on the sidelines crying because the opposition were more switched on and savvy ?
Despite years of negative reporting from the BBC, Scotsman, Daily Record etc, the people of Scotland had seen enough and knew which party was only interested in them and in Scotland - the SNP.

Unknown said...

Dubbieside, this post was about how the SNP won it.

Jock - you are right - I had thought I'd put in that the list ballot paper said SNP this time but they'd still added in the Alex Salmond for FM thing underneath. An idea which didn't make it from head to keyboard - I'll update to make that clear.

And Jock and CH - sore loser? I talk about the SNP running a professional campaign, being clever, having one of the best politicians of our generation as leader, and having competent and likeable ministers.

As a politics geek, I just wanted to try and look at where that victory had come from. It was a combination of luck and genius. The SNP did very well, no doubt about that.

What am I supposed to do, get down and worship the Almighty Salmond?:-).

For what it's worth, an SNP friend of mine on Facebook, whose views I respect,"liked" my post. I think he understood what I was trying to say.

GHmltn said...

Puzzled by the SNP guy's rant on the comments here.

It is basically an objective and positive view of what they did!

The really interesting thing about the SNP campaign is the way in which national campaigns succeed and grass roots campaigns won't win elections.

However scratch the surrface and look at a number of elections and you see when you co-ordinate the national and the local well you really succeed.

I think with the leaflets the SNP goy out and their local presence stronger than before - plus some targetting of messages on the ground the SNP weer well co-ordinated. Add to that the digital stuff, the mood music, the positive tone, the narrative and most of all Alex salmond and you see a successful campaign.

The one thing local campaigning does is it builds roots and helps move you forward between elections.

It may also help survival in times of trouble.

The value and nature of local campaigning (or not) may be worth studying.

DougtheDug said...

I looked at the figures for this election and you're right, the Lib-Dems have a real problem with the list vote. The SNP kept 97% of their constituency vote on the list, the Conservatives 89%, Labour 83% but the Lib-Dems only kept 65%.

The SNP calling themselves, "Alex Salmond for First Minister", on the list is no worse than the Liberal-Democrats naming themselves the, "Scottish Liberal Democrats". In both cases neither party is using their true name. The list is designed to make the regional results proportional so informing voters that the list vote is all about who actually gets to be First Minister seems entirely reasonable. Rather than complaining about it why didn't Labour, the Lib-Dems or the Conservatives think up a punchy slogan of their own and put it on the list ballot paper?

I'm not certain how much of an impact the SNP campaign had. Certainly it was a good campaign but I think that the vote was a culmination of a lot of voter unhappiness with the last four years of Labour, Lib-Dem and Conservative oppositionalism in the Scottish Parliament. Rather than look at what went wrong with the Lib-Dem campaign you should look at what went wrong with the Lib-Dems in parliament over the past four years.

You've also got to remember that on the Leader's debate Alex Salmond was the only party leader on it. Tavish Scott and Annable Goldie are just regional managers for their parties in Scotland and Iain Gray isn't even that. If you're not a party leader in control of all your party's policies and strategy it's hard to act like a party leader when it comes down to a leaders' debate.

The one thing to remember about Brian Souter's half a million was that it was match funding. The SNP had to raise half a million themselves from their members in order for him to match fund it. That the SNP can do that shows how far behind the other parties are in membership and commitment.

I've got to laugh at the constant refrain coming from commenters that the SNP didn't really want a majority. Without a majority there is no independence referendum and now the SNP won't get lumbered with white elephants like the Edinburgh Trams or get their health and alcohol policies shot down on a whim. The SNP didn't really want a majority? Dream on.

cynicalHighlander said...

GHmltn The real LibDem! nothing about leaflets its about listening and working with communities for the peoples benefit.


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