The first rule of politics is to manage expectations, usually somewhere below where you suspect you’ll actually finish up. That way politicians can play pleasantly surprised, and media darlings write up reports about ‘exceeding expectations’.
Tony Blair when discussing the run-up to 1997 reveals how his whole team tried desperately to lower expectations of a ‘New Labour’ first term in office. Their ‘pledge card’ was coupled with extreme message discipline. Looking back you would never have suspected they were upwards of 20% ahead of their Tory rivals at the time. But that is what experienced politicians do; message discipline and clear delivery hand in hand with frantic lowering of the ‘measure of success’ on the election night.
Every party worth their salt engages in this exercise. Just ask the poor journalists who need to play the game with them at each and every election.
And this is where we come to the most unusual aspect (among many) of the Scottish local election 2017. By their own publicised measures of ‘success’, the SNP fell short in Scotland. Now this is either due to incompetence (failing to contain expectations) or, more likely, a serious case of under-performance.
Say what you like about the SNP, but party management is one of their strongest talents. Such is the internal message control that their elected representatives are forbidden to ever publicly criticise party policy. This kind of Stalinesque discipline has helped them pulverise the Scottish Labour Party in the space of a decade. Focusing on bites, they ate away the soft nationalist voters within their historic adversary’s ranks. 2007 broke the mould. 2011 gathered lots of ‘Labour heartlands’, and 2015 saw the final demolition of the survivors. Each election witnessed a careful public projection of how far they expected to advance into Labour territory. This enabled them to craft a public image of ‘momentum’ in Scottish politics. It seemed time was on nationalism side as Labour disintegrated under a steady stream of carefully planned out campaigns.
Yet at the locals this year the SNP completely failed to maintain this organisational discipline and they’ve now lost the momentum. And once that is gone in politics, it’s very hard for a political party to regain it.
First piece of evidence is not where the SNP lost ground, but where they won. In places like Edinburgh the SNP didn’t expect to just come out as the ‘biggest party’ on the council. They expected to capture outright control. But the night saw them finish with 19 councillors to a resurgent Tory’s 18. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. They were meant to win; yes; but win big. And that never materialised. Their margin of victory is on a downward trajectory; ask Scots Labour how that ends up.
As the SNP Edinburgh group leader Frank Ross candidly admitted, the night was “not as good as we were anticipating”
The same story is true in Glasgow where, again, a resurgent Tory force denied them their expected outright majority control. The moment young Tory Thomas Kerr won in Shettleston was the beginning of the end of their high hopes in Glasgow. This hadn’t been in their rule book for the evening. They had briefed their media friends that they’d be securing outright control in these two pillars of Scotland. Edinburgh and Glasgow had meant to fall to them.
Likewise losing dominance in Perthshire and Kinrosshire to a newly dominant local Tory force, and falling back in Angus reinforces a new dynamic. And in Aberdeenshire their vote literally started a miniature free-fall. Yes the SNP did see their vote ‘hold up’ nationally (as Sturgeon is now crowing merrily, no longer talking of ‘gains’ as they’ve lost a net total councillors), but it falls very short of their expectations. Even John Curtice on the BBC said these results were “closer to the disappointing end of the spectrum” for the SNP.
The reality: momentum has clearly dissipated from their ranks. It is no longer with the SNP. They even lost overall control of their much-vaunted ‘yes city’ in Dundee, again due to local Tory resurgence.
The why can be speculated at, perhaps Sturgeon seriously misjudged the Scottish appetite for Indyref2? Or perhaps the narrative of ‘Scotland vs the Tories’ just doesn’t cut it as much anymore (after all, it’s harder to ‘other’ a party when they’re one-in-four Scots or more). Could even be a horrendous strategic error in weaponizing brexit; especially when a third of the Nat vote was pro-brexit.
Either way, the SNP have misjudged the mood with their ‘indyref2’ push.
And the SNP were caught on the hop like much of the country when Theresa May announced the early general election. It wrong footed them. Suddenly their typical methodology of ‘down playing’ independence talk during elections was for the birds – they’d be compelled to fight a major British GE with their ‘indyref2’ plans hanging around their necks like an albatross. All on the back of a – to quote SNP Edinburgh leader- “disappointing” night in the locals immediately prior.
Our Union is still under crippling threat, all of us on the receiving end of extreme cybernat abuse realises how tough a fight it’ll be going forward. But #TeamTory & #TeamUnion now commands the momentum. And in Ruth Davidson we’ve got a leader more than capable of ensuring our message discipline, party management and expectation management runs just fine.