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So what went wrong last Thursday?

By Rob Rosie


Last Thursday's shocking election saw most parts of the UK return to the old 2 party Labour/Conservative system. While Scottish political attitudes are divergent from English political attitudes, the squeeze was still felt in Scotland where the SNP dropped from 54 seats (56 in 2015) to 35 seats. A number of big names were among those who lost seats. Despite holding onto a majority of Scottish seats comfortably, it's clear that something went wrong with the SNP's campaign.
As is usual in Scottish politics, the SNP was on defence against the 3 Unionist parties. The SNP's national campaign utterly failed to defend against Tory attacks, struggled to capture Corbyn's energy and acted too timid when it came to going on the offensive.
Ruth Davidson's "NO TO INDYREF2" campaign was arguably the most damaging factor against the SNP. Since the beginning of the council campaign, folk in Scotland have been getting a rainforest worth of "NO TO INDYREF2" leaflets through their doors. The SNP response to this in the council campaign was simply "this election isn't about an independence referendum" - this cut it at the time as local councillors have no power to decide whether or not there should be a referendum. The main victims of the narrative were in fact the Labour Party, who ended up in 3rd place.
However, this started to gain momentum because the Conservatives were not being challenged on their "NO TO INDYREF2" campaign. They were able to shape the narrative around Scotref. The Conservatives had used the council campaign to lay a foundation of negative feeling towards Scotref that they would build their general election platform on.

Now in the general election campaign, the SNP realised that the Tories had managed to make an independence referendum unpopular amongst a large section of the electorate that included a sizeable number of past SNP supporters. Realising that Scotref was unpopular with a large section of the electorate, the SNP avoided the topic as much as possible in order to distance themselves from it. While this may seem like the sensible way to approach the campaign, it was actually the biggest and most costly mistake the SNP made.
By avoiding the topic, the SNP had inadvertently conceded to the Conservative narrative that Scotref was bad. Had the strategy actually worked and the SNP successfully distanced themselves from Scotref this would not have been an issue, but that was never going to happen, least of all because independence is the primary objective of the party and Scotref was a manifesto pledge.
At this point in the analysis, most commentators would say "Sturgeon made a miscalculation by announcing Scotref in March". However, this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of why the announcement was made. The timing of Sturgeon's announcement was not a decision that arose from political calculation - it arose from the SNP's core principle that the people of Scotland should decide Scotland's future. To not push for Scotref at that time was not an option for the SNP unless it wanted to betray its core principle.

Bringing us back to the general election, the SNP was in a situation where they had committed to a Scotref that was unpopular with a portion of their support. We seen on the eve of the 8th of June what the SNP avoiding Scotref resulted in. So that leaves one option - they should have went all out arguing in favour of Scotref. The reality of the situation was that those who had switched away from the SNP because of Scotref were susceptible to switching back if they had the arguments in favour of Scotref explained to them. A number of ground level SNP campaigns did in fact realise this, but the national campaign failed to recognise it at all. Had the SNP responded to the "NO TO INDYREF2" leaflet with their own "Why Scotref is good for you" leaflet, a sizeable portion of the support that the Tories had driven away could have been recoverable.
By avoiding Scotref the SNP had allowed the Tories to deal sizeable damage not just to the SNP public support, but to the greater narrative surrounding Scotref. This is not irrecoverable - I will go into our way forward in a later article - but it is essential we recognise this mistake sooner rather than later.
The second misstep of the SNP losses were fail to capture the same energy as Corbyn captured. For all his faults, Corbyn had run an inspiring campaign with the same kind of energy that surrounded the Yes campaign. In contrast, the SNP manifesto had been very much the same as last time, with no policies that really stood out as talking points. It followed that a small portion of our support was attracted to the energy surrounding Corbyn and decided to lend Labour their vote.
While this in itself was not enough to gain Labour many seats, when factored in with the Conservatives bringing the SNP down a few points Labour managed to just pass through the middle and gain a few seats. With the SNP having a fairly uninspired manifesto, Corbyn's energy had managed to pull a small portion of voters away from the party.

The above mistakes do seem to be the most glaring issues with the SNP's campaign, although there is some other miscellaneous areas that the SNP could work on. Right now there is an attitude within the SNP that negative campaigning should be avoided - however, this only ignores the fact that negative campaigning can work. After all, Lynton Crosby made a job out of it. The reality is that Ruth Davidson has been a thorn in the side of the SNP over the last year or so, and they will only get rid of her once they learn how to campaign negatively.
(Of course, I'd add that you don't want to run a completely negative campaign. That would just lead to an unhealthy campaign and does not work brilliantly. But undeniably there is a place for negative campaigning.)
The SNP's 2017 campaign can seem scarily similar to Hilary Clinton's failed presidential bid. Both campaigns played it as safe as possible, and both got punished for it. If Theresa May's coalition breaks down and another general election is triggered, what we seen on the eve of the 8th of June will only be the beginning - unless the SNP can go all in on Scotref and create a truly inspiring and energising policy platform - while not being scared to deal the occasional blow to Ruth Davidson. It may seem like a risky move, but in a political age of boldness going all out is the only option.