DAN HEAP offers a brutal but honest analysis of Scottish Labour’s media campaign in the Scottish Parliament elections


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 be 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 he 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 Jobcentres) 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. Instead we 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 and not enough on values, too much on attacking the SNP and not enough on 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.

Dan Heap is a Labour party member, PhD student in Social Policy at Edinburgh University, a freelance journalist, and is a former editor of The Student, the UK’s oldest student newspaper. He blogs at www.danheap.wordpress.com and tweets as @commentdan.

Related Posts

7 thoughts on “Off message

  1. I think if you were to compare our media ‘strategy’ with that of the SNP, we definitely come up short. They came across as professional, well-rehearsed and they knew what they wanted to say, so they made sure they said it.

    The election broadcasts were a case in point, as the SNP “What have the SNP ever done for us” one was memorable the next morning to ordinary people – regardless of whether what they said was true or not.

    We failed to have a new media strategy with facebook/twitter etc almost ignored, except at a candidate level. There was no support (even at a UK level) for Labour supporters or candidates to create their own websites easily using graphics and links back to Scottish Labour.

    In short we need to do betterin telling our message, and we need a better message to say.

  2. You’re quite right, I didn’t quite have the room to talk about other parties’ broadcasts, but they were on the whole better. The one you refer to was extremely cheesy and none to subtle, but it did lay down very learly what the SNP had done – or at least what they said they had done -getting right to the point. In contrast, we spent half of PEBs having Gray talking in very general terms about how much he loved his family and the country and how he didn’t want them to come to harm, but they were very light on policy detail: I’m sure Gray was sincere, but it’s not really what governments are made of.

    By far and away the best PEB of the campaign was the Greens’ ‘Because’. No mention of the leader or indeed any Green politican; just Scottish citizens – old and young; black and white; Scottish, English and from elsewhere; all talking about the type of Scotland they want to see, set against some really inspiring backgrounds from all over Scotland, and shot through with specific policy proposals. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndMhMe3gRWM&feature=related

    The point about Twitter/FB is common to most parties, though I think you’re right in saying our use of these methods was particulrly uninspiring. ‘Engagement’ needs to be a two way process, and not simply politcians telling us how great it it is “Being out on the #labourdoorstep here in <<insert town name" and telling us, rather obviously, that "people in <> are worried about the Tory cuts”. True, I’m sure, but Twitter can be used much more imaginatively. I’d like to see our candidates responding much more to voters and debating the issues with them. Some certainly do do this, but they are very much in the minority.

  3. We expected the national media to turn up for walkabouts in town centres and suburban housing schemes, but had no story to offer journalists, not interesting photo opportunities to offer photographers when they did. In town centres, voters immesred in conversation with candidates were cut short by our media staff as said candidates were pulled away to talk to more photogenic electors for the benefit of the camera. The resultant pictures rarely appeared, there was no back story to the image, and the elderly or obese, or bald, or middleaged untidy voters were left with the feling that they were of no importance to the Labour Party, or to its local candidate. There was no template of organisation for the quickie visits of the leader – other than, get some activists carrying balloons to welcome, shout hurray, got to a scheme and knock doors, and once there, hope to god somebody’s in who wants to smile and shake hands. Pary activists did not know who these Party Media people were. One member said to me, “These journalists are so arrogant, so rude. I wish it wouldn’t damage our chances if I gave those two a piece of my mind”!. I did not tell the activist that the Journalists concerned were in fact part of the John Smith House team. We were already demoralised enough

  4. That’s a very interesting insight, Mary. If that is the case, I can see how however many votes one of these TV walkabouts might win us (probably none) could well be outweighed by the number of people we piss aff in doing them.

    Like I said, we struggled with some fundamental issues surrounding our message, but some of these nuts and bolts problems with our on the ground media strategy are important too, and we need to have a long, hard look at them, as with other aspects of our campaigning.

  5. The role that the media plays in election campaigns is critical. Every major election success has been done on the back of a well organised communications strategy. The media have to be given their place as they are the people who are responsible for our messages reaching the voting public. We can print as many leaflets, and these are always extremely valuable, as we want but modern day elections are fought out over the airwaves, whether we like to believe that or not the evidence is all there. If you have a natural communicator like Tony Blair or Alex Salmond it is quite easy to convey you election messages, it makes it more difficult for someone who isn’t when they are up against that type of challenge. But there are always ways to deal with these things.

    Thatcher had Tim Bell and the Saatchis, Tony Blair had Alistair Campbell, Alex Salmond has Kevin Pringle and other good communications people. All of these people knew and know how to create, organise and deliver the key messages to the media either sympathetic or not to such an effect that the general public were and are convinced that they could deliver what they said they could.

    Scottish Labour can establish a very good strategy and put it in place as it will have to do in order to win. Following the review and having looked at the history of communications and its role in election victories I would think that this element will be pretty high up the agenda when it arrives at the final outcome.

    What is good about this matter is how it focuses our attention on the way forward in a much more positive way now that the dust has settled.

  6. Dan- I think you miss the key point. I suspect by the time the last few weeks of the campaign came the game was up. Seems to me the message was the last throw of the dice and all the party had left was the above. The SNP were popular so attacking their broken promises lacked credibility.

    Labour failed a long time ago to show the people of Scotland we had a vision, so to pretend we could say we have the right vision for Scotland in a two minute tv movie in the last view weeks of the campaign is deluding ourselves.

    It seems to me that the best hope we had was to try to bring in the UK context. The fact it clearly didn’t work says more about how far we were behind the SNP than it does about it being the wrong message. Its a bit like the Tories under Hague. He wasn’t wrong to talk about “keeping the pound” in his election campaign because it was all he had. If he had talked about being the best party for the NHS he would have been laughed it, because by the time the campaign came about he was too far behind. Put simply- we could have spoken about “Labour’s vision for Scotland and how Alex Salmond had let people down” in the last four weeks of the campaign and frankly we would have lost by even more because if the debate was on that- there was onkly ever one winner.

Comments are closed.