Graeme Downie, a member of Dunfermline CLP, points out the inherent danger of promoting undeveloped policy, and suggests how Scottish Labour can do better in future.
Over the past few years there have been many articles on Scottish Labour’s various crises: “What is Labour for?”, “Why Labour?” and, for those of us getting increasingly frustrated at many points, “Why, Labour? Just why?”.
But rather than thinking “why” in existential terms, we need to think about “why” at the most basic policy and communications level. Why are what sound like eminently sensible policies not cutting through with voters? The most recent example of this is why was the SNP able to steal Scottish Labour’s flagship National Care Service policy and use it to kick a key issue in to the long grass?
Most effective communication is built on a fairly simple model: show the problem, show the solution, show the effect of the solution. Or, as my High School Modern Studies teacher would have said, “Make your point, argue with evidence and then conclude.”
The communication of the National Care Service by Scottish Labour missed out at least one of these stages and jumped straight to the conclusion. This allowed the SNP to take the concept and strip it for parts, the same way George Osborne cynically took the Living Wage, rebranded the Minimum Wage thereby removing the key distinction between the two, and stole the issue away from the UK Labour Party.
Firstly, I think the party was right in picking an issue where they knew there was a severe problem and where I am sure polling said voters wanted improvements. But we didn’t do the ground work to clearly demonstrate and illustrate the problem. We wouldn’t have pressed these stories ourselves necessarily but used supportive proxies to show the magnitude of the problem and make it relatable. The best way to do this is through case studies and examples which are more likely to attract media attention than a political comment. You don’t need a solution at this stage, just spend months giving the government a problem. You need the voters to begin their journey to you by knowing care services in Scotland are poor.
Second, you move on to the beginnings of a solution. You spend months floating ideas, testing them with different groups and the public to see what might work. Perhaps the sector needs stricter rules for private care homes; more involvement of users and staff; improved pay and conditions; perhaps a process to bring failing private sector care homes in to the NHS; increased clinical standards; more transparency and frequent inspections. At no point do you mention a National Care Service. Again, this is months of being associated with think tanks, care groups, trade unions, professional bodies and international examples. Make this issue one that Scottish Labour is defined by.
Only then, when you have demonstrated the problem and presented some of the solutions, do you begin to introduce your overarching policy and show the effect it would have by making all of it possible and improving the problems you showed at the outset. The National Care Service is then clearly defined and can be used for future campaigning. The government can’t steal it because you have taken total ownership of the issue over months or even years.
Instead of all that, what has happened is that the SNP have looked at the National Care Service idea, noted it was lacking in detail and identification amongst voters, and will now reverse engineer it to define the problems it wants to address and find solutions which suit its agenda. It then becomes impossible for Scottish Labour to effectively oppose whatever comes out because it is dressed it our clothes. I can just hear Nicola Sturgeon now, “Scottish Labour asked for a National Care Service and that is what we have delivered yet they are still not satisfied.”
So here we have an issue with Scottish Labour values at its core, stolen for political purposes, leading to a less effective solution, arriving later, that will not help the great many people we know need better services and need them now.
We need to make sure we don’t have to ask “Why did we let this happen?” again.