The fallacy of 51

by | 18 Jan 2023

The independence movement tends to believe we've run an effective messaging campaign in recent years and so gets downhearted about the lack of shift in the polls. Optimism lies in the fact that we really didn't.

If you’ve been reading me since the New Year you might be forgiven for thinking the best bet is just to end it all. I know it all might read as depressing, but actually I’m not all that depressed. I’m quite optimistic about independence, and this is why…

I’m optimistic because, as I have written again and again, the underlying social factors beneath the headline polling on independence are very positive for independence. Put very simply, there are more than enough people currently telling pollsters they’re No voters who are sympathetic to a shift than people are giving credit for – and there are few likely to go in the other direction.

In the independence movement there are a lot of people who are a bit sceptical when I put this forward as an argument. A sample version of scepticism is ‘but if everything that has happened with Covid and Boris and Brexit and Truss isn’t enough to shift them, they’ll never shift’. That leads to a conclusion that our best bet is to ‘sneak it’ with 51 per cent and stop targetting more than that.

Another reason I’m optimistic is that one of the key contributing factors to this fallacy is coming to an end – and that is a slowly approaching change of SNP leadership. In part we have been trained to believe that only the TV shifts opinion, only the SNP leader has the skill to cut through on the TV, so waiting for her to do the converting is our only option. Which she never did

That’s the whole ‘we need to calm the middle classes’ or ‘we need to convert people through good government’ or ‘not until we get to 60 per cent’ lines. But then running in parallel with the ‘you need to be patient’ line was the ‘shhh, nearly there’ line in which there was no point campaigning just yet because the referendum was going to be announced ‘any minute now’.

I was amazed at how few people could see the constant contradiction in this – wait until we convert people or wait until next month when I’ll announce the referendum. Feel free to take your pick. We were actively conditioned to not work.

Instead what we got was lazy slogans like ‘ease the squeeze’ or ‘stop Brexit’ or ‘Scotland’s right to decide’ or ‘energy-rich Scotland’. We were expected to hear these and believe that these are attempts to convert the public to independence. So when they ‘didn’t work’, we rather assumed persuasion couldn’t work. But they were never going to work, and quickly explaining why explains my optimism.

A slogan only works when it tells a wider story

All of this is based on pretty extensive contemporary research in fields like marketing, advertising, fundraising and political lobbying (and yes, campaign strategy too). There is a fairly well-understood set of conditions which define what works (in changing opinions) and what doesn’t.

What doesn’t work is a slogan – or at least not on its own. A slogan only works when it tells a wider story. It’s purpose is to remind and ‘connect’ – remind you of the story you’re being told and connect two things in your mind. It’s those two things that are crucial, and which are missing from the independence movement’s strategy.

The first of those two things is a clear, comprehensible narrative about how ‘better’ would work (with the emphasis very much on ‘comprehensible’ and not on detail). If you are to believe something is better than the thing you currently have, you need to have a solid grasp of why. Put simply, why is this product better than that product?

You can’t just claim it. You can’t just say ‘buy an airfryer, they’re better’. You need to explain why (‘they use less oil by rapidly circulating air round what you are cooking which crisps it’). If you go too far you lose people (‘by combining radiant and convective heat you greatly intensify heat transfer’). You need to get your story right – enough detail, not too much.

Once you’ve got people to understand the basic story, then (and only then) you can shortcut your way to that story by using a slogan (‘healthy, crispy food with less oil’ or whatever). There are lots of ways of telling stories (‘nine out of ten cats prefer Whiskas’ is statistical evidence for a better product, ‘hands that do dishes can feel soft as your face’ explains that the detergent is non-abrasive).

But it is never, ever done on slogans alone; it takes a lot more to tell a story than saying ‘happily ever after’. That’s what we’re not doing, telling the story in a way that helps people to understand why independence is a good idea by explaining why it ‘works better’.

That’s only step one though. Step two is to always remember ‘so what?’. I got a phone call from a scammer trying to get me to install something on Windows on my computer by telling me a complex and scary story about me losing all of my data. I decided I’d wait and see how much of their time they would waste before I pointed out I have no Windows devices (all Apple).

So what if Windows is being hacked, I’m Mac – success lies on the other side of ‘so what?’. That is a place that the SNP leadership has been adamant we don’t visit, because it requires you to explain what it means in terms of ‘so what?’. It requires an explanation of how independence is better for you than what went before.

We have been through a whole series of events which could have been enough to tip opinion onto our side of the argument, but we didn’t link the events to a narrative about why they happened

More than that, it requires an explanation of how independence makes your life better. Not a random you, not a generic you, actual you. You’re a low income pensioner in Perth – so what if Scotland is an energy-rich nation? You’re a small business owner on Arran – so what if Boris Johnstone is mad? You’re a young art student – so what if the best people to make a decision about a place are those who live there?

All of that is ‘politician stuff’ – look at all my energy, look how respectable I am, look at how civic I am, look at me, look at me! Right now us being energy rich means nothing whatsoever to that pensioner because we’re privatising it to the corporations who just cut off his pre-pay metre.

The small business owner gets no more support from Holyrood than Westminster – why should she care? The art student is paying mad rent but housing policy is already decided by ‘the people who live here’ so how is that an advert for independence?

These statements all fail to connect because they don’t take the time to engage with the real life of the people they’re trying to influence as those people experience their lives now. Say what you like about advertisers, they really care about what their customers think. Politicians? Not so much, unless it is what they think about them.

That’s how effective influence works. Provide a clear story about why [insert what you’re selling] is better than the alternative, link that clearly to the customer by showing them how the betterness of this item will directly improve their life – and once that is established you can keep ‘poking’ at the argument with slogans or images or jokes or whatever you want.

I absolutely know there is a segment of the independence movement which is very firm in its belief that selling independence is only about selling the merits of the ‘sovereignty of Scotland’ to voters who are ‘patriotic’. I know they believe explaining too much about ‘after independence’ is a hostage to fortune.

I know they mean well, but really, they are wrong. I mean absolutely, definitely, measurably wrong. There is not a shred of public attitude data that sustains this argument. ‘Proud Scottish patriots’ are not undecided on the cause of independence.

We have been through a whole series of events which could have been enough to tip opinion onto our side of the argument, but we didn’t link the events to a narrative about why they happened, a story about how independence would have been better, and a specific explanation of how it would make voters’ lives better. We just… barked at them about ‘Westminster bad’.

We can keep putting leaflets of graphs and statistics through people’s doors forever and it won’t make a blind bit of difference. We can maintain the carefully-cultivated myth that only political leaders are able to change opinion (a myth so daft I can’t believe how much traction it has gained since 2014). We can keep barking slogans which are really about us, not our target audience.

It won’t make any difference, because these approaches don’t work and never have. It has led to this delusion that 51 per cent is all we can hope for because Westminster hasn’t won us independence without us actually having to do anything. We seemed to think that if we went away and had a cup of tea, the public would just put two and two together and when we came back they’d be begging for us to lead them to independence.

Like I say, this has worked wonderfully over the last eight years if by ‘work’ you mean controlled the movement by sequentially feeding the base mistruths and giving it reasons not to get organised and get active. It has been rubbish for independence.

And that’s why I’m optimistic. Once this leadership is no longer blocking the way, and assuming the next leadership is willing to engage with people who actually know the ways you can shift the vote, if that leads to a proper strategy which achieves the broad goals set out above, and if we deliver it well, we will win.

It is wrong to assume that 51 per cent is good enough or as good as its going to get for us. It isn’t. We just need to get our act together and drag our campaigning into the 21st century. Scotland is there to be won.

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