What the indy movement needs to do next

What the indy movement needs to do next
CommonSpace, by Robin McAlpine


CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine reveals some of the work the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) is undertaking.


I’d like to apologise in advance for how much I’m writing just now but I’ve been rather inundated with people who want more information on what’s going on and what what the indy movement could be doing next.


I’ve asked others in the Scottish Independence Convention if we might be able now to be a bit more forthright on what we’ve been up to. We wanted to show total good faith to the political parties and get them on board before going public, and had to wait until after the interminable cycle of elections. But things are changing very fast now.


So while we have a discussion about what it is helpful to put into the public domain just now, let me outline as briefly as I can what I see as the steps to get us from here to independence.


First, two quick pieces of context. When I wrote at the weekend that we now need to find a way to run an independence campaign that doesn’t rely entirely on the SNP, some people thought I meant we need to rely more on the Greens (or SSP or some other non-existent indy-supporting party).


No. What I mean is that while we may see the world through the prism of party politics, few voters do. It’s not whether we need to be closer to another political party or whatever – it’s that we need to find many more ways of talking to the public who do not communicate through party politics.


So when I say we need a non-party campaign organisation it’s not because of the failures of any political party, but simply a recognition of the breakdown in trust between many voters and the party system altogether.


The second context; there are only a certain number of ways to do things. Over many, many decades, all sorts of approaches have been taken to political campaigning by all kinds of people in many different places. 


Political strategy is a trade. People in the business will look wherever they can to find new practices that can give them the edge (I met a delegation last month from the Aboriginal rights organisation in Australia who were over on a fact-finding mission on what they could find out about the Scottish and EU referendums).


Over time, people learn what works and what doesn’t. That does not mean there is no innovation, but it does mean that there are some fundamentals.


My contention is that the independence movement has not been observing those fundamentals. If we want to win, that’s where we need to begin.


Many of you will think of me only as a leftwing political activist. Which I am. But I had a 20-year career in professional political strategy before that and most of it at the heart of the establishment. This doesn’t represent my leftwing view of the world, it’s my professional one.


Right, what to do.


With all electoral campaigns, the first thing you have to do is work out broadly how to get more people to vote for you than the other side. The best way to do that is voter research – focus groups and opinion polls (among a range of other techniques).


This tells you what people are thinking. Really thinking – not what they are telling party canvassers.


I know you think you know what people are thinking, but the reason political strategists use voter research is that over the years they discovered that actually people have all sorts of thoughts and feelings and emotions which the political classes miss.


Let me give an example: by all accounts the Tories in 2015 had no idea that the idea of a Prime Minister Ed Miliband being in the pocket of the SNP was playing so badly with the English public.


But it came up a couple of times in focus group work they were doing in the election. So they started to test it, and they were deeply surprised by what they found. It was having a major influence on people’s decisions. So they saturation ‘messaged’ it (you saw the billboards) and it appears to have had a sharp effect.


So where we should start should be with some ‘scientific’ (or as much so as market research gets…) work to find out who is most likely to switch from No to Yes, why they didn’t make it to Yes last time and what could get them there this time.


And you need to break this down to manageable target groups. ‘Old people’ or ‘women’ don’t think one thing. But on the other hand the evidence that demographic groups really do have very consistent views is strong.


So, on aggregate, we can generally say that ‘old people of a certain gender in a certain income spectrum are much more likely to think X or Y than others in a similar cohort’.


You do focus group work to tease out what people think. You analyse it and turn it into a best guess at ‘propositions’ (statements likely to change people’s minds). Then you test your general statements in large opinion polls.


(I’m amazed at the number of indy people who think opinion polls are mainly for newspapers. Journalists, commentators and the public will never, ever see the results of the most important opinion polling.)


You find out what works with what group and how likely they are to change. You run focus groups with those groups to try and refine and test further the messaging. You go back to an opinion poll to test further the refined propositions.


And so on – until you’ve got a targeting and messaging strategy which can tell you exactly which demographics to target with exactly which set of messages to get 60 per cent of Scots voting Yes.


All preconceptions about what those messages are is unhelpful. Some of you may think its higher turnout among the young, some may think its reassuring pensioners. Fine – but still you go in with a blank sheet of paper and you follow where the evidence takes you.


Do all this and you should have a solid messaging and targeting strategy.


Then you need a means of delivering it. Campaign organisations are structures which enable research and development in messaging and targeting, media communication, political communication, direct public communication, network organising, IT and data management and so on.


You need a chief operating officer. Then a director of campaigns. Then a head of messaging, a head of voter research, a chief press officer, a logistics team, a digital comms team and so on.


This organisation should be driven partly by your research (its name and look matters – a campaign to stimulate the young would probably look and sound different to one which reassures the old). But an awful lot of it is ‘off the shelf’ – no version of a campaign isn’t going to need the functions above.


So you draw an organisational diagram. You negotiate the governance arrangements with all the partners so they are happy. Then you draw up job descriptions for all the posts. Then you start talking to the many recruitment consultants and specialists in the indy movement to begin headhunting the best people.


(I believe there is a lot of talent in Scotland, but political strategy doesn’t seem to me to be a particular strength. I can envisage recruiting a campaign director from the US, perhaps someone from the Sanders campaign.)


Next you need to examine your delivery strategies. For us that is particularly going to mean cutting edge grassroots organising. The Corbyn campaign was using mass grassroots organising principles drawn from a broadly ‘Alinsky’ model of organising (more info here if you’re interested).


These techniques have been refined enormously in recent years, particularly by the Obama and Sanders campaigns in the US. We are miles behind good practice. We must create really effective networks of local campaigners and get them trained in the very best practices.


There were small English cities in which Corbyn’s team had 2,000 activists out mobilising in the week before the election. We need to build that and sustain it for perhaps two years.


Then, of course, you need money. You always need money. All of the above costs. So here’s the question – are there half a dozen ‘million pound donors’ to the indy cause in Scotland? I’ve spoken to professionals in the business who are convinced there are.


There is also believed to be a real chance of finding 10 ‘million pound donors’ among expats dotted around the world. That’s the scale we need to be looking at.


So how do you get at that money? Again, you go to professionals who do this stuff day and daily. There is an entire profession of ‘high value donor’ fundraising, and we happen to be well endowed with these people in Scotland.


Which means you hire a first class fundraiser, work with them to identify a list of possible donors and let them do what they do.


There is one final thing that needs to be done to get ready to campaign – you need to get your product finished. You can market a prototype car only for so long. Eventually you need to have finished cars ready for sale.


We can’t keep trying to sell a half-finished pitch for independence. We need to decide what the answers to the big questions are – currency, pensions and all the rest.


We may find this is absolutely crucial when we do voter attitude research – or we may find that the biggest issues are something else. But either way, you can’t sell it if you can’t describe it. ‘Please buy whatever is in this bag’ is a garbage pitch, no matter how good your marketing campaign.


You do all of this and then you run a campaign. You don’t talk (ever) about referendums but about whatever your research tells you to talk about. You use multiple routes of communication, of which First Minister’s Questions is unlikely to be a significant one. You organise relentlessly.


And you keep monitoring voter attitudes as you go along – is it working? Are you missing something? Has something new come up? Can you refine your targeting? Find out, fix, deliver, test, repeat.


Sorry again for the volume of this, and to those for whom this is familiar territory. But for those who are not familiar with this, be assured that there are clear, simple, well-understood paths that take us from here to a winning independence campaign.


We’ve got a lot of this happening in the SIC (and at Common Weal we’re trying to develop the policy work needed for that fleshed-out ‘independence proposition’). We were ready to press go on a first round of focus groups at the end of this month but may now delay for a month until the ‘noise’ from the election fall-out subsides.


But here’s a possible timeline. July – start the data research, get initial funding for a fundraiser. August – first big opinion poll research, start recruiting fundraiser. Early autumn – next phase of targeted focus groups, fundraiser in post, major training programme for local organisers begins.


Late autumn – try and get final (outline) independence proposition agreed and some form of outline launch. Have a signing ceremony to make this the start of the campaign. Fundraising begins in earnest. Second big opinion poll testing detailed messaging.


Early 2018 – organisation structure and job descriptions for full campaign organisation are complete. Recruitment begins. IT systems in place, training and development of local groups continues (with them being supported to produce detailed ‘area plans’).


By spring 2018, have complete messaging strategy in place, detail of the full independence proposition further fleshed out and core staff of campaign organisation in place.


Then start campaigning for as long as it takes until we hit 60 per cent in the polls consistently. Then – and only then – start talking about a referendum. For my money that looks like it would be 2020, but there is no need to even start to thinking about that before the end of next year.


And throughout all of this time, Nicola Sturgeon’s ministers can avoid talking about independence altogether if their instincts are to ‘focus on the day job’ for a while – safe in the knowledge that things are in hand and being delivered.


I hope this outlines a possible agenda for the months ahead. We need about £100,000 to get the first phase of this complete and then the campaign needs to be self-financing. It’s going to need to involve a lot of people, and we need to be much better at communicating what is going.


So again, I know a lot of you have been down for a few days now. I’m not – those of us who’ve been working on bits of the above plan have been focused on a clear route forward for a while and despite Thursday night’s disappointments we remain focused on that route.


If we can only make some progress in this direction, you’ll too will start to find yourself perking up very soon…