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The Summertime Blues

February 4th, 2016

 

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This week it was revealed that the UK Government is considering a 23rd June date for the In/Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Our Account Director, Luke Skipper examines the issues that make a June date tricky, especially for us in Scotland.

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Timing isn’t everything in politics until of course you get it wrong. As speculation grows that the Prime Minister will be able to deliver his EU renegotiation deal in February so does the speculation that a referendum will be held in late June.

The SNP was the first party to raise objections to the possibility of a referendum on Europe being held on the same day as the Scottish Election. They won this concession during the passage of the EU Referendum Bill. When the June referendum date was floated the SNP raised objections to this being too close to the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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Yesterday they were joined by the First Minister of Wales, and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland presenting David Cameron with a cross party, cross legislature alliance against a June referendum.

The Prime Minister and others were quick to point out that a June 23 election would leave a six-week gap and that people in those nations would be able to differentiate between an election and the referendum.

Those objecting to a June date argue that it is disrespectful as both campaigns will essentially run simultaneously and as Alex Salmond pointed out in a letter to the Prime Minister that soon as the people of Scotland have elected their government, that government would immediately be put back into purdah for the first six weeks of its existence.

What seems to have been lost on most commentators is that a June referendum could potentially create problems for the political parties and registered referendum campaigners during the Scottish Parliament election. It would be foolhardy for those wanting to campaign officially in the referendum to wait until the day after the election to start their campaign.

The Electoral Commission is in the unenviable position of having to give guidance to referendum campaigners without any current clarity about the date.

However in the interim they have provided some advice to referendum campaigners about the devolved elections. It highlights what many appear to have missed in that the regulated period for those elections has already started. Regardless of a ‘Six week’ campaign the fact is that in the eyes of the law it has already began. This has repercussion as spending on the referendum campaign may be regulated in the run up to election. In order for it to be regulated it has to pass two tests.

The first is the purpose test is:

“Spending on referendum campaigning may be regulated in the run up to the May 2016 elections if it can reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters to vote for or against political parties or categories of candidates, including political parties or categories of candidates who support or do not support particular policies or issues at the elections.”

The second is the ‘public test’:

“spending must also be aimed at, seen or heard by, or involve the public”.

Interestingly those in tune with the relentless election cycle in Scotland will know there is recent precedent for this situation. The European Election of May 22 2014 happened before the referendum on Scottish Independence.

Keen observers will remember that the independence referendum took place in September and that is the suggestion being made by those objecting to a June referendum. Just as is the situation now, referendum campaigners were busy in the regulated period of that election. However the referendum for independence had two clear lead campaigns, which most importantly had overt support from all the major parties. Unionist parties in Better Together and those for independence in Yes.

The situation for the EU referendum couldn’t be more different. Parties learned harsh lessons about political alliances in referenda so they have made clear they will campaign separately in this referendum even if they share the same goal.

This could have significant ramifications if you consider the first test. The test considers if the tone of the message is supportive of a party, if it includes a call to action, and its context and timing. It is likely the case that some parties will only start campaigning in the referendum after the election, so by having it in June the first test could in some ways preclude them from that debate. One could argue that is undemocratic. It also raises questions about how campaign groups like Labour Leave would operate during the election. For the designated lead campaigners they will have to carefully consider what they are putting out and how they are doing it.

Now the Commission may take a relaxed view on those tests but then again it may not. This will be for the campaigners and political parties to test. By possibly having the referendum this close to the elections the one thing that is certain is that it will be tested in a hurry.

 


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The SNP in 2016: Scottish politics Untouchables

January 26th, 2016

 

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With just 100 days to go until May’s Scottish Parliament election, Duncan McKay asks if the opposition parties are willing to be as ruthless as the party they all want to topple. 

2016: where the opposition bring a knife to a gun fight

At the turn of the century, I was still a school pupil sitting my Highers. One of my Highers was Media Studies (I now work in communications, so maybe it wasn’t entirely wasted).

The vast majority of the year was spent examining Brian De Palma’s 1987 classic, The Untouchables. And by examining I mean watching the film over and over again. The novelty of watching the same film over and over during school time soon wears off I can assure you.

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At this stage (and I appreciate you’re probably about two seconds away from clicking on another tab) you’re wondering what on earth Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness has to do with Scottish politics. Well, stick with me.

In one of the pivotal scenes (below), Sean Connery, (who unbelievably won an Oscar for his role in which, judging by his accent, he was simultaneously Scottish, Dutch, Irish, Canadian and American) is murdered by Al Capone’s mob.

His last words in the film are “Isn’t that just like a ***? Brings a knife to a gun fight”

And this is where the film draws a parallel with Scottish politics.

In this scenario the opposition parties are the ones bringing knives to gun fights. Two instances in the past month demonstrate this clearly.

Firstly, SNP Aberdeenshire West MSP Dennis Robertson made the following remarks in the chamber at the turn of the year: “The member has just mentioned a jobs crisis in the North Sea oil industry. There is no crisis… We have the most skilled workforce in the North Sea and the industry is booming.”

It’s believed that 65,000 people have lost their jobs either directly or through the supply chain since the start of 2014 in the oil and gas sector.

At the time there was some outrage from the opposition and Robertson offered his apologies the next day on his website the next day.

Opposition members such as Murdo Fraser tweeted, giving Robertson the benefit of the doubt:


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A second incident took place last weekend where a senior SNP source told the Sunday Herald in relation to the UK Government’s Cadet Expansion Programme, “There’s no way we’re having this cannon fodder scheme in schools. It’s back to the days of General Wolfe and ‘No great mischief if they fall’.”

Many people have taken offence at the remarks, especially UK Government Ministers Michael Fallon and David Mundell, however, the story hasn’t gained much traction amongst the opposition parties at Holyrood.

Contrast these two examples with how the SNP behaves when opponents misspeak.

In September 2012, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont gave a speech heralding a change in the way Scottish Labour would look at policy. She said “Scotland cannot be the only something for nothing country in the world.”

Whether or not you agree with Ms Lamont’s assessment, there was certainly a debate to be had about the merits of universal benefits in an era of stretched budgets.

Instead, the SNP focused ruthlessly on the “something for nothing” line and turned it into a point of attack (and has been used as recently as earlier this month).

The same episode repeated itself when Willie Bain, former Labour MP joked that Labour wouldn’t be supporting a motion in Parliament because the SNP were supporting it.

Now whether this had an element of truth about it or not, it didn’t matter. To the SNP, elected members and supporters alike, the so-called “Bain Principle” confirmed everything they thought of Scottish Labour. The Bain Principle alongside another off hand joke, Project Fear have become articles of faith for the SNP.

We have known for some years that the SNP’s campaigning machine was much stronger than the rest of the parties. It is impressive, professional and critically, ruthless. The SNP punish mistakes. Can the opposition parties say the same? On the evidence so far in this campaign for 2016 it doesn’t look likely.

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In The Untouchables, Al Capone is captured after Elliot Ness has to adapt his methods in order to capture his nemesis. So far in 2016, there’s little evidence that the opposition parties are changing their methods to bring down their biggest foe.


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What next for Scottish Labour?

October 30th, 2015

 

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New leader Kezia Dugdale takes her party to Perth this weekend for her first conference since succeeding Jim Murphy as Scottish Labour’s third leader in 4 years. According to recent polling, Scottish Labour is neck and neck with the Scottish Conservatives ahead of the 2016 election. Some polling companies put Labour up to 30 points behind the SNP. Strategists in Bath Street have their work cut out.

Few would have foreseen that the party which took a leading role in the victorious Better Together campaign would have been so roundly rejected at the general election in May. However, Ms Dugdale is a political realist who is under no illusions of how far her party has fallen in a relatively short space of time.

The project of making the party electable again must look beyond next May and towards the 2021 election.  So as conference begins, we take a (brief) look at some of the key initiatives Kez can do to make the gathering of the party faithful a successful affair.

 

Re-positioning the party

We know what Scottish Labour is against. That’s pretty clear. But now is the time to set out an ambitious programme of what the party will campaign for ahead of the election next year. What are activists and members most passionate about? Scottish Labour needs to gain traction on key policy areas where the SNP are deemed weak. Leading the debate with credibility will help gain a foothold.

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Manage the impact of Corbyn

Ahead of the conference Dugdale and UK leader Jeremy Corbyn signed a statement of intent to make Scottish Labour autonomous, meaning it will have control of all membership, administration and selection procedures and allow for separate policies. Scottish Labour for Scotland. Kezia must set out how it will be different, not just say it will.

She has license and a mandate to do so. She’s very safe in her job. The hard left candidate for the Scottish Labour leadership was easily defeated by Jim Murphy in a previous election. Kezia must manage the relationship with Mr Corbyn in order to deliver a respectable result in May. Scottish Social Attitudes surveys do not indicate that Scots want more left wing policies from their Governments. Ms Dugdale must keep a lid on any urge to shift to a policy platform that is pushed from the new leadership in London.

 

Embrace the underdog

Remarkably, 2016 will mark the first election that Scottish Labour will go into an election as the clear underdog. At this stage before the 2007 and 2011 elections, the SNP trailed by 20 points.

Therefore, expectations are low for Scottish Labour, which might work in their favour. Much of the SNP’s narrative of the past decade has been built on being the ‘outsiders’ of British politics. They are now the Scottish establishment and Labour must use that to their advantage.

Being bold, cheeky and creative with this could inject a bit of personality back into their brand. Retail politics is where the electorate is at and if you want to get back to power, you’ve got to offer the voters what they want!


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Tracking the rise of #CorbynMania

September 14th, 2015

 

Unless you live in Islington North or frequented the hard left gatherings within Labour Party conferences, then the chances are that you won’t have heard of Jeremy Corbyn until very recently.

Elected as leader of the Labour Party, in somewhat unlikely circumstances, Corbyn has sent a shockwave throughout the British political establishment, taking 59.5%% of the vote and vowing to lead a Labour fightback.

His rise to the Labour leadership has been as swift as it has unlikely. To be placed on the ballot, potential candidates required 35 votes. Corbyn managed 36 votes from the party and was a 200/1 outsider for the position. So how has he come to be elected and were there any signs of his campaign gathering momentum?

As a Digital PR agency, our data analysts routinely monitor social media and Google search data to interpret trends and public awareness of key events – the Labour leadership election was one such event.

Over the last year, the number of mentions of Jeremy Corbyn have spiked massively as the graphs below illustrate. Throughout the tail end of 2014, and for much of 2015, his name was rarely mentioned at all on Twitter. Since Corbyn entered the race to succeed Ed Miliband on June 3rd, interest in him started to increase.

Mentions of Jeremy Corbyn per day (UK Wide)

 

 

Mentions of Jeremy Corbyn vs Other Leadership Candidates per day (UK Wide)

 

 

 

Mentions of Jeremy Corbyn vs Other Leadership Candidates per day (Scotland only)

 

As those who followed the referendum campaign know, social media isn’t entirely trustworthy in terms of voting intentions, but it does show how many people are talking about a particular individual. With over 130,000 tweets a day mentioning Corbyn across the UK (over 30,000 in Scotland) it’s clear he was being talked about. As a further comparison, we can look at how his mentions compare to his direct rivals for the Labour party leadership, in the UK and in Scotland.

 

By comparison, mentions of Labour’s leader in Scotland are much lower with only slightly over 4,000 tweets a day mentioning Kezia Dugdale.

 

This doesn’t mean that voters in Scotland are necessarily more aware of Corbyn than Dugdale, simply that the former is making the news at the moment.

What this means is harder to quantify. The policy decisions and platform Corbyn sets out will define him and his party’s direction, and the mood of discussion on social media and beyond. For now, he’s certainly caught the attention of the digital commentators and as his media strategy plays out, his social media strengths may help overcome his seeming lack of willingness to engage with traditional media.


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Hitting the ground running – the new SNP Group at Westminster

July 30th, 2015

 

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It is indisputable that the new group of 56 SNP Members of Parliament have made their mark. What started as a battle for seats ended with major victories and an impression that they may well be the de facto official opposition at least until Labour selects their new leader.

A great deal has already occurred since the general election. Within this first session the Government:

While not the sole effort of the SNP, it showed – particularly on the issue of fox hunting – how very fragile the Conservative majority actually is.

Playing hardball

Previously SNP MPs voted on English only matters if it had a discernible ‘Barnett consequential’ or in layman’s terms if the bill had a financial knock on effect for the Scottish Budget. The reason for this policy change is directly linked to the UK Government’s refusal to accept any amendments proposed by any party to the Scotland Bill during committee stages. SNP Westminster Leader Angus Robertson said this policy change will remind the ‘arrogant UK government of just how slender their majority is’.

The Conservatives of course can hope to secure enough votes for their EVEL plans and avoid a defeat in the future but the willingness of the SNP to play serious hardball was made clear. To use an industry term the UK Government has an ‘optics’ problem when viewed from north of the border: when your sole MP from Scotland blocks what the other 58 want it doesn’t look good. Perhaps in recognition of this Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell has said he will ‘reflect’ on possible amendments that could be made at report stage when parliament returns. Sounds like a fun summer for the team at Dover House and Melville Crescent.

Pressure on Labour

Further votes in the Commons were cleverly triangulated by the SNP to put the rudderless Labour Party under serious pressure in Scotland. The SNP couldn’t believe their good fortune when interim leader Harriet Harman called on her party not to vote against Welfare Reform Bill at second reading. Only a few days later the Labour Party failed to submit a reasoned amendment to the Finance Bill, or indeed vote against it. Whether this was a major oversight or political posturing the net result for the SNP is manna from heaven.

The impact of the group is even more impressive given that their new presence on every single select committee hasn’t yet been felt – it will be another avenue for them to get their message across once the committees start meeting regularly. This combined with a willingness to vote on issues pertaining to England, Wales and all of the UK means that the SNP will truly be full spectrum players in Westminster.

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Planning for 2016

However the SNP have a challenging summer and autumn ahead. While Alex Salmond’s statement that another independence referendum is ‘inevitable’ is nothing new to followers of Scottish media, pressure is growing for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to clarify whether a commitment to a referendum will be included in the party’s 2016 manifesto. Also on the agenda is the hotly debated issue of the moratorium on fracking – the SNP is facing calls from within its own party to set out more detail on what that actually entails.

The party’s conference in October in Aberdeen will be their biggest ever and while it will undoubtedly be a celebratory atmosphere it will also be the chance for many of those seeking nomination to be MSPs to have a big party platform. It is also the first opportunity for many of the new 100,000 plus party members to really start making their voices heard. With unparalleled levels of interest from the third sector and business, questions over the possibility of a further referendum, and new faces looking to make their mark it will not only be the largest but also one of the most important conferences the SNP has ever had.

By: Luke Skipper

Account Director

Twitter: @LJ_Skipper 

 

 

 

 

 


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Social media eclipse billboard adverts in sign of the times

April 26th, 2015

 

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The SNP have spent a lot of money launching their latest billboard campaign with their “Scotland stronger at Westminster” headline alongside a cross-armed picture of Nicola Sturgeon. They are difficult to miss, but are they a good use of money?

An ‘Election Engagement Index’ was this week published by Weber Shandwick with research finding that traditional media are more likely to capture the attention of voters than billboard advertising, or than newer social media such as Facebook.

Only 25% of respondents said that outdoor advertising such as billboards would grab their attention, signalling to politicians that they are less effective at gaining the attention of voters than taking part in media interviews. Only 22% of survey respondents thought social media would grab their attention.

However, when the research looked at what would actually influence how people vote, then social media commands greater influence than any ‘traditional media’ channels, excepting TV.

Among people who had received information about the election through social media channels, 38% thought that it would influence their vote, suggesting that, once candidates connect with voters through channels such as Facebook, the potential for changing opinions and winning votes is high.

Social media pipped traditional campaigning approaches such as doorstep canvassing, and vastly outstripped the influence of billboard advertising. The parties aren’t blind to the power of using social media to highlight their campaign points. This week social media played a major part in the campaign in Scotland – for good and bad.

The SNP have by far the most active community online but as we know social media leaves a problem for previously centralised communications . This week saw the SNP candidate in Edinburgh South, Neil Hay, having to apologise for tweeting some pretty ghastly things from a pseudonym account. Stupid behaviour and the kind of thing that could well see the SNP failing to gain that seat.

In an amusing moment Ruth Davidson received a lot of coverage having her picture taken feeding an ice-lolly to a journalist, mimicking a strange photo of Alex Salmond from some years ago. This adds nothing to our knowledge of policy, but it might gain further awareness of the Tories key campaign asset and therefore the chance to engage with more voters.

Social media is a key way for Scottish leaders to communicate with voters, but they need to learn how to move from broadcasting online to engaging in a meaningful way.

This article was originally printed in the Sunday Times Scotland on 26 April 2015.


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