Do What Works

One problem the left faces in having any chance of grabbing the Scottish political agenda has become quite clear as I’ve told people I was going to write this article.

I say “Our next issue is going to be on how the left communicates and I’m going to do a piece on political strategy and why we need to get better”. The responses would come (often from intelligent, experienced people) “you mean developing slogans?”. “Well, a slogan might be part of it but…”. “OK, so you mean press releases?” “Well, a press release might be part of it but…” “Ah, you mean lobbying?” “Well, it might involve lobbying but…” “It must be policy then?” “Well, there might be policy work but…”

I’ve become aware of this over the years – while some on the left are good campaigners and while there are some savvy people, generally we are not good at political strategy. In fact, rather than being a default starting-point for what we do, it seems we may not all even be very familiar with the practice.

Political strategy has been the basis of my career for 20 years. As with anything you do a lot, you tend to assume that the things you do are ‘obvious’ and must be self-evident. This sense is heightened because working in political strategy you are surrounded by many, many people doing much the same thing as you. Almost every significant part of Scottish life now has some sort of political strategy capacity – even small charities do training on how to engage with and influence politics. The left? We don’t.

Put simply, political strategy is just identifying a programme of actions and approaches which are most likely to achieve an identified aim. It will include consideration of all aspects that might influence the achievement of that aim – language, narrative, communications, engagement and so on. Quite how those are put together or made to work is endlessly flexible so it is not only possible but usual to be able to produce two persuasive but very different strategies for pursuing the same goal.

Even more flexible is how you might go about deciding on a strategy in the first place. I therefore want to emphasise that the following is simply an explanation of how I do it. This is not meant to be a ‘user guide’, to give the impression that ‘this is how it must be done’ or to imply that other ways aren’t every bit as successful. I just want to encourage the left – and especially the emerging generation of the left who represent our best chance of changing our habits in the future – to start to talk and think about this sort of way of doing things. For one very good reason – it works.

So the first thing to do in developing any political strategy is to be absolutely clear on the precise desired outcome. In my experience, this is often the first thing that is skipped, with people asuming ‘everyone knows’ the goal. That often leads to people pursuing ill-defined targets (which you can usually spot by the use of phrases such as ‘raise awareness of’ , ‘change attitudes to’ or ‘defeating’). The more precisely you can define your goal, the better able you will be to assess whether your strategy is likely to achieve that goal. A good way to do this is simply to answer the question ‘if we are successful, what will be different afterwards and how will we know it is different?’

I then work backwards, never forwards. So I seldom think in terms of ‘here is where we are, here’s the next step’. Rather, try to think backwards in a chain with each link built firmly on the one before. This is what we want to achieve – what are the conditions that would enable us to get that outcome? That should throw up tangible things like ‘we need to change the voting intention of 26 MSPs to get a majority’ or ‘we need to change the remit for this working group’ or ‘there needs to be a visible debate in the media’.

Once you are convinced that you’ve worked through that properly, that you’re sure the conditions you think will achieve your outcome really will, step back again. Now ask what changes in the political environment will be likely to alter the conditions you’ve identified. Perhaps a more positive restatement of your goal will persuade those 26 MSPs, or perhaps they need some stick to go along with the carrot. To change the remit, perhaps you just need to persuade the Chair of the group or perhaps you need to get a majority of members of the group on side. If you need to get something into the media that you’ve failed to get in, perhaps you need to stir up some controversy, or perhaps you need a good photo stunt, or perhaps you need to try and place articles.

Then step back again. What are the things that you can do to encourage the development of the political environment you have identified as necessary to set the conditions for the outcome you want? More simply, knowing all of the above, what do we do?

Here there is no way round learning the basic ‘tools of the trade’. I’ll give the obvious example first. Everyone nowadays think they are media literate. This is not true. Few people really understand the process of putting a daily newspaper together, have a good feeling for the news values of a specific newspaper, know how to develop an idea in a way that gets it in the right form for that newspaper and then have decent contacts to actually make it happen. You wouldn’t stick your hand in an engine without knowing what a fan belt does; why would you think you’ll pitch a story well if you don’t know who and when to calll or what to say?

The bigger problem lies with the other tools of the trade that are often overlooked. I once had a senior figure in Scottish public life who wanted me to ‘go balllistic’ about an agenda item on a meeting which was viewed as extremely hostile. Phone the press! Shout at the Minister! Rile up the opposition! Make this stop! Hold on though; you want an agenda item removed, to do that you need the secretariat to remove it, which means you need them to be able to do that without getting the Minister unhappy. But you’re working blind – is this the Minister’s pet policy and he’ll die in a ditch before relenting? You can’t do good strategy while missing crucial information. So you need to fix that. Pick up the phone. Ask whose agenda item it is. Find out why its there. In the case to which I’m referring here, it turned out that a civil servant had added it to the agenda purely because they thought the agenda was light and the Minister didn’t even know. I explained our hostility; “it’s gone already” said the civil servant.

You don’t usually get such an easy outcome, but you definitely won’t if you don’t do things right. You must try and make sure you have the information you need. I am not a ‘poll fetishist’ by any manner of means, so I don’t favour extensive ‘market research’. But if you want to persuade people to eat more brocolli, it helps to understand why they don’t. And if you can’t work out what your opponent is up to or why, you need to start talking to people.

Understanding the dynamics of how people make decisions is also important. I train people on engaging with elected politicians. The first thing I do is get them to tell me how they think a politician spends their time. ‘Anaylsing legislation’ is the most common answer. Actually, they spend very much more time at coffee mornings in their constituency. Which is why (for example) mention of wind farms often elicits surprising responses – you’re thinking ‘climate change commitments’, they’re thinking ‘oh no, my local anti wind farm campaign’.

There is also an assumption that people make decisions based on ‘least pain’ – i.e. if you make their life difficult, they’ll concede. This isn’t true in any simple way. There are always multiple ways to avoid that kind of pain; conceding could be one, but forming a coalition of others to make sure you have no chance of winning is another. In the long term, agression is seldom the most effective way of creating consent. Strategy devised on the basis of empathy usually works much better; there are few things that will help you more than ‘role playing’ being you target and ‘feeling’ what it is that would make you do what you want them to do.

In most cases, you will by now have arrived at a reasonably good picture of what you’re planning. It can be simple or complex – the ‘conditions’ could be one basic one or many complex ones, the actions might be a single straightforward action or it could be a six-month programme of lobbying, media, events and policy development. But you’ll have a decent picture.

Now, start working forward again. You have your plan; make it into a story. This is important – at some point you’re going to have to tell someone (your gaffer, your target audience) what you’re trying to do, how you’re doing it and why. Humans work in stories – a narrative that starts one place, takes you somewhere else and concludes without many unresolved issues. You build your campaign backwards, knowing how action achieves conclusion. Then you design the detail forward in that knowledge. If you have worked backwards from ‘we need X abolished’ and then you start working forward, you will naturally find a narrative that is ‘anti-X’. If you want X replaced with Y, the narrative will naturally develop in a different way. You will want to state that X is bad but you aren’t content unless people see Y as good. They are quite different campaigns, one probably developing a negative tone (that’s fine), the other shooting for a positive tone. But the tone is dictated by the purpose, not the other way round.

And finally (for this rip through the subject), once you’ve worked out your masterplan, do the difficult thing. Imagine it failing. In fact, imagine it failing and backfiring in the worst way you can possibly imagine. You’ve spent so much time trying to make your plan work, people often start to believe it is ‘inevitable’. Nothing is inevitable. Even if you try and work out every single thing that could go wrong, you still won’t spot everything. But if you don’t do it, your chance of avoiding traps and failures is slim. Once you’ve been through your plan to think of the worst possible ouctome, look at your plan again and see if you can avoid it or mitigate it. You might, you might not (there is no such thing as a foolproof plan). But be ready.

Do all this because it works. Do it because this is a field of activity which has been very thoroughly developed since the 1920s when the idea of ‘manufacturing consent’ emerged. Do it because its what the other side does – and it works for them. And do it because it will refresh left thinking. As I wrote earler, I’ve been doing this for 20 years for a number of organisations big and smalll. So far in that time I have never developed a political strategy which was built on a slogan (though I’ve often used them to capture an idea), which required a march or demonstration, or which is almost entirely composed of ‘demands’ about what people ‘must’ stop doing. Why? Because mostly these things don’t work.

Alternatively, we could be the very last people in the realm of public affairs who thinks that political strategy is somehow beneath them. Just don’t waste your time trying to work out why we’re making no progress.