The SNP have been doing well in Scottish politics with the longest honeymoon in political history. I have been slightly bemused by their tactics – pushing populist policies early on (when a “We can’t do it. Look at the state we’ve been left with by the last lot” is a tactic that might have played better immediately after an election – allowing the populist policies to be rolled out in the 18 months before the next election, because the tide will turn at some point, and best to save some capital for that point).
Anyway, never mind that. The biggest asset of the SNP is Alex Salmond, a politician of a calibre others in the Scottish Parliament can only dream of. But that asset is also one of the SNP’s weaknesses.
Some find Salmond smug, rather too full of himself and his ability (the Annabel Goldie line during the early days of the Trumpton saga – that wee Eck was either ignorant or arrogant, and ignorance was not something she associated with the First minister – resonated because it played on this).
Now, the traditional by election tactic of an opposition party is not to declare victory and seismic shocks right at the start of the campaign. It is to indicate that you are fighting to win, will take no vote for granted, are optimistic – while stressing that the seat has been with the other lot for years, that this would be a very difficult fight to win. In other words you manage expectations. And if you manage expectations appropriately, even glorious defeat can be presented as a victory.
Thus, in a safe Labour seat with no history of voting in any numbers for your party one would have imagined that SNP strategists would have slightly downplayed the chances of victory to the media (not within the campaign itself). But that’s not what they’ve done. They’ve talked of earthquakes, of getting rid of Gordon Brown from Number Ten, apparently assuming that victory is inevitable. Politics doesn’t work like that. Because if anything is likely to galvanise a Labour vote it is a belief that the person that is your biggest electoral asset gloating in a manner that will encourage those who view him as the SNP’s biggest liability to turn out to give him a bloody nose (compare with Blair or Thatcher in Westminster contexts, where votes could be similarly personalised).
Low key was not possible in such a by-election, but if (when?) the SNP lose the by-election in this safe Labour seat, however small the majority this will be capable of being presented as a massive victory for Labour as a direct result of the expectation levels naively raised by the SNP at the start of the campaign. False management of expectations at the start of the campaign can allow anything other than victory for the SNP to be presented as the start of the downturn in their fortunes, the end of the honeymoon. The media likes narratives. Politicians like to help them to create them.
I can’t help thinking that if the SNP had a strategist/media man like Alistair Campbell he would never have allowed the SNP to present the Glasgow East by-election in such a manner. Perhaps they need someone in that role to whisper occasionally in Caesar’s ear of the dangers of hubris.
For a variant on these thoughts from an SNP supporter see the post by Jeff at SNP Tactical Voting