So, Jim Murphy has found the answer to Scottish Nationalism: a “commitment to patriotism” by a Scottish Labour Party with a renewed mission to create “a more equal and fairer society”. Also, did you know he plays football and is a Catholic and lived in a council estate? If you don’t already, he’ll make sure you do soon.
It’s easy to mock Creepy Jim, but he’s not a stupid man. You can bet he has a plan. Better Together’s core staff are reportedly among his closest advisors. The Turn To Patriotism has Blair McDougall’s fingerprints all over it. It replicates perfectly both the successes and failures of the Better Together campaign.
McDougall is a fascinating figure. He is not so much a political strategist as a political tactician, interested only in the detail at the expense of the big picture. A man who believes deeply in the data from his focus groups and polls, he realised before anyone else that Better Together could only win by fighting a rearguard action based on terrorising old people and low-information voters.
Throughout the campaign, commentators were calling on him to go positive, to defend the union. Blair refused. He knew from his focus groups that the positive case could not win a majority. Swing voters would vote Yes no matter what positive arguments the No campaign made, if they believed Scotland was capable, and so he relentlessly targeted poorly-informed swing voters with negativity, at all costs. What the commentators understood that Blair did not was that unless a positive case could be articulated, the union would be fatally undermined.
And so Blair won the referendum, and destroyed the Scottish Labour party. Many of the things he did were misunderstood by the Yes movement. Remember #PatronisingBTLady? It didn’t work on anyone I know, indeed it turned one of my friends from undecided to Yes, and of course it caused a huge Twitter storm – but to this day McDougall insists that “That video tested exceptionally well with undecided voters.” By “tested well,” he does not mean that undecided voters liked the video – he means that it produced the desired effect, of encouraging them not to think about independence too hard and avoid discussion with friends and family.
Another friend of mine, an older lady, had never heard of the Twitter storm or the hashtag. As a Yes voter she didn’t like the ad, but she did not respond to it the way that the younger and more liberal crowd that dominates Twitter did, and she had not heard of the hashtag backlash via old media. To Blair McDougall, it does not matter if even 90% of Scotland hated the advert, as long as it delivered its payload to the 10% of voters he needed to hold on to.
Labour have lost the fight among politically interested, informed voters. They will target uninformed voters. Such people aren’t necessarily stupid – but they are busy, they don’t follow the news day-in-day-out, and as such they can be bamboozled by propaganda.
As we read Murphy’s words, we can imagine what McDougall’s focus groups are telling him now. Jim Murphy’s challenge is to hold on to enough of Labour’s core of urban working class voters to see off the SNP in Glasgow, while also reaching out to the new towns and suburbs.
Swing voters are telling Blair that they wish Labour was a Socialist party like it used to be. They are also telling him that Labour don’t stand up for Scotland like the SNP do. They are telling him that they are hard-pressed, struggling to pay their mortgages.
Murphy and McDougall are picking their ground – they will talk about patriotism to counter the “standing up for Scotland” argument. They will talk about social justice, and especially in areas of reserved powers, and accuse the SNP of inaction. They will play up Murphy’s working class Catholic roots and show him playing football a lot, in hopes of convincing Yes-voting Glaswegians that he is one of them.
From the evidence of the referendum campaign, we can predict how this will work out. They will secure voters that the Yes movement does not expect them to – voters who we struggle to understand, because they are disengaged from politics. An old media bodyguard of steel will prevent those voters from learning the truth about Creepy Jim’s love of neoliberalism and war, never mind the astronomical scale of his expense claims. By the general election, there will be cohorts of voters who believe that Jim Murphy intends to make their lives better, that the SNP have all the powers they need but are refusing to use them.
At the same time, Labour will hemorrhage activists, institutional power, and intellectual legitimacy. Before the Turn To Patriotism there was a niche to be carved out as a pro-Labour, anti-nationalist thinker. No more. From now on, being in Scottish Labour will mean campaigning for Better Together-style Toryism, gritting your teeth through endless reactionary campaign adverts, defending all kinds of patronising inanities. Perhaps McDougall’s tactical brilliance can slow the SNP advance at the general election, but his strategic ineptitude will cede ever more dominance of Scottish public life to the Yes movement.