Kenny Farquharson: SNP forgetting indyref lessons

The SNP seems to have given up on gently persuading voters of the merits of their case. Picture: John Devlin
The SNP seems to have given up on gently persuading voters of the merits of their case. Picture: John Devlin
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Will traditional Labour voters really be persuaded to switch to an SNP that ridicules their chosen party as ‘Red Tories’, asks Kenny Farquharson

BINARY politics was one of the inescapable features of the independence referendum. You were either a Yes or No. A one or a zero.

It often felt like somebody had taken a piece of chalk and drawn a line across the floor of your town’s toughest bar. On the one side were the Yeses, on the other the Noes. And they spent more than two years insulting each other’s character, intelligence, patriotism and moral fibre.

Yet to the smart people in Yes Scotland’s shiny headquarters in Glasgow’s Hope Street, binary politics was anathema. Chief strategist Stephen Noon knew it was no good standing on one side of a line, telling people on the other side how stupid they were.

That’s not how persuasion works. And it’s not how smart politics works either. You don’t suddenly wake up one morning and decide your political stance is a fraud, and that everything you believed yesterday is a lie.

The transition from No to Yes was, to use the reality TV cliché, a journey.

I’m hesitant, for obvious reasons given this week’s cinema releases, to use an analogy about shades of grey. But in the indyref, getting from black to white was a process, not an event.

This was a touchstone concept for Yes Scotland. It imbued every aspect of SNP strategy in the referendum, including the main canvass questionnaire, which asked people to rate their feelings about independence on a sliding sale of 1-10.

And it brought the independence movement closer to its goal than many had ever dreamed.

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So why has the SNP now binned this entire philosophy? Why is it now treating politics as a binary choice? And why does its strategy seem to be more about winning converts than winning votes?

Take a look at the way the SNP has been talking about Labour in the past four months. Much has been made about sharing a platform with the hated Tories during the indyref.

The clear message is that Labour and the Tories are indistinguishable. In fact, nationalist politicians have a favourite way to describe their Labour opponents – they are “Red Tories”.

I wonder if this is wise.

Let’s put aside the fact that the SNP has the declared aim of putting these “Red Tories” into Downing Street: bit of a mixed message there.

Let’s instead examine why the Nats apparently think the best way of getting Labour voters to switch to the SNP is to tell them they are actually Tories in disguise.

Is this good psychology? Or is it actually a failure of emotional intelligence?

This is a blunt and unsubtle attempt to shame people into switching their vote. It’s the equivalent of standing on one side of that chalk line in the pub and shouting at the people on the other side of the room.

I’m sure the whole “Red Tories” thing is what most diehard SNP activists sincerely believe. They hate Labour, just as most diehard Labour activists hate the SNP. Meanwhile, in the real world, most Scots voters hate neither Labour nor the SNP. They hate the Tories – sure, who doesn’t? But they regard the two main Scottish parties with ambivalence, seeing much to admire in both.

What’s puzzling is that the SNP doesn’t need people to be die-hard nationalist converts. It just needs them to vote SNP.

The Yes campaign would have fallen pitifully short of its 45 per cent last September had it not been for the group of voters who said “I’m not a Nat, but …”, and voted alongside the nationalists. Similarly, there were plenty of people in the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections who said “I’m not SNP, but …” and happily voted to put the SNP into power.

These votes counted every bit as much as the votes of the SNP’s true believers who bought Nicola Sturgeon T-shirts on her recent sell-out “democracy rocks” speaking tour.

So why not repeat a winning formula?

I can understand the SNP dilemma. Given that 45 per cent of the population has voted for independence, the challenge has been to turn Yes voters into SNP voters.

But the SNP seems to be demanding nothing less than a religious conversion. I am reminded of the Catholic baptism ceremony: “Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?” It is no longer enough to be willing to vote SNP. You also have to renounce the Labour Party.

This seems to betray a misunderstanding about human nature. All politics is identity politics. You support a party when you feel it chimes with your personal and political identity. That identity is a complex thing, and it includes your past voting history, your family antecedents, your outlook on life, your changing circumstances and your developing world view.

Of course, some people have the zealotry of the convert. But for hundreds of thousands – the swing voters who decide elections – it is not uncommon for them to flit between two parties, or three or more, all their adult life, depending on circumstances.

To insult one aspect of a complex political identity – for example, to call the Labour Party “Red Tories” – is to disparage that identity. It’s telling people they are wrong to feel how they feel.

Of course, the SNP is riding high in the polls just now. But if the gap narrows, as many expect it will, it may be because people think the SNP characterisation of the Labour Party simply does not ring true.

Dr Allan Macartney, the much-missed former depute leader of the SNP, once told me: “The biggest grouping in Scottish politics is people who once voted SNP.” He saw this as a positive, not a negative. There are voters who consider themselves Labour people at heart, but who are perfectly willing to lend the SNP their vote.

And if you lend a party your vote often enough, it can end up owning it.