Ewan Crawford: Referendum won’t be decided by the wizards

THEY sound a bit like 1970s professional wrestling names but the apparently unglamorous world of political consulting has given us the Ragin’ Cajun and now the Wizard of Oz.

THEY sound a bit like 1970s professional wrestling names but the apparently unglamorous world of political consulting has given us the Ragin’ Cajun and now the Wizard of Oz.

The Cajun is James Carville, campaign supremo for Bill Clinton during the US presidential election of 1992, and in the blue corner we have Lynton Crosby, the apparent election-winning “wizard” from Australia. To this list could be added Karl “The Architect” Rove (George W Bush’s right-hand man) and David “Axe” Axelrod, chief strategist for Barack Obama. These men have all at one stage or another been credited with almost mystical powers through their apparent ability to manipulate unwary voters with their strategies, dividing lines or dog whistle politics – their nicknames bearing testament to their alleged mastery of the black arts of political campaigning.

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The news that Crosby has been hired by the Conservatives to mastermind their Westminster campaign for 2015 has been welcomed by some on the right as a game-changing moment. Credited with helping John Howard to four victories in Australia, and with running Boris Johnson’s successful London mayoral campaign, he is seen as the man to turn around the Tories’ fortunes.

The cult of the all-knowing, all-seeing background genius seems to speak to the wider sense in politics, business, football and other pursuits that a single individual can hold the key to success. In reality, although exceptional strategists are clearly important, there is little these people can do if the fundamental political environment is against them.

Success, in general elections at any rate, tends to come from the long, hard slog of years of work and preparation about political positioning, messaging and policy. The idea that a genius can be flown in for a few weeks or months and deliver a victory seems fanciful.

Although there is massive media focus on the period of an election campaign, the campaign itself rarely seems to be decisive. The prospect of Tory success will therefore depend more on George Osborne’s handling of the economy than the talents of “the wizard”: perhaps a sobering thought for Conservatives.

After Tony Blair’s first election victory in 1997, the late Labour strategist, Philip Gould, wrote a brilliant book perfect for every political anorak’s Christmas stocking, which set out what he called The Unfinished Revolution, charting New Labour’s assent to power. In it, the importance of long-term planning and not just the short-term formal campaign is made clear.

Here in Scotland, the most successful political professional of recent years has been the SNP’s chief executive, Peter Murrell. Murrell is about as far from ragin’ as you could wish for. Indeed, his success is, I suspect, due to his ability to remain calm and focused even during the most stressful of times.

Although much has been written about the brilliance of the SNP campaign for last year’s Scottish Parliament election, it was the competence and politics of the SNP in government (as well as the personal standing of the First Minister) over a number of years that was more important. For the Yes campaign in the forthcoming independence referendum there are important lessons here, particularly in relation to current controversies.

Most of the attention on yesterday’s document from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) was targeted on the debate over Scotland’s fiscal position in the event of independence. But tucked away was the chilling fact that, for the UK as a whole, three-quarters of the Westminster government’s cuts to revenue spending are still to come. That’s right – we’ve only had a quarter of the pain. For this, we can thank a combination of disastrous economic management by Labour and a Tory obsession with reducing the public sector.

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It is in this context that the row in Holyrood over college funding last week needs to be seen. There is a danger that the Scottish Government could be picked off on individual spending decisions that ministers have in effect been forced to take because of Westminster Treasury policy.

The referendum will take place in the autumn of 2014 against a background of even deeper cuts. Long before polling day, voters need to be well aware that compelling any devolved government to operate within the constraints of a budget determined by the Treasury is bound to lead to invidious choices.

The Labour leadership’s response to this has not been to look at the fixed budget system but to signal the end of free personal care, the beginning of tuition fees and the re-introduction of prescription charges.

For Yes campaigners, the main thrust of the IFS paper then becomes crucial. The paper sets out Scotland’s historic and current healthier fiscal position than the UK as a whole but raises the issue of the future and, in particular, the contribution of oil revenues. Ever since oil was discovered in the North Sea it has been accompanied by public warnings that it would soon run out and, we now know, private advice about an independent Scotland’s economic strength. The UK government recently spoke about a “bonanza” of investment in the North Sea, and there are at least 20 billion barrels left to be exploited. It is some achievement to turn this extraordinary resource into some sort of a negative.

But the referendum won’t be won and lost on a debate about oil. It will be won on whether the Yes campaign has convinced enough people that an independent Scotland would have a better chance of creating jobs, boosting growth and therefore tax revenue, protecting the social gains of devolution and building a more equal country.

That task has started. The key will be engaging as many people as possible amid the increasingly fractious day-to-day debate that turns so many people off.

If that can be done, the campaign superstars can be left to others.