Lesley Riddoch: Will SNP success depend on party’s ability to inspire foot soldiers?

A Labour government will cost £1.2 trillion, say the Tories. Boris Johnson’s decision to block the Russian report was “politically motivated”, say Labour.

The Armistice was commemorated at the weekend, amid a flurry of political missiles flying high across enemy lines. In the first week of campaigning there have been social media gaffes by candidates of both major parties, slightly predictable campaign launches and the revelation that TV leaders’ debates will mostly consist of slugging matches between Jeremy Corbyn and Mr Johnson. Again.

This archaic and stubborn fixation on the two “big beasts” is baffling, given the Union-busting potential of the election and the recent experience of Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, wielding more clout than everyone bar the Prime Minister.

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But behind the predictable and highly choreographed visits, launches, TV debates and interviews lies an overlooked hinterland. The world of the foot-soldiers – and it could be decisive.

Nicola Sturgeon joined young activists on the campaign trail. Picture: John DevlinNicola Sturgeon joined young activists on the campaign trail. Picture: John Devlin
Nicola Sturgeon joined young activists on the campaign trail. Picture: John Devlin

Professor Tim Bale of University College London, along with two fellow academics, surveyed 5,000 members of the six candidate-fielding parties during the 2017 snap election campaign to measure activity among members. Obviously, self-reported data should be taken with a pinch of salt, but he concluded: “The clear winners were members of the SNP and Liberal Democrats… with the SNP particularly active online while the Lib Dems maintained their reputation as kings of the letterbox.” Labour members were apparently more active at canvassing (face-to-face and on the phone), giving the party a “ground-war” advantage over the Conservatives. Yet still the Tories managed a lacklustre win.

So what does that tell us about the current election campaign? Will it be won online, on the doorstep or in the media (where the Tories appear to set almost every agenda)?

The House of Commons put party membership at 485,000 for Labour in August (now over half a million), 180,000 for the Conservatives, 125,000 for the SNP and 115,000 for the Lib Dems. Tory membership has doubtless risen, but since four out of ten members admitted doing nothing to help in 2017, that might swell coffers but not the number of “boots on the ground” or fingers on the mouse.

Thanks to their exclusion from mainstream media, SNP members are the most tech-savvy. Thus 71 per cent had “liked” Facebook material by their candidates in 2017, compared with 39 per cent of Tories. But an impressive reach on social media can be deceptive: sharing or retweeting information and videos doesn’t necessarily connect with unconvinced voters. Ironically, less active but better financed parties may be able to “out-reach” the army of SNP keyboard activists by paying for online ads, aimed at specific demographics and inserted into browsing behaviour without any overt party connection.

The party with the money and expertise on that front are the Tories, reportedly flush with half a million quid donated by three Moscow-connected business people, and fronted by the arch manipulator, Dominic Cummings. It’s not clear if doctored video clips of Ian Blackford and Keir Starmer really hit the mark or might yet rebound to sabotage the saboteurs. Either way, the battle for the internet will not necessarily be won by the SNP, no matter how web-savvy their members.

Nor will the battle of the leaflet necessarily put the Lib Dems ahead. Research suggests unsolicited mail has a strong chance of hitting the bucket within seconds – even the Lib Dems’ latest, eight-page, glossy, Woman’s Own-style booklet. Door-knocking does better – strange in a world where encounter-averse folk supposedly dread doorstep encounters with guising youngsters, never mind political activists. Yet voters rate parties highly for bothering to visit and ask their opinion.

This is where Professor Bale’s 2017 findings are most interesting. Despite scoring highly in every other area, SNP members scored low on doorstep canvassing. This could suggest one of two things. Perhaps activists were scunnered by an election campaign in which Nicola Sturgeon took independence “off the table”, while the Ruth Davidson-led opposition focused on little else. Campaigners need a spring in their steps to undertake that most intimate, difficult but also productive election activity of canvassing. Maybe in 2017 the bounce was simply missing.

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Fortunately for the SNP, that’s different this time around. The right to hold a second independence referendum is indeed front and centre of the SNP’s campaign, visibly re-energising the party’s foot-soldiers and the wider Yes movement. Critics are right to say the party’s independence platform offers an easy target for Tories, but they’re overlooking the major motivating effect on SNP members.

The second possible explanation for low canvassing rates in 2017 is more problematic, though – poor internal systems in the SNP for turning members into activists.

Activating volunteers is now big business. Several off-the-shelf online management systems are available, such as Nation Builder which uses petitions and surveys to engage supporters, keeps track of who shares supportive content, builds up email lists and connects supporters with local activists who will chum them on the journey from petition signer to stall-staffer, leafleteer and finally doorstep canvasser, before the new recruit becomes an advocate for the next wave of uncommitted contacts.

The US tech company behind Nation Builder has chalked up a number of electoral successes, including the Australian equal marriage campaign, Jacinda Ardern’s election as New Zealand’s youngest female Prime Minister and the advance of the European Greens after this year’s EU elections. But its poster boy is Emmanuel Macron, whose “Nation Built” new party won a majority in the National Assembly three years ago. Interestingly, though, the French president achieved his own stunning personal victory a month earlier, without using the online organising tool.

In the US, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump used Nation Builder to inflict surprise defeats on more established rivals during the 2016 American primaries. Here, another pair of polar opposites – the Remain and Leave campaigns – were apparently also Nation Builder customers. But does that just let parties cancel each other out at great expense?

The electoral advantage gained by early adopters is rapidly cancelled out when rivals catch up with the technology. But will the SNP live to regret relying on its own systems instead? Does the absence of an online volunteer management system explain why fewer SNP supporters became fully fledged doorstep warriors in 2017? Or does winning seats depend on a party’s ability to inspire foot-soldiers? We’ll soon find out.