To recover, the Scottish Yes campaign needs to go on the attack

The pro-independence camp can't afford to spend the next 20 months simply responding to aggressive unionist and media questioning.

By the time Mitt Romney formally launched his bid for the US presidency in late summer 2012, the race for the White House was already more or less over. For the preceding 12 months, the former Massachusetts governor had poured all his energy into securing the Republican nomination from his conservative rivals, leaving the Democrats free to bury his reputation as a successful entrepreneur under a volley of personal attacks. These attacks cast Romney, not entirely inaccurately, as a predatory capitalist whose business practices at Bain Capital had put thousands of ordinary Americans out of work or into bankruptcy. The result was that in the weeks leading up to 6 November, Romney spent more time fending off accusations that he was ‘out of touch’ than he did explaining his policies or scrutinising Barack Obama’s record. Romney’s mistake was to allow his public image to be defined negatively by his opponents before he had a chance to define it himself. 

A comparison can be drawn between Romney’s experience and the situation Scotland’s pro independence movement currently finds itself in. Since the launches of the official 'Yes' and 'No' campaigns last year, the unionists have been far more effective at setting the terms and conditions of debate than the nationalists have. On a series of issues, most notably the currency and (until yesterday) Scottish membership of the European Union, Better Together, the official vehicle of unionism, has forced the SNP onto the back-foot. Time and time again, Scottish government ministers have been rushed out to provide what seem like hurried or improvised responses to awkward questions. With his relentless emphasis of the apparent "risks" and "hazards" of separation, Better Together chairman Alistair Darling has become an almost ubiquitous presence on Scottish TV screens. Darling’s rhetoric reflects the No camp’s key theme: that the consequences of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom are uncertain and uncertainty is bad for the Scottish economy. 

With at least two recent polls showing a decline in support for independence, there is good reason to believe this strategy is working. The unionists have an additional advantage in the fact Scottish political culture is dominated by an essentially conservative middle-class with little enthusiasm for far-reaching constitutional reform. Worse still for the Yes campaign, the Scottish government doesn’t intend to publish its White Paper on Independence, clarifying its proposals for an independent Scottish state, until the end of the year. This grants Better Together yet more time in which to compound voters’ anxieties, increasing the likelihood that, come the final stages of the referendum debate, it will be too late for the SNP and its allies to rescue independence as a credible constitutional option in the eyes of the Scottish electorate. 

There is another reason the pro-independence movement has struggled in the referendum PR battle: a lack of structural discipline. Although the majority of Yes Scotland activists are members of the SNP, the organisation itself is made up of a broad coalition of groups, each with their own ideas about how independence should be achieved. To some extent, this laissez-faire style acts as a source of creativity, generating new initiatives, like the Radical Independence Conference, and genuine excitement at the grassroots level. (600 people attended the launch of Yes Glasgow earlier this month.) But it also makes the task of developing a coherent message about independence extremely difficult. By contrast, Better Together is a considerably smaller and less cumbersome outfit, with a much more tightly controlled and clearly defined narrative. Its role - to erode trust in Alex Salmond and reinforce widespread concerns about secession - is relatively uncomplicated. 

So how might Yes Scotland regain the initiative? A more effective Yes campaign would balance its aspirational account of Scotland’s ‘journey’ from devolution to independence with a critique of the British state, highlighting the democratic and international costs Scotland pays for remaining part of the UK. In particular, it would make clear the link between Scotland’s abysmal social record (one of the worst in western Europe) and the concentration of political and economic power in London and the south east. It would also aim to systematically undermine the Scottish public’s confidence in the desire and capacity of Westminster to act in Scotland’s interests, even if this means abandoning its much vaunted commitment to positive campaigning. The one thing it can’t afford to do is spend the next 20 months responding to aggressive unionist and media questioning. 

Of course, it was the use of exactly these sorts of ‘negative’ tactics that secured Obama’s second presidential term. Recognising that the circumstances of the 2012 election were going to be very different from those of the 2008 one, Obama and his team discarded the transformative rhetoric of "hope" and "change" for a harder, more cynical approach, turning what should have been Romney’s greatest asset - his commercial success - into his greatest weakness through a sustained media offensive. Likewise, the SNP needs to acknowledge that the 2014 referendum will not be a re-run of its 2011 electoral triumph, when it bulldozed its way to victory on the back of what one commentator called a nationalist "juggernaut of joy." The independence vote will take place against a backdrop of high unemployment, recession and austerity imposed by a discredited and corrupt Westminster class increasingly at odds with Scottish political values and preferences. There is a deep well of political dissatisfaction in Scotland: advocates of independence need to learn how to exploit it. 

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond speaks at the SNP annual conference on October 20, 2012 in Perth, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Jeremy Corbyn in Crewe. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is it too late to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader before the general election?

Make no mistake, replacing the Labour leader now would terrify the Tories. 

Received wisdom states that Jeremy Corbyn’s position in the Labour party is guaranteed, at least for the next six weeks, until the general election on 8 June. However, this belief is in large part down to polls conducted earlier this year among the Labour membership, which showed continued support for him.

In light of the changing political landscape, and the looming General Election, these polls should be revisited. It is clear they offer enough cause for hope to Labour moderates who might be willing to take the risk of removing Corbyn before the country makes this decision for them.

If you listen to pollsters talk about their surveys, one of the most common refrains you'll hear is that the results are "a snapshot, not a prediction". During the peacetime years between elections, this claim is made for solid reasons. With an election years away, polls offer the public a risk-free method to register dissatisfaction or support for a political parties and politician without consequence.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the polls we’ve seen in the past week. In every poll conducted after May's announcement on an early election, there has been a rise in the Tory lead. Elections focus minds and the risk-free toying with another party is no more; the public now need to make a decision about who they'll vote for in a little over a month and this decision matters.

Back in March, just 35 per cent of Labour members thought it likely that Corbyn would lead Labour to victory at the next election - yet they still supported him (PDF). Many commentators and Labour moderates asked why. They couldn't understand why the members would support someone who was so clearly electoral kryptonite.

The reason is relatively straightforward. The election was still years off and Corbyn was doing, for the members, a vital job in repositioning Labour on the left. With an election so far away, it didn't matter how Labour were performing in the polls, it was risk-free to support Corbyn.

The early election changes all that and the question is no longer about whether another leader gives Labour a better chance of winning but whether another leader gives Labour a better chance at surviving.

In the last poll published on Labour members, a majority wanted Corbyn to either step down immediately (36%) or before the next election (14%). Just 44% wanted him to lead Labour into the next General Election. With May’s announcement of a vote on 8 June, Labour's existential crisis has been brought forward by three years and it is likely that 14% who thought Corbyn should step down before the next election would side with those who wanted Corbyn gone immediately rather than those who wanted him to fight on in 2020.

There is also an argument to be made that the 44% who wanted Jeremy to fight the next election assumed he would have three more years to grow into the role and turn Labour’s fortunes around and these members could easily be swayed from their support given the change in terms the early election brings about.

What's more, 68% of Labour members felt Corbyn should go if Labour lost the next election and this includes 42% of those who say they would definitely/probably vote for Jeremy at a future leadership election. Only the most hardcore Corbyn supporters still believe he has a chance of victory in a few weeks. So, faced with the prospect of Jeremy going in June, after a heavy defeat, or now - giving Labour a better chance - many would reluctantly go for the latter.  

So how can Jeremy be removed? There are three things that need to happen. Firstly, pick the right candidate. For a new leader to have any impact with the public, it has to be someone who is not associated with Corbyn. However, to win over the members, the candidate cannot be seen as an instigator in the coup last year.  It would also be wise to choose someone the public are at least partly familiar with. This is a narrow pool but there are MPs who meet this requirement and could get through a leadership election and limit Labour losses.  

Secondly, limit the selectorate to the members. There is no time to vet 10s or 100,000s of new voters and they are unlikely to be favourable to an Anyone-But-Corbyn candidate. Among current members, Corbyn can be defeated and that must be the battle on which any leadership election was fought.

Finally, remove the risk of a centrist takeover in Labour members' minds by committing to a further leadership election in six months' time. Make it clear that Jeremy Corbyn needs to go - but that this isn't the end for his supporters. Any new leader is just an interim measure, someone who can limit the losses and give Labour the chance to fight again. Position yourself like the football manager who comes in three matches before the end of the season, promising to save the club from relegation before handing over to someone more suited to their team.

Make no mistake, replacing the Labour leader now would terrify the Tories. Their attacks on Corbyn will be worthless and new leaders typically enjoy a honeymoon period which would come at the perfect time. There are risks, of course, but the greater risk is in allowing Corbyn to lead Labour to a defeat from which there may be no return.

Laurence Janta-Lipinski is a former pollster with YouGov and now a freelance political consultant. He tweets at @jantalipinski

 

0800 7318496