When asked at FMQ about Boris Johnson’s apparent threat to strip the Scottish Parliament of its powers over NHS Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon responded thus –
The way to ensure that we protect our health service – not to magic away all its problems and challenges, because health services everywhere have challenges – and invest in it, keep it in public hands and ensure that it remains the best-performing NHS anywhere in the UK, is to continue with the investment and reform that this government is taking forward.
Wrong answer, First Minister! The way to ensure that we protect our health service is by restoring Scotland’s independence. That is the only way to protect both our valued public services and our democratic institutions from the British Nationalist threat.
I am surely not the only person wondering why this wasn’t Nicola Sturgeon’s response. It is the obvious answer. It is the correct and truthful answer. So it is difficult to understand why the FM didn’t take this opportunity to deliver the election message she described in her address to the SNP Conference in Aberdeen less than three weeks ago.
A general election is imminent. And it cannot come soon enough. When it does our message will be clear, simple and unambiguous. Vote SNP to demand independence and secure Scotland’s right to choose.
What happened to that “clear, simple and unambiguous” message? The constitutional issue was supposed to be ‘at the very heart’ of this election campaign. It was supposed to be ‘front and centre’. The election campaign has barely started and already there are disturbing signs that the independence issue is being sidelined.
Yesterday, we discovered that John Nicolson, the SNP’s candidate for Ochil and South Perthshire, had published an election leaflet which contained not a single mention of independence. The leaflet (pictured above) lists five “SNP Priorities”. Independence doesn’t make the list.
On Twitter, John Nicolson seized on a suggestion that independence was implied by the last of the five “SNP Priorities” identified in the leaflet – “Fight for Scotland’s place in Europe – vital for jobs and investment”. Does that satisfy the criteria spelled out by Nicola Sturgeon? As a professional communicator, does John Nicolson seriously claim that this qualifies as a “clear, simple and unambiguous” message about independence?
I don’t know how they go about things in the SNP backrooms, but when I used to write copy for print and web the first part of the process always involved identifying the core message and the key words and phrases associated with that message. It is not at all clear what John Nicolson’s core message is – other than ‘Vote for me!’ – but the key terms he has selected include –
Various terms associated with business, such as “producers” and “exporters”
‘Independence’ is not considered a key term. Whatever the core message is, it has nothing to do with independence. At best, there is a tangential connection with independence which the reader must work out for themselves. But they won’t!
The vast majority of election leaflets go straight from doormat to recycling bin. Of the remainder, only a few will be given a glance. A tiny proportion of the tens of thousands of leaflets delivered by the SNP’s formidable election machine will actually be read. It is essential, therefore, to do everything possible to grab the reader’s attention. It’s the glancers you’re targeting. You have one chance and perhaps a quarter of a second to convey something which will make them pause. Once you’ve done that, you have to lead them through different levels of information, starting with bullet points and working up to greater detail.
Do it well, and instead of 5% of your leaflets being even partially read, you might get up to 10%. More than that, and you’ve really cracked it.
I am not privy to what goes on in those back rooms at SNP HQ. But if I were asked to identify a core message for this election campaign it would be –
‘The Union is the problem! Independence is the solution! Vote SNP for independence! ‘
That is the starting point. Every candidate and everyone who works for the candidates and every campaigner on street or web should have that message seared into their brain. Everything they write or say in the course of the campaign should derive from and lead back to that message. Every word that goes out from the SNP, in print, pixel or audio, must be checked and double-checked to ensure that it is doing the work of conveying the core message.
Unity! Focus! Discipline! These are the vital attributes of an effective political campaign. To date, we’re seeing little evidence that the SNP has taken this on board. Some will plead that it is early days. That the campaign has barely begun. But it’s not as if this election has been sprung on us out of the blue. It has been expected for weeks, if not months. I would expect the party to hit the ground running. Instead, it has already stumbled badly.
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