In business and in consulting and training I was always fascinated by the behaviour of managers when faced with difficulties or failure to achieve objectives, especially when they involved interaction with others. Broadly, the reactions were of two kinds - blaming behaviour and objective analysis. The blamers never learned from their failures - they simply justified them by attributing failure to circumstances beyond their control, or the behaviour of their opponents, or went into denial, claiming that either no failure had occurred or that the outcome didn’t matter. Blamers then repeated their failures ad infinitum.
The analysers rapidly identified factors that were completely beyond their control, and went on to analyse those that were within their control, examining their own context, strategy, tactics and behaviour to pinpoint the weaknesses: they then modified their approach, and learned the lesson for future events.
This is how true professionals behave. It is how successful people behave, whether they are doctors, surgeons, engineers, pilots, footballers, managers, lawyers, musicians, comedians - or politicians.
The professional approach does not ignore the behaviour of others - it takes it as a given, and considers how to effectively deal with it. In other words, it is “How do I play the hand I have been dealt most effectively?” not “The hand I was dealt was beyond my control therefore I am absolved of blame or responsibility for the way I play it.”
However, politicians have to deal with the fact that perception is reality, perhaps to a higher degree than in other professions. While being objective and analytical in private, they must consider how their successes and failures are perceived in public, because that perception influences voting behaviour. The danger in this is a bit like the comedian facing a hostile or unreceptive audience - if he or she falls into the trap of seeming to blame the audience - or worse, laugh at own jokes and be self-congratulatory - the failure is fatally compounded.
Grace in defeat, and wry acknowledgement of failure are not qualities one normally associates with politicians. When it comes, it comes as a breath of fresh air, but is not always recognised as such by the majority, and is often exploited as a weakness by opponents. The supposed unofficial motto of Balliol College tends to be invoked - never apologise, never explain …
THE SCOTTISH LOCAL ELECTIONS
Much of the above behaviour regrettably has been evident in SNP emails, tweets and some blog responses to the election result in Glasgow, although not, thankfully, from the Party official spokespersons, nor in the main from the real activists who did the hard work of canvassing and leafleting. They welcomed the overall success of the SNP campaign across Scotland and pointed out that Glasgow Labour simply held what they had expected to lose, whereas the SNP had made significant gains in what was always going to be their most challenging fight.
The Great BBC Conspiracy Theorists are out in force of course, obsessed by the presentation of the results and the numbers on television, and apparently oblivious to the aspect of BBC coverage that has something relevant and vital to say, such as the clip I posted of the Scottish section of the Newsnicht panel who offered opinions on this.
To try and reduce the amount of indignant “Did you know that …” emails and YouTube comments that I will soon have to delete relating to this clip, let me say that I know the backgrounds and previous incarnations and occupations of Lorraine Davidson and David Torrance (not to mention a rash of other information of the McCarthyite genre that I am regularly gratuitously offered) and I have closely followed the articles and commentaries of Iain Macwhirter over many years. My interest was in what they said, not in Machiavellian speculation as to why they said it: what they said was highly pertinent, and something that the SNP must evaluate carefully.
Lorraine Davidson: “The SNP have had a good night, but because of the symbolism of Glasgow, and the headline that that is - in the same way that Boris/Ken show is the headline in the UK story, that’s the perception and the illusion that voters are left with.”
The report that followed addressed what clearly is a vital question - turnout - and the implications of low turnout for the perceived legitimacy of democratic processes, with Ross Martin’s (CSPP) view that we are in the ‘danger zone’ when we begin to fall below, say, 40%, and the results are “a little bit squeaky in democratic legitimacy terms”. (There are ominous portents for me in this statement on local elections for the crucial question of the ‘legitimacy’ of the Referendum outcome in 2014 an engagement in the referendum arguments and processes.) Ross Martin welcomed the local differences in turnout as perhaps a hopeful sign of engagement and localism. As he tellingly observed, when we go below 30%, “the game’s a bogey” and serious questions need to be asked.
Gordon Brewer positioned the discussion around the fact that both Labour and the SNP “seem to have legitimate claims to have done best” and a certain ambiguity in the outcome.
David Torrance: “I think the SNP have clearly won this election …”
Let me freeze frame on that statement for a moment, for the reason that those conspiracists who are convinced that David Torrance is a dyed-in-the-wool Tory and UK apologist and a planted lackey of the Great Beeb Conspiracy against Scotland’s Independence (instead of the biographer of Alex Salmond, author of a number of respected political and historical works, and a thoughtful commentator on Scottish and UK politics) will have totally ignored or blanked out this statement - those of them who had not already announced their fear of watching the programme because of expectations of bias (as some did on Twitter)
David Torrance: “I think the SNP have clearly won this election. Winning elections is measured by total number of seats and share of the vote, and they appear to have won both. And they have certainly won it. I think it was more of a psychological victory for the Labour Party, because they simply didn’t expect to do this well and indeed the SNP expected to do quite a bit better.”
That’s it in a nutshell for me, and anyone who disagrees with that is grinding axes, spinning and not looking objectively at the facts and the numbers. That takes us to another fact that some nationalist supporters would dearly like to ignore - that the SNP had greater numbers of activists on the ground , were better organised and had better data about core support than Labour, yet did not do as well as they hoped and expected. There can only be one reason for that - something in the message, and in the behaviour of the SNP at senior policy level did not - and does not - resonate with a significant number of Glasgow Labour voters. But there were also local issues: every party member knows what they were, and I don’t intend to give them more airtime here.
Lorraine Davidson: “I think the SNP have won the election but they have lost the expectations game. The problem that they had was that, with Glasgow - which was going to be a stunning prize for them, and an important part of the journey towards the referendum - they had to first of all put themselves in contention as serious players to win that election. Hence the Spring conference and the predictions that they were going to take Glasgow, a couple of months ago.
“The problem with that is that when you create that kind of expectation around an election, you’re then left trying to explain away why you didn’t pull that off. The reason they didn’t pull that off was that it was totally unrealistic - they were never going to be able to pull that off.”
Although I don’t agree with Lorraine’s last conclusion - that the SNP were never going to pull it off (remember May 2001?) - I think it is a fair and accurate assessment of why Labour were delirious and the media mesmerised by their success in holding off the challenge. The other key factor is of course the fact that the single transferrable vote is designed to reduce radically the likelihood of overall majorities, just as the dHondt method of voting for Holyrood elections was, and when an election leaps that formidable hurdle, it is seen as an achievement and a highly significant one, just as the SNP second term victory was. As Lorraine Davidson then rightly pointed out, the SNP strategists are going to have to look very hard at the implications of the Glasgow and the Edinburgh results for the Referendum.
Iain Macwhirter was next to comment. Of late, Iain Macwhirter has been uncharacteristically strident in his criticisms of the SNP. Normally the most relaxed and urbane of commentators, he suddenly became very forceful and a bit dogmatic, notably in his attacks on Alex Salmond (the Ewan Cameron/Gary Robertson radio exchange on Good Morning, Scotland being a case in point.). But here, he had reverted to the old style, and to my ear was almost anodyne in his analysis.
He started by saying that, given the landslide victory of May 2011, including winning a lot of Glasgow seats, that it was realistic of the SNP to think they could win the city in the local elections, or at least break Labour’s grip on the city. “Clearly they allowed their expectations to run away with them, but I don’t think it was unrealistic for them to make that attempt.” He went on to make the important point about recovering momentum and enthusiasm.
Iain Macwhirter: “The truth is that both Labour and the SNP won this election - they both made advances.”
Anyone who seriously challenges this statement, Labour or SNP, is being blinded by partisanship. As he said, both sides have been “picking over the carcass of the Liberal Democrats …”
David Torrance: “You can read too much into these results, but the major effect is psychological …”
He went on to say that Labour had managed this result with, in the words of one Labour person, “a party machine that was broken.”
If the SNP don’t take these comments on board, they are in danger of losing not only momentum, but the referendum narrative. I believe that the Party strategists are clear about this, but in fuelling the “we won - Glasgow was just a disappointment” spin on the results among some of their supporters, they are taking a big risk.
I leave the last word with David Torrance, which will of course be interpreted by some as supporting Labour and attacking the SNP, which is ludicrous, given Torrance’s background. It is absolutely accurate, and should be a clarion call to the SNP to think hard about Glasgow and the West, and the psychology of the West of Scotland voter. Commenting on Labour’s management of this result with few resources, and against the formidable SNP machine, he said -
David Torrance: “Just imagine what Labour can do with more money, when they have a greater confidence in what they are doing - and a better developed message. It’s a slight, modest halt on the SNP advance - no more than that - but it gives Labour something to build on.”