This article is from the January issue of Total Politics

“I’ve been involved in tens of campaigns over the last 25 years,” reflected SNP chief executive Peter Murrell a few weeks after the 2011 Holyrood election, “[but in] that time I encountered very few that actually had a clear strategy.”

He continued: “A strategy that took five times as long to develop as it did to implement, a strategy that covered every aspect of the ‘battlefield’, every ‘weapon’ at one’s disposal, and every eventuality; a strategy that was delivered consistently and in detail to, and through, every participant… We had a race plan, we knew our speed, our tactics, how to compete, when to hit the front, when to sprint and, most importantly, what victory would look like.”

Victory, come 6 May, looked better than even the SNP had imagined. The party won 69 seats, giving it an unprecedented overall majority in the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, such an outcome had been widely believed to be impossible under Holyrood’s electoral system. “The SNP campaign team,” judged former adviser Ewan Crawford in The Scotsman, “can reflect on the greatest achievement in modern Scottish political history.”

So how did the SNP do it? The answer, of course, lies in a combination of factors. Strategically, a key moment had been a meeting of the party’s National Council back in 2000, just months before Alex Salmond resigned as leader (returning four years later). Then, the SNP voted by a narrow margin to decide the independence issue via a referendum rather than rely on winning an overall majority of Scottish seats (which, of course, they managed earlier this year).

Although not immediately significant, the referendum device enabled the SNP to neutralise independence in campaigning terms. The party fully understood that the issue had the ability to ‘scare’ voters, so being able to argue – as they did at every Scottish Parliament or UK general election from 2001 – that a vote for the SNP was not automatically a vote for independence, allowed them effectively to ringfence their raison d’être and gradually build broader political support.

Then, in 2006, the SNP initiated a surprising switch in tactics. Having long campaigned along broadly negative lines – repeatedly criticising the UK government for not governing Scotland well enough – party campaigners decided to sound a positive note. Although it would still critique its opponents, the SNP’s over-arching narrative would be relentlessly upbeat. A key figure in this respect was Stephen Noon, who had worked for the party, on and off, since the early 1990s.

Noon had imbibed an analysis of twentieth-century US election campaigns, which demonstrated that the most optimistic campaign generally won and, indeed (as Noon explained in a blog), “the more optimistic the campaign was, the bigger the eventual majority”. Having applied this rule to the 2007 Holyrood campaign and won the most seats of any party, in 2011 the SNP extended its positive message, while turbo-charging it with a record of achievement in government and a first-class team at the helm.

The latter two points, which, together with the party’s independence aim, comprised the election slogan “team, record, vision”, were the result of another significant aspect of the party’s campaign – detailed research. This was enabled through software called ‘Activate’, which allowed the SNP to track levels of public support (often well above that of newspaper polls) and delve into voters’ minds to a hitherto uncharted extent.

This research informed virtually every element of the ‘long campaign’, from posters advertising “A Scottish Government Working for Scotland” (interestingly, many of the party’s key messages didn’t use the word ‘SNP’) to individual tweets and third-party endorsements. Again, research had told strategists that non-politicians urging people to back the SNP would be particularly effective, something played out in a Monty Python-inspired broadcast, featuring pub regulars asking: “What has the Scottish government ever done for us?”

Although social media was certainly an important element of campaigning, the SNP’s social media guru Kirk J Torrance (no relation to this writer) doesn’t make any wild claims. Twitter and Facebook activity was not, he says, “a magic bullet”. Rather, it augmented an already strong political message and ensured it reached a wider audience, including many parts of rural Scotland where traditional political campaigning simply didn’t occur.

So the 2011 Holyrood election result confirmed that the SNP remained a formidable campaigning machine. There is an argument, however, that this tactical and strategic prowess disguises long-standing political and ideological weaknesses. During the election campaign, for example, there was precious little acknowledgement of a grim economic situation, yet voters didn’t appear to notice or care. A slick, well-funded campaign served to hide a multitude of sins.

Also aiding the SNP was the failure of the three opposition parties to campaign with any vigour or originality. SNP strategists were consistently shocked at the ineptitude of Labour’s campaign, which dramatically changed tack about two weeks from polling day. As one SNP adviser observed: “Labour began the campaign fighting a Westminster election, and ended it fighting a referendum campaign. We, however, fought a Scottish election campaign.”

 With the Liberal Democrats now a rump, and the Scottish Conservatives lacking (as ever) a coherent electoral strategy, this doesn’t seem likely to improve anytime soon. The three ‘unionist parties’ were woefully inept at using even relatively inexpensive campaigning techniques such as social media. And, more to the point, the SNP still has lots of money. Two recent donations (one a bequest, the other a gift from lottery winners) have given the party more than £2m for campaigning, which it didn’t expect to have.

So where would this leave the SNP in the independence referendum campaign that will take place towards the end of this five-year Holyrood term? In short, in a much better place than the three unionist parties. Party strategists are already building upon the 2007 and 2011 strategy blueprints and planning the political campaign to end all political campaigns. As one key adviser put it recently: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Tags: David Torrance, Issue 43, Scottish National Party