The Problem of Perception for Scottish Labour

The Scottish Labour Party has an image problem. That is not to say that the root of the problem is our image. At this moment in time I cannot begin to count the various problems that the Scottish Labour Party has, but one of them is undoubtedly our image – how we are perceived by the people we want to vote for us.

Perceptions are difficult to manage in politics, because they can often have little grounding in reality. This, you might think, makes it easy to change people’s perceptions, by simply directing their attention towards reality. However, in politics, perceptions are far more difficult to change than reality.

The perception that we are fiscally profligate hurt Labour badly in England. No matter what the two Eds said or did to demonstrate their prudence, their long association with Gordon Brown’s Treasury meant that they were perceived by the electorate as untrustworthy with the public finances.

In Scotland, we are perceived rather differently. Lord Ashcroft held a focus group in Paisley, and he discerned three problems perceived by voters. The first, is that we are conservative – and virtually indistinguishable from the Tories. The second, is that we are a “branch office” of the Labour Party in London. The third, is that we “betrayed” our supporters by joining with the Conservatives to promote a homogenous establishment defence of the Union.

These perceptions are all, in part, rooted in reality. However, changing the reality does not necessarily change the perception. Once a perception has been formed in people’s minds about a party it is extremely difficult to exculpate it. We have witnessed the difficulties the Conservatives have had dispelling the ghost of Thatcherism. Labour may find it difficult to shake the perceptions that have formed in the public’s minds. Those trained in philosophy or jurisprudence will be familiar with the difficulties in proving a negative. In this instance, that we are not what they perceive us to be.

A new approach to communications

We are bad communicators. This is not to criticise the staff who work in communications. The fault is a systematic one.

Fundamentally, communications staff ought not be necessary. Communication is a core-skill of the politician. However, communication must not be one-way. While, of course, it is a tremendous advantage to have the oratorical skills of Michael Foot or a caustic wit like William Hague – but one of the key failings of these great communicators was that they were transmitters, rather than receivers. Over the years I have known many Labour politicians who are brilliantly attuned to the public mood, but they have been sidelined either through our recent electoral misfortunes, or a succession of leaders who have failed to appreciate the value of such a skill.

As a tarnished brand, and an unpopular product, the party should look to business practices for solutions to our present woes. In recent years, the Scottish Labour Party’s approach to political communication has been more akin to 1950s methods of selling products than modern methods of marketing. Prior to the development of more consumer-oriented marketing techniques, the predominant approach to driving profits was selling and promoting goods and services – the “hard sell” –  rather than determining new customer desires. In effect, selling people something they don’t really want to buy. By contrast, consumer-oriented marketing methods feedback from consumers and attempt to create a product that customers actually want to buy.

It was this approach to political marketing that the late Philip, later Lord, Gould brought to the modernisation of the Labour Party in the late 80s and 90s. It is this responsiveness to public mood that has been sorely lacking in the Scottish Labour Party since the inception of devolution.

For too long we have relied upon opinion polling and canvass returns to gauge the public mood. These have consistently let us down in recent years. In 2011 we fought an offensive election – targeting gains like Livingston and Stirling – when, we should have been defending seats like Shettleston and Cunninghame South. Up until a few months ago, Labour’s key-seat list in Scotland comprised of Argyll and Bute; Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale, and Tweeddale; Dundee East; East Dunbartonshire; and Edinburgh West – our average share in those five seats was less than 15%. These seats were targeted because of both local polling and uniform national swings.

We saw in this election the dangers of relying on opinion polling (and those of us who are political punters paid the price!) Outside of an election cycle there is a tendency for voters to simply provide the answer that they always do – which would explain how Labour’s massive opinion poll leads in the run up to the 2011 election translated into a massive defeat. We failed to detect that “our voters” are no longer “our voters” until it was too late to stem the flow away from us.

Labour needs to make better use of focus groups and modern marketing techniques in order to adequately craft our message to suit the public mood. This might sound frightfully Mandelsonian to some, but it does not mean simply telling the people what they want to hear. In many areas of policy, the public mood appears to be far closer to our core values than we are. If Labour values are what the public wants, then it is utterly incredulous that we appear hesitant to embody them.

I do not believe that our product is fundamentally flawed, we just need to stop trying to flog the people’s last year’s model.

A new visual identity

Aschroft’s focus group discerned that the Scottish Labour Party is perceived as being a mere ‘branch office’ of the Labour Party in London. When even our leader shares that view, there’s bound to be a lot of truth in it. Jim Murphy, at least, recognised that that is a perception that needs to change, and made some attempts to dispel it.

Visual identity is hugely important. Tarnished brands frequently seek to change perceptions of themselves by updating their visual identity. McDonald’s responded to the perception of tackiness by ditching red and yellow in favour of earth tones in their restaurants. BP sought to bolster their environmental credentials by updating their logo. David Cameron did nearly the exact same thing when he changed the Conservative Party’s branding in 2006. And Peter Mandelson, too, sought to renew Labour’s brand by ditching the red flag in favour of the rose in the late 80s.

As a tarnished brand, the party’s visual identity needs to be renewed – urgently – to distinguish ourselves from the failings of the past, as well as the UK Labour Party of which we are perceived as being a branch.

This involves more than merely throwing a few saltires around the place. Name, shape, and colour should all be up for debate.

Of particular focus should be the name. It is arguable that the name ‘Scottish Labour’ evinces a sense that we are the Scottish bit of the Labour Party, rather than being the Labour Party of Scotland. The starting point for any rebrand ought to be the question ‘what would we call ourselves if we were starting from scratch?’ The answer, I suspect, would be ‘Labour’.