Politics is an expectations game

By Professor James Mitchell

Politics is an expectations game. As Mary Matalin and James Carville noted success is ‘not measured by actual results, but preconceived expectations’.

As we approach May’s Holyrood elections, the SNP is expected to extend its lead despite the common view in 2011 that winning an overall majority was a freak, unrepeatable result. The SNP may be delighted with polls suggesting that history will be repeated but show signs of concern. As Nicola Sturgeon put it in response to a recent poll showing exceptional levels of SNP support, it was a ‘nice boost – but polls are just polls’. The danger for the SNP is that even if it emerges with an overall majority, this will be seen as unexceptional given current expectations.

During Alex Salmond’s first period as leader (1990-2000), the SNP would herald every favourable local election result or some tiny increase in the polls as evidence of a major breakthrough. Back then, the SNP overstated its support in order to present itself as relevant. Today, the SNP has no difficulties in being seen as relevant and is forced to play a very different expectations game.

What we witness today is the mirror image of this past expectations game as some of the SNP’s opponents jump on the flimsiest evidence to suggest that the honeymoon is over for Scotland’s governing party. But notably, the SNP leadership makes little effort to dispute these claims. Such restraint may be absent on the nationalist fringe but this fringe is largely irrelevant and barely noticed by the public at large. The SNP leadership is uncomfortable with the high expectations of a major advance but because of the expectations that follow from such confidence being placed in the party in government.

The SNP’s opponents are also settling into predictable modes in this expectations game with Labour and Tories playing alternative but complementary games. Labour is seeking to lower expectations in the hope that the result in May might not appear quite so dire as polls suggest. Its Scottish leader is on record stating that things might get even worse than in May 2015 when the party lost all but one seat in the Commons and saw its vote fall to 24.3%. Things can only get better, New Labour’s 1997 theme tune, is unlikely to be resurrected over the coming months. The electoral system may rescue Scottish Labour from oblivion but only in the same way as it continues to rescud the Scottish Tories.

The Tories are playing a very different game. Their Scottish leader has claimed that May 2016 will see her party win its highest vote since devolution. This is not exactly setting the bar high but even this may not be achieved. Her cheerleaders in the press present her as someone capable of replacing David Cameron as Prime Minister but the electorate thinks otherwise. Fresh from the party suffering its worst electoral performance in share of the vote since mass enfranchisement with 14.9% in May 2015, the party might well expect that the only way is up. But that has been a view held by many Tories for two decades. Speculation that the Tories will outpoll Labour is not matched by evidence. The only consolation the Tories may take is that the old battle for third place in Holyrood elections is over (for the moment) but only because the Liberal Democrats are even less electorally attractive. As expectations go, the Tories may be repeating the error made in 2005 when they very publicly targeted eleven seats but won none of them. The Scottish Tories’ key strategist was sacked following that failure. This time it is the Scottish leader who has been vocal in making great claims and who will be vulnerable should these not be realized.

The Scottish Greens look more like the Tories in this, if few, other respects. They too are talking up their support. The talk amongst Greens is reminiscent of their 2007 rhetoric when, even after the polls closed, senior members were predicting that the party would end up with more MSPs than they won at the previous election. In the event, the Greens lost five of their seven seats. Some Greens are predicting, on the flimsiest evidence, that they will win more seats than Labour and Tories combined in Lothian. The evidence may be flimsy but the expectations game is always part rational campaign strategy and part luck. The Greens know that they could double their number of seats – to four – with a small shift in the vote. The prospect of having a dozen seats and removing the SNP’s overall majority is not based on evidence though the party has managed to convince some that such a claim is worth reporting.

The Liberal Democrats do not, as yet, appear to playing any kind of expectations game. That perhaps befits a party that is struggling to survive. The emphasis in LibDem rhetoric appears to focus more on what night happen to the SNP after its wins another overall majority suggesting that the Liberal Democrats remain utterly bewildered and lack a clear strategy for recovery.

As measured against current expectations, the SNP and Labour are united in seeking to lower expectations while the Tories and Greens are playing a different game. Mary Matalin complained about the ‘idiocy of the reporting’ when her candidate George Bush won the New Hampshire Republican contest in 1992. Complaints about idiotic reporting, no matter how idiotic, are counter-productive especially if an expectations game has been played poorly.


James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy and Co-Director of the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Devolution in the UK (Manchester University Press 2009) and The Scottish Question (Oxford University Press 2014). He tweets @ProfJMitchell.

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