Johnson should learn four lessons in political marketing from the SNP

One of Boris Johnson's first actions as the New Year opened was to pick a fight with Nicola Sturgeon.

Boris Johnson could learn a lesson or four in political marketing from Nicola Sturgeon, argues John McTernan
Boris Johnson could learn a lesson or four in political marketing from Nicola Sturgeon, argues John McTernan

The Scottish First Minister, and her SNP Government, asked for a second independence referendum immediately after the general election. Prime Minister Johnson’s response was to slap down the request.

The UK government line is that a referendum isn’t just for Christmas – you hold one once and are bound by the result.

The resulting confrontation pleases both sides – Ms Sturgeon has a grievance to inflame her supporters, Mr Johnson has looked tough to English voters tired of demanding Scots.

But from a PR point of view, the Prime Minister would be well advised to look at the similarity between his position – with a majority built on Labour votes – and the First Minister, whose electoral strength is similarly rooted in former Labour heartlands.

Boris Johnson should learn four lessons of political marketing from the Scottish nationalists.

First, a referendum detaches voters from existing political loyalties. It cuts across the traditional social, economic and community bonds that create allegiances by offering a binary choice.

In turn, win or lose, a new political identity is created – the mobilising power of ‘Yes’ was a precursor to the power of ‘Leave’.

Second, secure the support of those voters by giving them what they are used to from the party they used to support.

Just as the policies of the SNP to build a middle-class welfare state are Blairite centrism with a kilt, so the Johnson government needs to deliver better buses, more council houses and reforms to Universal Credit.

Talk Tory, act Labour.

Using the rhetoric of radicals, but the policies of moderates is key to the third lesson – say one thing, do another.

The SNP are the masters of this – they are the establishment in Scotland, having been in power for more than 12 years, but act as though they are insurgents.

Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s senior adviser, is a past master at portraying himself and his causes as insurgent.

Now he needs to make sure that No. 10 follows Sturgeon’s example and consistently portrays itself as anti-establishment.

Fourth, and finally, political identity is a habit of mind.

As those of us who joined gyms in pursuit of New Year’s resolutions know, changed habits need to be reinforced to become permanent new behaviour.

The Scottish Government is ceaseless in its creation of new forums and forms of engagement that involve the new constituencies of interest that it wants to bind to itself.

Similarly, Boris Johnson needs to use the convening power of government to cement the new Conservative-supporting coalition. And spending needs to be creatively deployed – and badged.

The Scottish Government brands its spending with a Saltire. If Mr Johnson is going to let former Labour voters know he is spending money in their constituencies, then he should be as unsubtle in his use of the Union Flag.

The war of words between the Prime Minister and the First Minister will continue as long as they are both in post; but, as in classic rom-coms, the louder the disagreement, the closer they may get – at least in the political marketing strategies they adopt.

John McTernan is a senior adviser at BCW Global and a former adviser to Tony Blair

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