Dazzled by data, the SNP – just like Labour – stopped talking to voters

‘Why do you never write anything nice about the SNP?’

It’s a gripe I hear from time to time. My view is that it’s a journalist’s job to chuck bottles at whatever mob happens to have inveigled its way into power. Plus the Greens – I mean, just look at them.

Still, if you’ve been waiting for a kind word about the Nationalists, you are finally in luck. Because, as far as I can see, the party has done nothing wrong in its dealings with Cambridge Analytica.

There have been carefully worded statements from opponents insinuating impropriety. There have been dark mutterings of a nefarious agenda to throw the EU referendum for Leave and thus secure independence. (That’s going well.)

What there hasn’t been is any evidence the SNP or, at least in this regard, Cambridge Analytica, acted inappropriately. The data firm wanted the Nationalists to sign a non-disclosure agreement with its parent company. The Nationalists, sensing something wasn’t quite right, backed out and stopped replying to emails. This house of cards never left the deck.

Here is where normal ‘SNP bad’ service resumes. The party has been the author of its own tribulations. It can blame the media and the opposition, but neither has done quite so much to keep this story alive as the Nationalists themselves.

Instead of making a full disclosure when a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower revealed the contact, the SNP headed straight for the bunker, lobbing grenades out of the window as they went. What could have been a one-day story was transformed into two weeks of awkward headlines.

The Nationalists had a straightforward story to tell. Head of information systems Christian Jones contacted Cambridge Analytica in the run-up to the 2016 election. He sent digital strategist Kirk Torrance to a meeting in London. Mr Torrance reckoned they were ‘cowboys’ and his advice against further dealings was seemingly heeded.

If this was Scotland’s answer to the Watergate break-in, it would be like Nixon’s henchmen falling out over whose credit card to jimmy the lock with and deciding to call the whole thing off.

Alas, the SNP’s inability to pass a high horse without giddily mounting it, combined with dysfunctional communications, conspired to turn a near-miss with the digital dark arts into a row over its surfeit of hypocrisy and lack of transparency. When Vote Leave was linked to Cambridge Analytica, Nationalist MPs reflexively went on the attack, unaware of their own ties.

Some lay the blame for the subsequent row on that decision. A well-placed source tells me: ‘Most folk are bewildered as to how this was allowed to happen. It’s the classic story: it’s never the f*** up, it’s the cover-up. HQ and the MPs couldn’t even co-ordinate their line. Why did none of them notice this mob’s earlier statement that they’d been in touch with all the main parties? Have none of these people heard of a phone?’

But this insider paints a picture of a larger problem, that of a party which has become obsessed with data but doesn’t always use it effectively.

That is evident in the decision to approach Cambridge Analytica in the first place. Many of the services it claims to offer don’t appear to differ significantly from NationBuilder, the Twitter and Facebook integrating software the SNP has used since the 2011 election.

Mr Torrance told a journalist in 2011: ‘You can do all sorts of things, like sentiment analysis – whether people’s conversations are positive or negative towards you. Or you can identify people who are championing the party but aren’t party members – we’ve identified several like that. Really key guys.’

As my source points out, the SNP is far from alone in relying on data – the question is how it uses it.

‘God knows what possessed Chris Jones to get in touch with Cambridge Analytica,’ my source says. ‘All modern parties have been using data to profile and target voters and potential voters for years. That data should be used to drive street work, but we now have a generation of campaigners – and some politicians – who think elections can be won online alone. They can’t. The party sees data as an end in itself rather than a tool that needs to be used intelligently.’

The digital natives aren’t just restless, they’re running amok. The cost can be quantified. In last year’s General Election, the SNP suffered surprise losses in seats that, some say, could have been saved if available data had been turned into boots on the ground.

I’m told: ‘We’re great at enthusing the base, but need a better doorstep plan to turn it into votes. The Twitter kids think elections are won with emojis, but they need to spend less time bamming opponents up on social media and more on convincing voters.’

Even after a fortnight of punching themselves in the face, the Nationalists are still hovering their fist in front of their nose menacingly. They claim to be ‘the only party to have been upfront’ about Cambridge Analytica, which is bunkum to the power of flimflam, and urge the media to dig deeper into the Tories’ connections to the firm – resuming the very grandstanding that got them into this mess.

For all its professed antipathy towards New Labour, the SNP has morphed into a Scottish analogue of its final years, fixated by slick and shiny to the detriment of policy and substance; tired, out of ideas and unwilling to change. MPs and activists still think of themselves as plucky insurgents against the establishment, not realising they are the establishment now.

Of course the SNP approached Cambridge Analytica for help. It has lost touch with the voters and doesn’t know how to win them back. It is a national party that no longer understands the nation it rules over. Cambridge Analytica offered a shortcut around listening to the country and adapting – and the SNP grabbed for it.

That is telling. That is the real scandal here.

*****

They were the very picture of domestic bliss. Ruth Davidson and wife-to-be Jen posed for a photo with their cocker spaniel Wilson last week. The Scottish Tory leader tweeted it with a surprise announcement: their next snap would include a new baby. Ruth and Jen are a warm, wonderful couple and I have no doubt they will make fine parents.

The primary significance of their announcement is personal, not political. Still, we can’t overlook the importance of the symbolism because it underscores how far Scotland has come.

Although she won’t appreciate me pointing this out, when Ruth was born, homosexuality was still illegal north of the Border. Now the leader of the Scottish Tories is expecting a baby with her same-sex partner and insists she will balance parenting and her political career.

Ruth and Jen’s news is joyous for all concerned. It is also a reminder that family values mean valuing all families in which children are loved and nurtured.

*****

I spent the weekend stocking up on some of my favourite tipples before the SNP’s nanny-knows-best minimum pricing law gets its clutches on our wallets this week. It’s always struck me as a counter-productive policy for the Nationalists. Why go after the one thing that makes living under their reign a little more tolerable?

 

Have your say on these issues by emailing scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.

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