The Tories and Labour have switched places at Holyrood - what does that mean for the local elections?
As conference season gets into full swing, all eyes are on the council elections
Overview - Picture credit: Holyrood
Despite her recent success, Ruth Davidson did not have a particularly good start as leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.
Emerging victorious from a fractious leadership contest, after running on a strict opposition to further devolution of power from Westminster to Holyrood, Davidson – who had been a member of the Scottish Parliament for just six months and only joined the party two years before – was then immediately thrown into leading her party in the local authority elections.
In the early days of her leadership, many Tory members remained deeply suspicious of Davidson. Murdo Fraser had been the bookies’ favourite to win, having run on the pledge to create a new right-wing party to replace the Tories north of the border in an effort to shake off the party’s consistently toxic image.
For her part, Davidson had been scornful of the idea, using her leadership launch to tell members that under her stewardship there would be no “wringing of hands” over the party’s identity.She said: “The Scotland Bill currently going through Westminster is the line in the sand. The time for arguing about the powers the people want is over. It’s time now to use the powers that we have.”
The strategy worked and Davidson beat Fraser in the end, but by just 566 votes and amid accusations that the leadership had used ‘dirty tricks’ to back her campaign.
The contest had been a bruising one and Davidson’s start as leader was not easy, with the party losing 28 seats in the local elections, and with its vote falling by 2.3 per cent. Yet five years on,
Davidson is still leader, and it is probably fair to say her party’s fortunes have improved.
Certainly in contrast to Scottish Labour, the party looks to be in great shape. Labour was crushed in the 2011 election, with the SNP winning its historic majority and paving the way for the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.
But despite that result, the 2012 local elections went pretty well for Labour and its then leader Johann Lamont, with the party winning 394 seats – up by 46 – with a 3.26 per cent increase in the vote.
In fact, with hindsight, the 2012 local elections were really the last good thing that happened to Scottish Labour. After it, the slide began, with the party’s referendum success bringing Lamont’s resignation, ushering in Jim Murphy’s leadership, which lasted just six months, and ending in the party losing 40 of its 41 seats at the general election. Kezia Dugdale came in as leader, but only a year later, the party’s collapse continued at the Scottish Parliament election, losing 13 seats and with its share of the constituency vote falling by 9.2 per cent. In the 1999 election the party had taken 39 per cent of the constituency vote. By 2016 it was down to 23 per cent.
The news the Scottish Tories had overtaken Labour to become the second biggest party in Holyrood was hard to believe, given Labour’s historic dominance north of the border, and much of the attention focused on the demise of the party. But although that focus may have been understandable, equally shocking was the rise of the Scottish Conservatives.
Dr Alan Convery, politics lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, specialises in how devolution has impacted on the fortunes of the Conservative Party in Wales and Scotland.
He puts the party’s success – it gained 16 new seats in the 2016 elections, with its constituency vote up by eight per cent and its regional vote up by 11 – down to its ability to take advantage of changing political circumstances.
Convery told Holyrood: “They really benefited from the independence referendum, and the way that split the population in different ways. Ruth Davidson had a good independence referendum generally, and also benefited from the weakness of the Labour Party. Parties have to have a good strategy, but they need to have good circumstances as well, and I think both came together for the Scottish Conservatives. They found this theme of being the unionist party, something that is consistent and uncontroversial throughout the whole party, and that seemed to have some resonance. It gave them a purpose and a sense of strategy, and it really paid off.
“In taking advantage of that situation they ran an extremely disciplined campaign at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, based on the message of being the main unionist party, a strong opposition, and on Ruth Davidson. The message discipline was almost Blairite in the way they stuck to it and they ran an extremely good campaign – exploiting their strength. So there was a mixture of circumstances and strategy.”
Key to that was Davidson’s leadership, with the former BBC journalist using photo-opps and her working-class background to try and change perceptions of the party north of the border.
And while her approach has differed from that suggested by Fraser in 2011, Davidson seems to have been successful in her attempts to peel off the ‘nasty party’ label – in fact, one poll found her popularity had exceeded that of Nicola Sturgeon. The survey, conducted by Ipsos MORI in September last year, gave the Scottish Conservative leader a net satisfaction rate of +31, 17 points ahead of the First Minister on +14. Kezia Dugdale, meanwhile, sat on -10, though she could at least take solace from the fact the UK leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was languishing on -26.
Convery describes Davidson as key to the party’s new lease of life.
“Scottish Conservative leaders have been popular before – Annabel Goldie was a popular leader – but Davidson has really managed to break through, in part, because she is not someone you would perhaps associate with the Conservatives, and she has exploited that.”
Convery adds: “One of the achievements that people sometimes overlook is that she was the leader that finally got the Conservative Party to accept devolution, and some of the underlying debates about whether or not the party supported further powers for the Scottish Parliament have been settled.
“The party is pro-devolution and it is interesting because she ran her leadership campaign saying the opposite. But she has converted the party to devolution, while successfully exploiting circumstances, and I think that is one of the things she is not credited with enough. People talk about her image but being the leader who was able to put the party in a position of support for devolution was extremely important.”
The Scottish Tories certainly seem to have reacted to the changing circumstances brought by devolution more effectively than Labour, which, three years on from the referendum, still seems to be casting around for constitutional solutions to rival independence.
Many in the party have pointed to some sort of federal solution, with Kezia Dugdale using a speech last month to cast herself as the latest standard bearer for a plan mooted by Gordon Brown a few years back, and by Keir Hardie more than a century before that.
The plans formed the centre of Dugdale’s message in Perth last weekend, with the Scottish Labour leader announcing plans for a policy motion in support of federalism at her party’s conference.
As Dugdale put it in a keynote in London as she announced the plans: “We are firmly opposed to a second independence referendum. We believe that together we’re stronger. Today our country is deeply divided, not just by constitutional politics but by economic inequality.
“So to restore faith in our politics, build a more united society and create an economy that works for working people, I believe that we need to create a more federal UK.
“There should be a people’s constitutional convention, made up of citizens from across the United Kingdom, which should report before the next UK general election. I believe we need a new Act of Union to save our union for generations to come.”
It is still possible that federalism could cure Labour’s woes, even if it never seems to have taken off in the past.
Clearly the mood will be more buoyant in Glasgow the week after, though, with the Scottish Tories cheered by a recent poll showing the party continues to sit an easy second on 28 per cent in the constituency vote, and 27 per cent on the regional lists.
But with Davidson’s second set of local elections as leader fast approaching, the party has work to do. And while polling looks good, it is unclear whether these positive signs will translate into electoral success under a different electoral system, in a local setting.
In fact, with the Single Transferable Vote (STV) only introduced for local elections in 2007, parties are still getting to grips with successful strategies. Parties across the board are still unsure of how many candidates to put up in particular wards, with the correct number likely to vary.
Meanwhile, analysis from James Mitchell, Co-Director of the Academy of Government and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh, suggests much less is known about the electorate’s behaviour in STV elections than in simple plurality elections, such as first past the post.
Compare the 2015 UK election, under First-Past-the-Post, and the 2016 Scottish Parliament election under the Additional Member System (AMS), and you get quite different results. Take STV, with a very different system again, and you cannot assume that even if the parties win the same proportion of votes as in 2015 or 2016 that it will translate into council seats in the same way as votes translated into seat under simple plurality or AMS. The relationship between votes and seats is key, and differs with different electoral systems.
Professor Ailsa Henderson, Head of Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, describes how voting behaviour can vary in a local election.
She told Holyrood: “There are two things going on. The first is that turnout is always lower in local elections and therefore it is harder for every party to mobilise its core vote, as well as to attract switchers. But one thing we do know about turnout, in what might be considered second order elections, is that a sense of identification with that particular level matters, and the extent to which you think that the institution is important matters.
“There is a lot of work on turnout at state level elections, but not a lot on devolved elections, but what we do know is that the more people feel Scottish, the more likely they are to vote in Scottish Parliament elections, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into local elections.
“So one issue is turnout, the other is whether people have split-level identifications. We have always known that people tend to vote for one party in Westminster, and then they might vote for another in Holyrood elections, they don’t necessarily vote consistently. But one thing we know from the 2016 elections is that we are seeing almost the end of that split-level identification in Scotland. So we have got significantly higher retention of parties.
“The second thing is that the choice is converging on Holyrood preferences, rather than on Westminster preferences. So if that continues then what we might expect then is to see a rerun in the local elections, because we know that people are more likely to have split-level identification if they consider them both to be first order contests. So you think, right, I have different party preferences for the Westminster elections because I like what that party says about the issues of competence for Westminster, and I like a completely different party in Scottish Parliament elections because I know more about the issues of competence for Holyrood. What we know about local elections is that people are pretty hazy about issues of competence at a local level, so we are more likely to see first order preferences structuring voter behaviour at local elections.”
The Tories will be heartened to hear that, though given the current state of political instability at a national and international level, it would perhaps be unwise to attempt to predict what could change over the next couple of months. And looking further forward, it seems likely that – given Davidson’s success in campaigning on her opposition to independence – as long as the constitution dominates the political debate in Scotland, she will probably feel pretty optimistic about her party’s prospects.
To Convery, though, opposition to independence and the SNP can only get the party so far. “I think the question being asked of them is changing. The Scottish Tories are now the main opposition party, and the question is going to be increasingly what they would do differently. That is a question they have less experience of answering, and without being uncharitable, they did not run on a policy heavy manifesto in the 2016 election, and, increasingly, the question being asked of them will be, ‘what would you do differently in government?’
“That will be something that will be asked more and more, beyond just saying they are the party of the Union.”
Convery talks about how the party has reacted well to changing circumstance as an explanation for how Davidson managed to grab some support after years, or even decades, of her party being seen as a toxic force in Scottish politics.
Yet after her success in May, Davidson had barely had the chance to savour her triumph before right-wing Eurosceptic elements in her own party succeeded in their quest to pull the UK out of the EU. Circumstances changed, and not in her favour.
Tory grandee and fierce Remain supporter Ken Clarke used his speech in the Commons debate on Brexit to lament the way the aftermath had been handled.
“I admire my colleagues who can suddenly become enthusiastic Brexiteers, having seen the light on the road to Damascus on the day that the vote was cast,” he said, before looking around the chamber and adding, “I’m afraid that light has been denied me.”
Enthusiastic may be taking things a bit too far, but over the past few months Davidson, and the rest of the Scottish Tories, have apparently seen the light that was denied to Clarke, and become converted to the Eurosceptic faith.
For now, little seems to have been made of this conversion, but given the key role Davidson played in the Remain campaign – and with the prospect of the Scottish Parliament being overruled by Westminster in its objections to Brexit – it cannot be long before her opponents drag up some of her old words to haunt her. Davidson made her name as the defender of the Union, but if
Holyrood refuses to give its consent for Brexit, and gets steamrollered by Westminster during the process, she may find herself in a similar position again.
How voters would feel about the Scottish Tory party after that remains unclear.
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