Scottish Conservative conference 2018: the shoots of recovery

Written by Tom Freeman on 1 March 2018 in Inside Politics

How the Conservative Party can build on its gains to present an alternative Scottish Government 

Scottish Conservative recovery - Holyrood magazine

“People have had enough of fighting about referendums. It’s time to focus on the day job,” Ruth Davidson announces in the latest Scottish Conservative party political broadcast.

The message is similar to that which the Tory leader has levelled at the First Minister over the dispatch box since 2014, but equally, it could apply, root and branch, to her own party.

For having successfully mobilised the unionist vote behind her party in both the Holyrood and Westminster elections, phase two of Davidson’s masterplan requires a solid policy base on which to build prior to the next Scottish Parliament election in 2021.

This task is made easier with the increase in elected Tory politicians around the country.

2016 saw the number of Conservative MSPs more than double to 31, and then a year later, the number of councillors more than doubled to 276, followed by the number of MPs sent to Westminster leaping from one to 13.

This has given the party a number of new outposts from which to get its message into communities, some of which are in unfamiliar territory for the Conservative Party.

The shift in image from a party of tweed-wearing landowners was clear from the party political broadcast, which featured working class Glasgow MSP Annie Wells; new Ayr, Carrick, and Cumnock MP Bill Grant, the son of a socialist miner; and in Pentland, Councillor Susan Webber, who characterises the party’s fightback in its former strongholds.

The front line of the party’s battle for 2021 will be in the areas that have traditionally been Labour territory.

Luckily for the party, these areas now have local Conservative representation. High profile gains included councillors in Cowdenbeath, Paisley’s Ferguslie Park and Ravenscraig in Motherwell, where the party’s representation at North Lanarkshire Council went from zero to nine.

Ravenscraig’s new Conservative councillor is Nathan Wilson.

“For the past few decades, Ravenscraig has been one of the foremost symbols of Conservative decline in Scotland and I think it surprised many people that we were able to win here,” he tells Holyrood.

“The history of Ravenscraig obviously presents huge challenges for myself but also many opportunities to show that a Scottish Conservative can do a good job for the area.”

Shettleston councillor Thomas Kerr has said growing up poor in the east end of Glasgow is what made him a Tory. People in these communities, he says, “wanted a change”.

Speaking to Holyrood, Kerr says having local Conservative councillors visible across Scotland will help the party consolidate its position.

“It’s about people like myself showing the Conservative Party to local communities that have never really seen us before,” he says.

“When I grew up in the east end of Glasgow, it was always Labour and the SNP you heard from. There were no Conservative voices in the east end whatsoever. 

“It wasn’t until 2011 when Ruth stood for Glasgow that I had actually met a Conservative. You’d see Margaret Curran out campaigning, or John Mason for the SNP.”

Having local people in these areas that people can relate to will be important, predicts Kerr.

“They can say, ‘He grew up in the same area as me and he’s a Tory’. They then start to take you seriously and listen to what you have to say.”

In 2016 Davidson identified that voters were less embedded in their voting habits than they once were, successfully persuading lifelong Labour voters to switch. But that fluidity could just as easily swing votes back away from the party.

Kerr argues local councillors can prevent that by “doing our jobs”.

“The reason people in the east end don’t like Labour is because they elected people they thought they recognised, they thought they knew, but they disappeared in the City Chambers and were never seen again until election time.

“It’s about street surgeries, helping people with their bins and the kind of local issues that really matter to them. So they can say, ‘It’s the Conservative councillor who’s doing that, it’s the Conservative that’s working for me.’ 

“It’s about changing attitudes that way, so then people start to see us as the party of localism and for local communities.”

Wilson also predicts that councillors can make an impact in communities.

“In my own ward, I am focusing on the bread-and-butter challenges that people are faced with on a day-to-day basis, such as roads, bin collections, housing repairs and street lighting, and trying to solve everyday problems for my constituents,” he says. 

“At a local level, these are some of the issues that really matter to people and you have to try your best to secure the right result.”

It is a far cry from the traditional view of the Conservatives as a party of the elite. However, it is not helped by the fact that UK Cabinet members are now five times more likely to be privately educated than the British public. 

Around half of the Cabinet attended Oxford or Cambridge. And it has been riven with in-fighting over Brexit.

Kerr describes the divisions at the top of the party as “irritating” for local representatives, calling for MPs to “unite around Theresa”.

“At the same time, I don’t think it really cuts through on the streets,” he adds. “When I speak to people they are recognising Ruth Davidson and what we’re doing in Scotland is distinctly different from what we’re doing down south. 

“While Brexit is going on and while the Cabinet is fighting among themselves and whatever else, people are looking to Ruth and the rest of us to stand up to Nicola Sturgeon in Holyrood. I think that’s what people are seeing in Ruth.”

Wilson, too, identifies the Scottish leader as a big asset. 

“I think many Scots look at Ruth as someone who comes from a similar background to them and find it easy to identify with her,” he says. 

“You can’t overestimate the pivotal role that Ruth has played in our recent successes.”

But it is the lack of appetite for another referendum which mobilised voters behind the Scottish Conservatives in recent elections, both Kerr and Wilson suggest.

“When I was canvassing in Motherwell South East and Ravenscraig, in the run-up to the council election, I was struck by the number of people who told me that they had voted Remain in 2016 and for independence in 2014 but who were now seriously considering backing myself as the Scottish Conservative candidate because they had no appetite for a second independence vote on the back of Brexit,” says Wilson.

However, by 2021, the focus will be firmly back on the domestic agenda, the councillors predict. Therefore, to grow the vote beyond a core unionist base, Ruth Davidson’s building blocks must rest on sound policy.

“It’s about changing policy in Scotland, speaking about Scotland-only issues,” says Kerr.

“Developing policy that people can relate to in Scotland. Because devolution has worked, and rather than fighting against it constantly, which is what this party used to do for years, it’s about changing it and making sure devolution works for people in Scotland.

“I think that’s what Ruth has been really good at tapping into.”

With the SNP now running a minority administration, there are some areas where a conciliatory approach has won the Conservatives some concessions in parliament.

For example, Sturgeon has agreed to take forward ‘Frank’s Law’ – free personal care for under-65s with degenerative conditions – which had been lodged as a member’s bill by Conservative health spokesman Miles Briggs.

The party has also offered to give over its parliamentary time to reviewing the structure of police oversight in the wake of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA)’s handling of former chief constable Phil Gormley’s gardening leave amid bullying allegations.

Shadow justice secretary Liam Kerr said: “All opposition parties want to increase the independence of the SPA, and Nicola Sturgeon has hinted that she’s open to the idea.

“But her warning that it would take new laws rings hollow. If the SNP wants to bring forward a bill, then it could do it in days.

“And if it needs more debating time, we’ll donate some of our opposition time to sorting out the mess.”

There was a less collaborative tone taken in the party’s response to the budget. The Conservatives fiercely opposed the new tax bands proposed by Finance Secretary Derek Mackay. Instead, they said, Scotland should raise more revenue by growing the economy.

But without the extra tax take to plan for, can a new Conservative policy portfolio really make any bold spending commitments?

Highland MSP Donald Cameron is the party’s chief policy coordinator. For him, the focus should be on outcomes not process.

“We have spent the bulk of the past 20 years on structure. Now it’s time for substance,” he said in a blog for the website Conservative Home.

This includes a rethink of the role of the state, he said.

“That starts by acknowledging that – yes – society does indeed exist. For Conservatives, it starts with a recognition that we on the centre-right have sometimes got the balance wrong. Too often, Conservatives are seen as all abacus and no heart.”

For Kerr, there are lessons to be learned from the SNP’s success. 

“People in Scotland like someone who is going to fight for them, and that’s why the SNP have done well over the years, with the ‘Stronger for Scotland’ type of brand,” says Kerr.

“Now it’s the Conservatives who are fighting for Scotland at Westminster. Our 13 MPs down there now are a lot more significant and have had a bigger impact than what the 50-odd SNP MPs did for the SNP over the two years they were there. People are starting to see that.

“It’s about getting results. That’s what I like about our MPs. For example, in 2015 when the SNP got elected, they all shouted and bawled about VAT tax for the fire service and the police. But when we got elected, we went down and fought Scotland’s corner but did it in a way that wasn’t as confrontational, working with the UK Government and it meant we can actually try and do this. 

“It’s about getting results rather than who can shout the loudest.”



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