Keith Geddes: Strange times ahead as Labour and Conservatives reverse fortunes in Scotland

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has claimed that the British government is 'reassessing' America's reliability as an ally

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has claimed that the British government is 'reassessing' America's reliability as an ally

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Thursday 4 May this year sees elections for all of Scotland’s 32 councils. The outcome will confirm the massive turnaround in fortunes for both the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Labour Party.

The Tories have witnessed astonishing success over the past year. Surpassing expectations at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, they are now the official opposition at Holyrood, with that success matched by significant wins in recent local government by elections.

Why? That section of the electorate who deserted the party at the turn of the millennium because their party did not embrace devolution is now returning to their natural home. Secondly, in Ruth Davidson they have found a leader who has energised supporters and is seen as a potential First Minister. And thirdly, as Scottish politics continues to be dominated by constitutional issues, the Tories have asserted themselves as champions of the Union while Labour has fluffed its lines.

While the SNP will do well in May’s elections, probably winning Glasgow and one of the Lanarkshires, they face growing criticism over delivery on “bread and butter” issues such as education, social care, police and transport.

Recent international comparisons on educational performance have caused the party concern while continuing pressures on the NHS will become more acute.

The Tories will continue their resurgence in rural Scotland benefiting from a reaction against the SNP government’s tendency to centralise the control of services, ongoing problems with farm payments and the growth of wind farms. And the argument that Scotland will be the “highest taxed part of the UK” coupled with council tax rises for the top four council tax bands will boost Tory support.

It will not just be in rural Scotland that the party will improve its standing. The party may well be the largest in Edinburgh post May - something that has not been seen since the early 1980s, with increased representation in East Lothian, Stirling and other more affluent council areas.

What of Labour? They will seek to change the political debate from constitutional issues to service delivery promising improvements in education and social care. However they are handicapped at UK level by having a leader who is not seen as being remotely credible reflected by divisions in the Scottish party between “Corbynistas” and the more traditional left.

Labour will be saved by the PR system for local government elections based on multi-member wards which should allow them continued representation.

So the SNP will do well, but not as well as expected, the Scottish Conservatives will continue their recovery with Scottish Labour hoping to minimise the scale of their demise. And there is every likelihood of a growing number of rainbow coalitions. Strange times and strange bedfellows.

Keith Geddes is a past president of COSLA and former leader of the City of Edinburgh Council and is now Policy Director of PR agency Pagoda Porter Novelli

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