Why are Tories putting Indyref2 and the heart of their council campaign?

Scottish Tories leader Ruth Davidson speaks in the chamber. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Scottish Tories leader Ruth Davidson speaks in the chamber. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

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Local councils in Scotland are responsible for a number of services and administrative management, but Scotland’s constitutional future is not within their purview.

That hasn’t stopped all manner of politicians choosing to make the prospect of another referendum front and centre of their campaigns to take control of Scotland’s city and town halls.

Patrick Harvie was accused of betraying a manifesto pledge. Picture: Jane Barlow

Patrick Harvie was accused of betraying a manifesto pledge. Picture: Jane Barlow

The Scottish Conservative Party, under Ruth Davidson, has been particularly vocal in framing the upcoming local elections as something of a referendum on a referendum.

Scottish Labour hasn’t been too far behind, but mentions of a referendum on their campaign literature has been far subtler, with usually a throwaway line about how Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘divisive’ referendum plans will be opposed.

Some Conservative leaflets are a virtual assault on the senses, peppered with warnings about the dire consequences of another independence referendum.

Reasoning

While it might be stretching the truth to breaking point to claim that the council elections will have any bearing on independence, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good politics.

Ruth Davidson led her party to a second place finish at last year’s Holyrood elections partly by positioning her party as being virulently pro-union.

They clearly feel that a recreation of that campaign is merited as the results will be scrutinised in a national context ahead of any final decision on whether Scotland has another referendum.

However, what might backfire for Ms Davidson’s party is whether they take their clear opposition to that referendum and make connections to local politics that aren’t there.

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Ask any councillor and they will tell you that most complaints are down to services like bus times and bin collections.

Rarely do constituents beat a path to the door of their local representative to tell them that they don’t want a second referendum.

Tory literature, like leaflets and letters to voters, that have been shared on social media show an almost uniform message of independence, with scant mention of local issues.

One of those leaflets shared online tells voters “every vote for your Conservative candidate will be another vote against a second referendum.”

To say that message doesn’t reflect the political reality of an election to a local authority is an understatement.

Some Conservatives have gone further in an attempt to take on the Scottish Green Party, seen as going back on a referendum promise by backing Ms Sturgeon’s attempts to hold another referendum.

Two MSPs have written to Green council candidates, asking them to clarify their position on whether there is enough will to justify that push for a second vote.

A strategy like that might not work nationwide, but is clear that the Tories are gunning for Patrick Harvie’s party in Glasgow, where they currently have one councillor to the Green’s five.

With the Tories getting roughly 6,000 more votes than the Greens in Glasgow in last year’s Holyrood election, they clearly think there’s seats available by appealing to the unionist vote.

The Response

It will be hard to gauge how well (or otherwise) the Conservative strategy of placing Indyref2 front and centre in a local campaign is received until after voters go to the polls on May 4.

READ MORE: SNP could push through Indyref2 bill

Already, there is backlash from pro-independence quarters about a perceived hypocrisy in Conservatives accusing the SNP of being ‘obsessed’ with constitutional matters while they put those same issues at the heart of a local campaign.

The Greens’ Maggie Chapman said at the party’s recent conference that the Tory campaign on independence was ‘an insult to local democracy’.

SNP MP Peter Grant said that he had received a leaflet from his local Conservative candidate made no fewer than five mentions of independence.

A party spokesman told the Scotsman: “The Tories are intent on playing politics, but the council elections are about local communities and local services.

“Every SNP vote will be a vote to protect the vital services we all depend on. All our candidates are dedicated local campaigners and believe passionately in protecting local services from the worst of Tory cuts.”

The Conservatives, at the time of writing, hadn’t returned a request for comment.

It is clear that they thing they are on to a winner in the local elections by campaigning strongly against independence, but time will tell whether it is successful.

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