Leader Ruth Davidson is in a position to hold the SNP to account and push Labour back, writes Brian Monteith
With less than six weeks to go until the elections for the Scottish Parliament, the possibility that the Conservatives might win an astonishing second place by pushing Labour into third is looking a stronger possibility.
Thursday night’s debate between the party leaders will have contributed to that possibility with the Conservative leader Ruth Davidson eclipsing the Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, as the person most able and willing to hold the SNP champion, Nicola Sturgeon, to account. It is always helpful to have some momentum behind you, and after years of flatlining there is some evidence that the Scottish Conservatives are recovering modestly and in sufficient numbers to pose a serious threat to Labour.
For Labour the momentum has of course been against it, suffering not only in the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections, but enduring a devastating rout in last year’s general election. The days of Labour’s increased vote share and dominance in Scotland during the 2010 general election – enjoyed on the back of a Gordon Brown’s bid to be elected prime minister – seems almost as long ago as the days of Callaghan, Wilson and Gaitskill.
For Dugdale the problem is not just having the right policies and saying the right things at the right time, it is encouraging a self-belief in a party that is at rock bottom after being so used to winning that it took Scotland for granted. Davidson, on the other hand, has a growing swell of upbeat, self-confident supporters, encouraged by the party’s performance in the Independence Referendum and now reading the polls that show they are in a position to beat Labour.
If there is one reason for the emergence of Ruth Davidson’s star in Scottish politics I would nominate her greater coherence in argument, born of a consistency that comes from debating opponents on a regular basis. Davidson displays a willingness to evaluate her own weaknesses, to establish when political positions need adjusted, if not completely dropped, and to learn from her past errors.
This humbling process is vital to politicians who wish to win; it is not enough to just keep trying again and again, believing that in time one will triumph. The lessons of past campaigns, the points when an audience cheer, moan or shuffle their feet will have helped Davidson hone her strategy to lead the main opposition party in Scotland.
Remember, Davidson came to the leadership with her line in the sand against more powers for Holyrood. She had only been an MSP for a matter of months when she drew that line, many of them during a parliamentary recess, but once she was working in the parliament she would have been learning how the dependency culture of Holyrood made it immune to all the normal laws in politics about financial accountability.
Over time, by using a number of keynote speeches, Davidson adjusted her position and then went further. Having advocated financial accountability through Holyrood being responsible for raising the majority of the taxes it spends, she then went on to argue how that could lead to tax cuts by changing spending priorities. She thus became the first Holyrood party leader to support a lower rate of income tax in Scotland.
Davidson then identified a matching incoherence in the other unionist parties, first the Liberal Democrats and then Labour, by their willingness to allow their politicians to support independence. This allowed Davidson the advantage of classifying her party as the only true unionist opposition to the nationalists – opening up a new seam amongst voters that were not previously disposed to her that will be mined at this and future elections.
To emphasise her coherence on tax and spend policies Davidson then took the opportunity to bracket Sturgeon and Dugdale as building an escalator to take the Scottish people on to the top floor of high taxes, where high spending, low growth and ultimately fewer jobs are the wares in abundance.
It was not that long ago when, apart from the issue of independence, all the parties at Holyrood looked and sounded the same. Not any more.
This sense of coherence born of consistency in argument, encourages a belief in a voter’s mind that a politician is logical, rational and open to objective persuasion. It suggests a politician will make good judgment calls and can therefore be trusted to deal with the unknown unknowns that will arise. If a political leader can gain such trust with the public then even the occasional slip can be forgiven.
Although a divisive figure, Nicola Sturgeon enjoys a healthy degree of trust and is therefore forgiven the occasional slip. Repeat the errors too often, however, and that trust can fall away.
George Osborne, only recently hailed within his own party as its next leader, after delivering an alleged economic recovery that formed the basis for a general election victory, is now in the doghouse and all but written off from following in David Cameron’s footsteps. One budget that unravelled within a week might be forgotten, but the memory of a second that unravelled before the day was out will not be erased.
For Sturgeon in particular the problem is that she is beginning to emerge as incoherent.
Sturgeon wants more people from poorer backgrounds at university so supports free tuition, but has presided over the cutting of maintenance bursaries. The news that applications for university are falling exposes her policy incoherence.
In 2014 you had to hide in a cave to avoid hearing Nicola Sturgeon saying only independence could save the NHS by stopping the dreaded TTIP trade deal between the European Union and the United States that the UK would use to privatise health services. Now, with the opportunity to kill the TTIP dead by leaving the European Union in June’s referendum, Sturgeon cannot extol the EU enough. Likewise her position on a 50p tax rate has been maybees naw, maybees yes and now just plain maybee –all within ten days. This is incoherence on stilts.
While no one is predicting anything except an SNP victory at the Holyrood elections, the comparative performances of Sturgeon, Dugdale and Davidson will attract a great deal of scrutiny and attention. The degree to which Davidson can make further gains will depend on how much she can reveal her opponents’ incoherence while remaining consistent herself.
• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain