Labour’s losses do not necessarily translate into major gains for the Scottish Conservatives
As Scottish Labour’s fortunes have fallen, expectations for the Conservative Party have risen. Some commentators predict that the party stands to become the second largest in Scotland after next May’s Holyrood election. It’s easy to see why some might feel it is likely to become the SNP’s main opposition party. After all, in recent years Scottish Labour’s popularity has continued to plummet; leader after leader has been unable to stop support haemorrhaging.
And while Labour is in demonstrably poor shape, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, cuts an impressive figure. Davidson, elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2011, has quickly established herself as a first-class performer in the Holyrood chamber and a fine communicator in the media.
For a very long time, the very suggestion of a Tory revival in Scotland would have been unthinkable. The Scottish Labour Party had successfully demonised the Conservatives, characterising them as uncaring and out of touch.
But now – thanks to some brutally effective campaigning by the SNP – Scottish Labour is suffering something of the stigma that’s surrounded the Tories for years.
May’s Westminster election, in which the SNP took 56 of Scotland’s 59 constituencies, showed us that old political orders can be turned on their heads. Just a few months before polling day, few would have predicted just how successful the Scottish Nationalists would be.
But Labour’s woes do not necessarily mean the Tories will garner new support.
Davidson is undoubtedly an asset to the Scottish Parliament. She’s clever, personable, and effective in debate. But it is something of a leap to suggest that this means she can substantially increase the Tory vote.
Davidson’s predecessor, Annabel Goldie, often heard from voters the refrain “if only you weren’t a Tory”. This is now a message familiar to Davidson.
At a UK level, the Conservatives are in relatively rude health. Enthusiastic supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may have convinced themselves that his brand of traditional left-wing politics will sweep their party to power but polls already tell a different story.
None the less, that rosy picture for the Tories is not enhanced, as far as we can see, by a significant lift in support north of the Border.
It could be argued that the suggestion the Conservatives might be on course to become the official opposition at Holyrood says more about the Labour Party than anything else. But, although Scottish Labour is in a dark place right now, it remains more popular than the Tory Party.
We must also look at the question of what Davidson has actually achieved in terms of improving the Tories’ prospects. Yes, she has taken part in some memorable photo opportunities that show her to be a “can-do” woman, and she’s given a good account of herself at First Minister’s Question Time. But has she really achieved much more than that?
Do Scottish voters know or care what Davidson’s policies are? Can she truly lead a Conservative breakthrough when Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne are at the top of the UK government? Don’t they represent the type of Tory so disdained by a majority of Scottish voters?
It was suggested recently that the Scottish Tories should agree an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats in order to maximise both parties’ performance in the Holyrood election. We can see the appeal of this to some voters whose priority is to ensure that Holyrood has a substantial number of anti-independence MSPs next year. But both parties would risk losing as much as they might gain. Remaining Lib Dem supporters, in particular, would surely find such a deal hard to stomach.
The Scottish Tories have a bright leader, and their old foe Labour is in a parlous position. But that does not mean we should expect a Conservative surge in Scotland any time soon.