Andrew Whitaker: Talk of Tory revival may be mirage

Active as Ruth Davidson is, her performance as Scottish leader has been unable to remove the stain of toxicity. Picture: John Devlin
Active as Ruth Davidson is, her performance as Scottish leader has been unable to remove the stain of toxicity. Picture: John Devlin
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Labour faces a double squeeze, but Conservative brand remains toxic in Scotland, writes Andrew Whitaker

In political history there have been elections that feel like “change elections”, whether it was Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997, Margaret Thatcher’s first win in 1979 or the election in 1945 of the postwar Labour government that would go on to create the NHS.

To say that May’s Holyrood election doesn’t feel like a watershed in terms of which party will takes power is to hugely understate the case, with polls suggesting the SNP is poised to become the first party under devolution to win a third successive term in power.

Holyrood 2016 feels in that sense like the UK general election campaign of 1987 and the run-up to a third consecutive Tory win that year, when it was widely assumed that Thatcher’s Commons majority of 144 won four years earlier was unassailable.

There’s also the example of 2001, when the election of that year felt like a second leg of the 1997 contest, with the electorate still largely sick of the Tories, who had just four years earlier finally been turfed out of power after nearly two decades in office.

But there’s the apparent prospect of a different type of “change election” that’s been spun by some and feared by others on 5 May, when Scots elect a parliament for the next four years.

We should expect to hear quite a lot of talk in the coming weeks and months about the prospect of Scottish Labour finishing behind the Tories, whether it’s in terms of share of the vote or number of seats at Holyrood.

There are some in Labour ranks who privately fear the unmitigated disaster of a party of the left in Scotland finishing in third place behind the party of government at Westminster and unapologetic face of austerity. Nicola Sturgeon has already taunted Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale at First Minister’s questions about the prospect of a fresh humiliation for the once dominant party of Scotland, in being relegated to a poor third.

Such a scenario sounds eerily like the calamitous declines of one-time footballing giants like Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday, who have each spent well over a decade out of football’s top flight south of the Border, with their past triumphs now a distant memory. The Tories taking more seats in a national election than Labour in Scotland this May would mark the first time the party had done so since the 1955 general election, when Conservative government MPs north of the Border also polled more than 50 per cent of the vote.

There will be endless spin from the SNP as well as the Tories about the chances of Labour being pushed into third place, in what would be a new low for the party after the loss of 40 of its 41 Westminster seats to the Nationalists, as well what is now an almost decade-long exile from power at Holyrood.

In the light of Scottish Labour’s ongoing misery, we should expect Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson to make an audacious pitch to the electorate, claiming her party is now the only potential competent and fresh opposition to the SNP at Holyrood.

For the party of John Smith, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Donald Dewar to be in danger of finishing behind the party of Margaret Thatcher, George Osborne and David Cameron represents the sort of nightmare that would have any Labour sympathiser waking up in a cold sweat.

The political shockwaves of the past year, with the SNP landslide in Scotland last May, the unexpected outright Tory triumph at UK level and the subsequent election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader shows that very little can be ruled out.

But whatever political spin these is and however much Labour has apparently lost the right to be heard in the minds of many Scots, there’s still no discernible upturn in affection for the Tories north of the Border.

The Tories, however charming and effective Ms Davidson may be, are still as toxic as ever north of the Border, with the 14.9 per cent share of the vote won by the party in Scotland in May’s general election below that of the 17.5 per cent it polled in 1997. An obvious question to ask those forecasting that the Scottish Tories will be runners-up in May is where is this upsurge coming from for a party, that finished nearly 10 per cent behind Labour in terms of share of the vote in Scotland in 2015 ?

A opinion poll from TNS last month showed that not too much had changed between the two parties, with Scottish Labour on 20 per cent and the Tories on 12 per cent for the regional list section of the vote.

The zeal with which Messrs Cameron and Osborne pursue their austerity agenda, with the tax credit cuts that appeared to be abandoned for reasons of political self preservation rather than mercy towards those affected, is as unpopular in Scotland as the Thatcher policy agenda was in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

There’s no evidence to suggest Scots will vote in significantly larger numbers than they did last May or anytime in the past couple of decades for the party that brought them the Poll Tax in the 1980s and more recently the Bedroom Tax,

As always the Scottish Tories will be well moneyed and a slick campaign from the party will undoubtedly seek to portray them as a reformed party led by a dynamic leader.

Davidson, in all fairness, was one of the top performers of the last Parliament, and her decision to switch from standing in Glasgow, where she has been the sole Tory MSP since 2011, to seeking election in the Lothians, may be presented as a move by the party to boost its representation at Holyrood. Could it be that Ms Davidson knows such is the animosity towards the Tory government in Glasgow, that her only guaranteed return ticket to Holyrood is to stand in the Lothians, where the party won MSPs in 2011?

Labour, despite facing what looks like an inevitable heavy defeat at the hands of the SNP in May, has to attempt to challenge the self-styled competence of the SNP, which will surely again campaign on the basis of a “re-elect the Scottish Government” ticket.

However, the Labour leadership would also be well advised to have a separate strategy for confronting any attempt by Ms Davidson to present the Tories as the “new” opposition to the SNP.